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Bill James and the Dangers of Ignorance

12:28 PM, Apr 9, 2014 • By ADAM J. WHITE
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As the Boston Red Sox collected their World Series rings last Friday, Boston faithful had much to be thankful for. And among those to whom they owed more than a little thanks was Bill James, the team's official analytical guru, who enjoyed an increased role in team decision-making after the team fell to pieces in 2012.

Batter's Up

Batter's Up

Obtained via Creative Commons

But James has helped far more than just Red Sox fans. A quarter-century before the team hired him in 2002, he revolutionized the study of baseball statistics, shining lights on long-understudied aspects of the game (such as the value of fielding), and challenging deep-seated dogma.

James deserves (and reliably gets) credit for starting the "sabermetrics" (i.e., baseball statistics) revolution that inspired publications like Baseball Prospectus, the book Moneyball, and a whole generation of forward-thinking baseball executives.

The most famous of his intellectual heirs is Nate Silver, of course. Long before Silver turned the world of political prognostication on its ear with his rigorous analysis of polls, Silver analyzed baseball stats for Baseball Prospectus. Nearly a decade before Silver was publishing a bestselling book on the art and science of forecasting, he was writing much-less-heralded blog posts on the subject: "My name is Nate, and I'm a forecaster ..."

For a long time, Silver was thought of as the new Bill James. But today, Silver is so famous that Bill James has to settle for being "the original Nate Silver." Which is what The New Republic called him in a new interview marking the opening of baseball season.

But James, like Silver, is interested in a lot more than just baseball, as he has made increasingly clear in recent years. And when James's discussion veered beyond baseball, he unfortunately highlighted why Silver himself has become such a polarizing figure in recent weeks.

His interviewer asks what he thinks of the controversy surrounding Silver's criticism of political pundits. And James eagerly launches his own attack not just on pundits, but on the public writ large:

The public’s thinking about politics and the general analytical thinking about politics is probably more backward than sportswriting was 30 years ago. ... Because people think they know things. The greatest barrier to understanding things is the conviction that you already understand them. People are so convinced that they understand politics. It creates huge barriers to understanding.

James could have made a straightforward, moderate point about issues of "political ignorance" (rational or otherwise). He could have grappled with studies of "the wisdom of crowds," which sometimes indicate that the general public is more expert than the nominal experts themselves. But instead, he called everyone morons and moved on.

Of course, James's own analysis revealed that he's hardly immune to self-imposed "barriers to understanding." Take, for example, his discussion of innovation in politics:

In politics, you have a couple elections. [In baseball all the games] act as a self-correcting method. In baseball, if you’re a great team, you lose 65 games a year. It teaches you constantly that you don’t understand things and you’re still working on it. In politics, you have great infrequency of elections, allowing extremely sloppy analysis to flourish, because the correction cycle is so slow.

The correction cycle is too slow? In 1998, the Republican party decisively lost the midterm elections; in 2000, President Bush narrowed the popular vote gap and won the presidency. In 2004, the Democrats nominated a dour elder statesman for president. Just one election later, they had transformed themselves in the image of their young, optimistic new standard-bearer. (And then came 2010 ... and 2012.)

And elections aren't infrequent. Every election cycle, there are 435 congressional elections, 30-plus Senate campaigns, and myriad state races. And primaries. Entire books have been written about rapid innovation in politics.

James's glib attack on politics is bothersome for precisely the same reason that Silver's blanket condemnations of political debate are so bothersome. It's not enough, it seems, to show the immense value that rigorous statistical analysis brings to political debate. For Silver, James, and others, the argument must go still further, to show that other approaches add no value of their own.

The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier put this well, responding to Silver:

A certain kind of journalistic commentary, when it is done rightly, is a popular version of the same project, an application of thoughtfully (and sometimes wittily) held principles to public affairs, and is therefore an essential service to a free society. The intellectual predispositions that Silver ridicules as “priors” are nothing more than beliefs. What is so sinister about beliefs? He should be a little more wary of scorning them, even in degraded form: without beliefs we are nothing but data, himself included, and we deserve to be considered not only from the standpoint of our manipulability.

It calls to mind an old line, that "an economist" (or, in Oscar Wilde's original, "a cynic") is a man "who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing."

James's most infamous example of this tendency is found not in his baseball, analysis, but in his outside interest in crime—when he became the single most prominent defender of Joe Paterno, amid the Penn State sex abuse scandal. As ever more evidence amassed against Paterno, James became ever more contrarian, mocking the public for being duped by an anti-Paterno crusade.

NBC's Craig Calcaterra could only throw up his hands:

There are no words. ... Wait, there are words: stop it, Bill. You’re talking total nonsense. You’re being a contrarian because you like being a contrarian and you hate what you consider to be rushes to judgment, mob mentality and piling on. But this is one case where your instincts are failing you and you’re making yourself look like a fool.

Fortunately, that was an extreme example, even for James. And Silver has hardly gone so far overboard.

Still, their attacks on nonquantitative political analysis re-enacts baseball's "stats-scouts" debate: when James's and Silver's sabermetrics revolution reached major league baseball's front offices, too many of the young upstarts were seen as not merely proving the value of their statistical analysis, but aggressively demeaning the value of nonquantiative analysis.

In politics, as in baseball, the answer lies in the middle: we need stats, and we need scouts. Or, as the Red Sox's general manager, Ben Cherington, explained: "We’re trying to build an organization that uses the best of both worlds and the best information from both worlds and combine that to prepare an accurate picture of the player."

He should know—while he's good with stats, he was also a scout. "Because I came from a scouting background, I have a great appreciation for the things you can see with your eyes and with your experience that can’t fully be told by statistics."

Ben's a busy guy these days, with baseball season underway. But if he gets a free moment, he ought to walk down the hall in Fenway Park's basement offices, and explain all this to Bill James.

Adam J. White is a lawyer in D.C., and a Red Sox fan, and the owner of more than his fair share of sabermetrics books. He previously wrote on Silver and forecasting (and baseball) for City Journal.

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