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.
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.