Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Chesterton, Paradox, Life Lessons From Sports

Chesterton was a cricketer, and as a thinker was likely to step back and look at the big picture that others missed.  I therefore fancy that he would have been fond of such sports observers as the baseball statistical analyst Bill James or the crew at 538. He looked at the conventional wisdom of a hundred things and asked "Is it true?" In asking, he often discovered that not only was the accepted cliche not true, but its opposite was truer. A madman was not one who had lost his reason, but one who had lost everything but his reason: proportion, generosity, insight, humility. Father Brown was not sheltered from the seamy side of life - he had heard confessions for thirty years.  James looked at  cliches such at "pitching is 90% of baseball" and followed that through.  Does any team pay it's players as if that were true?  Does the team with the best pitchers win more championships than the team with the best hitters or fielders? Do the best hitters or the best pitchers create more variation in an individual at bat, a game, a series, or a season?  Do teams fall apart more losing their best pitcher or their best hitter?

Bill James insisted, taking one thing with another, that not only was pitching not 90% of baseball, it was 35% of baseball. I insist that Chesterton would have loved this. Not what is supposed to be true, but what is true.

Politics is built on suspect cliches.  This is even more true of sports. Right now we are in the midst of discussing the draft of both the NFL and the NBA. There is no reason for any of you to be interested in my opinion about any individual player or any team's overall strategy.  There are ten thousand people who know more about such things than I do. However, sometimes in listening to a dozen sports guys I can pick up a consistent mistake that many of them are making. If a player is loved by some evaluators and disliked by others, sports analysts are likely to split the difference.  That is unlikely to be how it plays out.  Those who are not sports fans may nonetheless find the more general lesson interesting. If 4-5 teams, spread over the 30 in the league, think a player is one of the top ten in the draft, while the other 25 teams think he is overrated and not willing to draft him until the second round, he is not actually going to be around in the second round, even though most teams think he should be. Some team that likes him is going to take him way before that.

Think about it.  If 80% of women think a particular man is irritating and unattractive, but 20% find him charming and attractive, he will not languish, even though most women will think he should.  Some woman who rates him highly will scoop him up. Cars, recipes, employees, religions, dogs, or musicians: if most people hate them but a few love them, they will get chosen.  Yet if any one of those is only everyone's fourth choice, they might get chosen in due time, or they might sit on the shelf endlessly. Even if almost everyone likes them better than  some more controversial choice.

The elephant in the room.  I would expect that a sports figure like Bob Kraft, entering a political discussion, could be counted on to apply cliches at double the rate of ordinary knuckleheads.  Bob Kraft is a nice man.  He seems very intelligent in many ways.  But when he goes to an NFL owners meeting and complains that "no one is talking about the elephant in the room," you can count on two things: it's not an elephant, and virtually everyone is already talking about it.  The supposed elephant is players taking a knee during the national anthem in protest before NFL games. Gee, I think I have actually heard some people talk about that, haven't you? Everyone, in fact.  It is one of those Tim Tebow issues where everyone believes they have not been heard, and so keep talking endlessly.

There is an elephant in the room, but the kneeling is not it. Elephants are big things, and quiet NFL protests are small ones. Yes, the protests are irritating and inappropriate to some people, and that gets them upset, which gets other people upset at them, which gets other other people upset at the second group, and so on indefinitely. But it got large because the first group is ignoring the actual elephant in the room (which is what torqued the second group off so much). In protesting the police treatment of black people, the NFL players are ignoring 3 large creatures in the room.  Whether you think they are elephants, rhinos, or wapiti elk is largely a matter of taste. First, some police officers treat a lot of citizens badly, regardless of race, and those don't really count in the racism question.  They're just pricks. Second, the rate of serious violence is ten times great among African-Americans.  Not 10% more, 10x more, and overwhelmingly against other AA's.  So that's a much higher percentage of black mothers and fathers and sisters and cousins and neighbors and teachers going to funerals. And you accuse me of not caring? Thirdly, the general group that very likely does get hassled by the police disproportionately more for small things is - golleee, the group that athletes, black, white, hispanic, are drawn from.  And their friends. How convenient to want the police to lay off you and your pals, while all those aunties go to funerals. How noble of ya.

When you hear a sports cliche applied to the rest of life's lessons, ask immediately if the opposite is true.


Earl Wajenberg said...

"Thirdly, the general group that very likely does get hassled by the police disproportionately more for small things is - golleee, the group that athletes, black, white, hispanic, are drawn from."

Sorry to be dense, but what group is that? Big young men? Boisterous young men? Athletes, who are more prone to disruptive behavior than non-athletes?

And I didn't think the kneeling was so much about being hassled for small things as for being shot for small things.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, big/boisterous men who are out late in clubs in bad parts of town. Athletes and their friends are disproportionately represented there.

I don't think the evidence is strong that black people are shot by the police for small things disproportionately more often. It is widely believed, but that is not the same thing. I think I have a recent bookmarked example.

I do.

Earl Wajenberg said...

Thank you for the link, grim though it is. It is certainly evidence that police violence against whites doesn't attract as much attention as that against blacks, which I readily believe, but it doesn't tell me which is more common.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

True. This is more to the point.

I think the athletes' impression, and ours, is strongly shaped by what news events are reported. Add to this the personal experience they and their immediate circle have with being stopped and questioned in what they believe is a disproportionate way (which it is, though nowhere near as much as they think), then the thought that young loud men, especially black ones, are treated unjustly seems almost automatic.

Earl Wajenberg said...

Thank you. That is the kind of data I was looking for.

You have recently begun following Slate Star Codex, so you might be interested in this old post of his: