Of Phantoms and Fortresses

Interpreting data and understanding risk share similar issues: have we fully understood what the data are telling us and what the risk actually is?  

It is easy to make quick assumptions and then take actions that may end up wasting a lot of time and money, or indeed prove damaging.

For fifteen years, the German police searched for a serial criminal: The Phantom of Heilbronn. She was linked to six murders and around 40 other crimes. Germany’s most dangerous woman had a €30,000 bounty on her head. Her DNA was found at all the crime scenes, but they could not find her.  Tens of thousands of police hours were spent on the search. 

In 2008, they discovered that there was no Phantom.  The DNA found at every crime scene was simply that of a woman who worked in a factory making cotton swabs for collecting DNA.

The Maginot Line was a line of concrete fortifications built by France in the 1930s to deter invasion from Germany.  It cost the equivalent of $9 billion to build these state-of-the-art fortifications, and they were hailed by French military experts as a “work of genius”.

The problem was that the Line did not extend across the “impregnable” Ardennes Forest, nor the Belgian border (so as not to give the idea that Belgium would be sacrificed in the event of an invasion).  The Germans had been building up highly mobile armoured units for years and simply ignored the Maginot Line, attacking through the Ardennes and Belgium in May 1940.  By failing to fully understand the risk, the expensive Maginot Line proved to provide no more than a dangerously false sense of security, leaving France unprepared for what would actually happen.

Data Sources: Humble Pi, Matt Parker; wikipedia; history.com; english-heritage.org.uk

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