Friday, January 14, 2005

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How teaching at the University of Chicago affects my thinking

Continuing the sports-blogging of today, Baseball America has a fascinating discussion between two old-style baseball scouts and two new-style sabermetricians (link via David Pinto). As Alan Schwartz frames the discussion:

For the past two years, the scouting and statistics communities have feuded like members of rival families. Baseball lifers who evaluate players with their eyes are derided as over-the-hill beanbags who don’t understand the next frontier. Numbers-oriented people are cast as cold, computer-wielding propellerheads with no appreciation for scouting intangibles. Not surprisingly, the camps have grown so polarized that they have retreated to their respective bunkers rather than engage in open and intelligent debate.

Read the whole thing. As I read it, my mind turned -- naturally -- to Thomas Hobbes.

[WTF??!!--ed] I grant that the link between Hobbes' Leviathan and Moneyball seems odd, but this is what teaching in the Universoty of Chicago's core curriculum has done to me. I kept thinking that the debate between scouts (who are mostly baseball lifers with vast amounts of experience in the game) and sabremetricians (who believe there are pretty strong cause-and-effect relationships between certain statistical measures and future performance) is the same as Hobbes' ranking of the epistemological merits of experience and science. From Chapter V, Book I of Leviathan:

As much experience is prudence, so is much science sapience. For though we usually have one name of wisdom for them both; yet the Latins did always distinguish between prudentia and sapientia; ascribing the former to experience, the latter to science. But to make their difference appear more clearly, let us suppose one man endued with an excellent natural use and dexterity in handling his arms; and another to have added to that dexterity an acquired science of where he can offend, or be offended by his adversary, in every possible posture or guard: the ability of the former would be to the ability of the latter, as prudence to sapience; both useful, but the latter infallible.

Hobbes' point was that the prudence gained from experience was certainly useful -- but not nearly as useful as combining prudence with a scientific way of looking at things. The good sabermetricians represent how science can improve upon experience.

I think it's safe to say I would not have made this link were I teaching elsewhere.

[Wow, a post about Hobbes, the U of C, and baseball stats -- talk about a huge demographic!! Huge!!--ed.]

UPDATE: ESPN's Rob Neyer is pessimistic that there really can be an exchange between sabermetricians and scouts. No mention of Hobbes, however.

posted by Dan on 01.14.05 at 12:58 PM


Thanks for the link! I just read the introduction to blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and the experience vs. science theme comes up in that as well.

posted by: David Pinto on 01.14.05 at 12:58 PM [permalink]

I don't think there really needs to be much of an exchange. I don't think that there's anything that the scouts know that the sabermetricians won't learn by watching a lot of baseball themselves. And they still have to watch a lot of baseball because there's a shortage of reliable stats on defense. All of the ones I've seen (Zone Rating, UZR, and what have you) woefully miscategorize some players.

posted by: fling93 on 01.14.05 at 12:58 PM [permalink]

Maybe it's because I'm a UofC grad myself, and/or because I study decision science and Moneyball is one of our favorite texts these days, but I think the connection you make is terrific. It also helps that I polished off my new copy of Blink the other day, which, as the previous poster notes, plays around with some of the same issues (you beat me to the point David!). As much as I love Gladwell's work though, I felt that he doesn't cleanly resolve the fight between a thoughtful scientific approach and a purely experience driven/intuitive one... he seems to suggest that the intuitive decisions should be formally trained through science, and then left to operate unimpeded. But the prescriptive advice for doing that isn't as clear as I would have liked it to be. (Nevertheless, I highly recommend Blink).

posted by: SBShu on 01.14.05 at 12:58 PM [permalink]

Hey Dan, completely off topic but: are you going to critique or mention the David Malpass article in today's Journal on Social Security reform and tax reform? It seems to me the most authoritative defense yet of Bush's SS reform plans (that is, if he's accurately guessed what they are).

posted by: george on 01.14.05 at 12:58 PM [permalink]

Is George Will guest blogging?

posted by: Mark Buehner on 01.14.05 at 12:58 PM [permalink]

Street smarts v. book smarts. Isn't that Trump's schtick this third season of The Apprentice? It's a phony construct, one meant to divide rather than explain. We all learn by experience. But thinking like a scientist comes to us the application of reason, a skilled finely honed in higher education.

posted by: Heraldblog on 01.14.05 at 12:58 PM [permalink]

But always the danger, with the undeniably helpful advances of science of losing touch with our animal nature. The failure of folks who responded to the pre-tsunami retreat of the ocean by advancing towards the sea comes to mind. As you probably read, both wild animals and primitive tribal types believed their eyes/sixth sense rather than some savant's mathematical formulas.

posted by: Sissy Willis on 01.14.05 at 12:58 PM [permalink]

Sissy, I'm not sure if that's a parody or you're serious, but just in case you're serious --- CNN reported on a story where a little girl saved her family and ~ 100 other people, because she remeber ed from science class that the water pulling in was a sign of a tsunami.

Dan are you going to review Blink for us?

posted by: Jor on 01.14.05 at 12:58 PM [permalink]

Yeah, but the real question is whether you can connect any given argument to Thucydides, Durkheim, Wittgenstein, and the menu at the Medici. Bonus points for doing so simultaneously.

posted by: dave on 01.14.05 at 12:58 PM [permalink]

Sissy, I didn't know animals and primitive tribes had advanced math skills. Can you elaborate?

posted by: Heraldblog on 01.14.05 at 12:58 PM [permalink]

It seems to me one way to make the link between statistical analysis and experience is to think in terms of correlation/causation.

Make the statisticians clearly explain the causal links in the correlations they make. Make the scouts clearly explain why a statistical correlation is not useful in any particular case.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 01.14.05 at 12:58 PM [permalink]

Is the blogosphere an example of collective Durkheimian effervescence? Is going to the College of the University of Chicago such a fundamentally different experience than any other school? Are we truly warped for the rest of our lives?

posted by: Martin on 01.14.05 at 12:58 PM [permalink]

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