This is a guest post by Jeff Mosenkis, a freelance producer with Freakonomics Radio who holds a Ph.D. in psychology and comparative human development.
Nazis, Sunken Ships, And a 60 Year-Old Game of Telephone
By Jeff Mosenkis
Did you hear the one about the two statisticians who go deer hunting? The first one misses his shot ten feet to the right of the deer; the second one misses ten feet to the left of the deer. They then high five each other and shout “Got him!”
While the quantitative method might not work for hunting, it apparently does for finding sunken warships. NPR’s Alix Spiegel reported this remarkable story about two Australian cognitive psychologists who used a statistical distribution to find two sunken World War II ships, 67 years after they were lost.
On the evening of November 19, 1941, the HMAS Sydney was off the coast of Western Australia when it exchanged fire with the German HSK Kormoran, and sunk with all 645 crewmen aboard. It was a national tragedy, particularly because nobody knew exactly what happened to the ship and why it sunk. The German crew scuttled their damaged ship, and 317 surviving German sailors were picked up in lifeboats at sea or on shore and interrogated.