Friday, June 04, 2010

Ability, Skill, Luck

Last night a pitcher had a perfect game taken away from him by the bad call of an umpire. People were scowling and angry about it on the radio this morning and at work throughout the day. A little voice in the back of my head kept saying "Afghanistan. Detroit. Heck, we're surrounded by real tragedy here in this hospital every day. What gives?"

Because it doesn't mean anything, really. If the baseball were a little smaller or a little larger, the strike zone a little wider or narrower, then a mostly different group of people would be making the millions on this game. Their natural athletic ability might still be valuable in some other version of a game, and their willingness to apply themselves would help them along, but there's no guarantee that any of these guys would be at the very top. There is no intrinsic worth to throwing a fist-size sphere into a defined area at high speed. There might have been a few thousand years ago, but not now.

The value of all our entertainments and enthusiasms is more about this outplaying of our values. We watch the soap opera - or if you prefer, the Olympian gods - of the actual important values of life play out in a contained setting. Many people follow politics more as a morality play about whose world-view should prevail. We follow the marriages, adulteries, and babies of celebrities because they enact scenes which allow us to root for our own opinions of marriage, adultery, and parenting. They are all Big-Time Wrestling played out on a common stage. Some people find wrestling distasteful, overobvious, playing to prejudices, not noticing that their very distaste, rooting for NPR or contemporary Christian music to become more culturally dominant, is just a disguised form of the same morality play. Our side should win.

It's easy to criticise everyone else's choice of melodrama. I did it myself tonight, chiding terri over at Wheat Among Tares for gettin upset about oil-soaked seabirds when there is so much human tragedy. But it seems hardwired into human beings to find these microcosms of the greater world and focus in on them. (If you are convinced that all your concerns and outrages are based entirely of a real and logically defensible set of priorities, I suggest you haven't been very courageous in your self-examination.) We want certain values to prevail, and we pick spots to watch them play out in the presence of others so that their rightness can be demonstrated. Why should seabirds be a less fit object than most other things? If anything, they likely rank higher, as they are real creatures rather than artificial situations. We cannot sustain focus on the objectively most important priorities. We're not built for it. Our hearts go into some smaller, symbolic vehicle instead.

There is something deep in Terri's soul - not so much in mine - that looks at the suffering birds and thinks "It is just plain not fair. They are innocent. They are vulnerable to human decisions and suffer needlessly." It is Terri's opportunity to reinforce to herself, and likely to those she is close to, that the suffering of the innocent is a terrible thing. Hard to fault that.

It is interesting to note exactly what values we are rooting for when we follow our outrages. In sports, success is dependent on (natural) ability, (acquired) skill, and luck. We like sports that approximate our own estimation of how much of each is required for success in real life. We all know that some of each is necessary, but disagree on the proportions. The pitcher had bad luck. But what is important to us is not that he he had bad luck, but how much, and how he responds to it. Because in our own lives we see (or have) bad luck and we have strong opinions how we should act about it - when it is ours, and when it is another's.

There's not much luck in most track and field. Ability is most dominant, with skill following. No one wins a marathon by luck. This may account for its lack of popularity. There's no soap opera. Baseball, in contrast, involves a great deal of luck. Over time, as the luck averages out, the superior players will succeed. But in any given game the inferior team beats the superior team fairly often. Soccer games are frequently decided by rather lucky bounces and goals, or goals missed. Ditto hockey. Basketball, and especially football can have their lucky moments granting victory or defeat to the wrong team in a close game, but the right team wins most of the time. That's why football doesn't have multiple-game series to advance in the playoffs. They wouldn't change the result that often.

Some of us are fascinated by stories of beautiful women being cheated on, or entertainers who destroyed their promising lives, or why some inventions make their creators rich, or why certain views of human nature and origins gain and lose popularity. None of us cares about all these things - we follow those that strike closest to the meaning of our own lives.

1 comment:

terri said...

I appreciate the attempt to moderate your own criticism of my outrage.

I have some is isn't just about a few oily seabirds for me. Those few oily seabirds are simply a photographic image that communicate to me that there are more than likely hundreds upon hundreds of dead animals that we don't even know about yet.

For me, watching all of this play out is like watching a disaster movie in slow motion. Lots of people are outraged about what's happening in the Gulf....but I think few people really understand what's coming.

There's a reason for that. Photographers have been denied access to critical areas of this oil spill, both underwater and above the surface.

We're in the second month of this. Don't you think it's strange that we don't have more visual evidence about what's happening in the Gulf?

I'd love to see James Cameron take one of his little mini-subs and go below the surface and film what's there.

My outrage is not just about the death of the innocent...but the hubris of BP. Their own CEO has said,"We were unprepared."

No kidding.

"Winging it" in critical operations a mile under the sea, with a bunch of your own people on a rig above the water is reprehensible.

11 men dead. A fouled Gulf of Mexico. A killing off of massive amounts of wildlife.

The dire economic impact that will be felt in each of these Gulf states, several of which are already very poor---Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama...will be huge.

I know these areas. I'ved lived in Florida for over a decade, and few years before that, too. I've spent lots of time in Alabama and Mississippi.

And the worst part of it that it is still not over and won't be "over" for quite a while.