Let’s hear from the two Toms.
“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong,” wrote Tom 1, “gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”
Almost two centuries later Tom 2 stated that his “most fundamental objective is to urge a change in the perception and evaluation of familiar data.”
Thomas Paine in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense was advocating for the independence of the American colonies from Great Britain. Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was describing how science moves along within a framework until anomalies require what has become a cliché term for a change in outlook: a paradigm shift.
That both these Toms and their seminal insights are cited by sportscaster Brian Kenny in his new volume Ahead of the Curve tells you that this ain’t your grandparents’ baseball book. Unless one grandparent was the visionary baseball executive Branch Rickey.
But fear not, gentle reader, as columnists of Rickey’s era sometimes said. I’m not going to explicate baseball’s newfangled statistics, such as OPS, BABIP and WAR. (That’s done dandily in Kenny’s book if you’re interested.) Instead I want to talk about Kenny’s description of information availability and decision making in baseball as a microcosm of the larger problem that a wide array of human enterprises face: insisting on remaining stupid when becoming smarter is an option.
Branch Rickey is mostly remembered today for bringing in Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. But Rickey also published an article in Life magazine in 1954 about the need for more meaningful statistics. And yet another half a century passed before teams really started to apply this information. (No defensive shifts until the paradigm shift.)
Why the long wait? Kenny quotes Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman (it’s not even your parents’ baseball book) on the subject of entrenched idiocy. Kahneman said that “people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers.”
And then there’s Bill James, the former pork-and-bean cannery security guard who, in his groundbreaking writings, spelled out the truth of the value of deep analytical insight in baseball in terms so plain and firm as to finally command the assent of even some baseball people. “People horribly overestimate the extent to which they understand the world,” Kenny quotes James. “The world is billions of times more complicated than any of us understand, and because we are desperate to understand the world, we buy into these explanations that give us the illusion of understanding.”
Which brings us to our newly elected president. A better-informed electorate would have been deeply troubled by Mr. Trump’s outrageous statement in March 2016 that the owners of the Chicago Cubs were doing a “rotten job.” In fact, the team’s trajectory had been steeply upward over the four previous years—the direct result of bringing in new thinkers well versed in modern baseball’s scientific analysis. In November, of course, the Cubs finally broke their 108-year-long World Series championship drought.
So how was such an obviously misinformed Mr. Trump able to maintain his large fan base of “like-minded believers”? A clue can be found in the actions of some of them after the first presidential debate. A few Donald devotees disliked newscaster Lester Holt’s performance as moderator. So they tweeted nasty comments at Cubs pitcher Jon Lester. Yes, these jesters chose to pester any Lester rather than to simply fester.
Rickey ended his Life article: “It is the hardest thing in the world to get big league baseball to change anything. But they will accept this new interpretation of baseball statistics eventually. They have to.” Because at Wrigley Field or in any field, remaining willfully ignorant just isn’t a viable, long-term strategy.