Lessons Learned From The White Sox
by Ken Arneson
2005-10-26 23:16

Nice to see Jermaine Dye get the MVP. The A’s didn’t their money’s worth out of him, but he has always been a class act. I’m happy for him.

When I saw the White Sox in spring training this year, they looked like a real impressive team to me. They hit well, and fielded well. I had a sense that day, a feeling in my gut, that the White Sox were going to be trouble for the American League, a really hard team to beat.

But the logical side of my brain, the one that reads sabermetric blogs and books like Baseball Prospectus, kept saying that no, this is an illusion: the White Sox are mediocre. Like a poor simpleton, I believed it. I picked the White Sox to be a .500 team. I fell for the misguided propaganda of the rationalists, and let their ineffective “logic” affect my decision making.

Well, no more. Thanks to Kenny Williams, Ozzie Guillen and their squad, I have now learned my lesson. Logic may lead to truth, yes, truth is nothing but a bunch of non-committal probablistic hedges. What’s the use in that? Your instincts, your guts, lead to something far more effective: truthiness.

Now some of you may subscribe to Rick Peterson’s adage, “In God we trust, all others must have data.” But I say, Rick Peterson is wrong. The data didn’t predict the White Sox.

You may reply, “Ken, you just don’t get it.” And then I go, “No, you don’t get it.” And then you’re all, “No, you don’t get it.” And then I just go, “No way, dude, that simply isn’t truthy.”

Ha! Gotcha there.

I do get it. I am an it getter. I know data. I am a data knower. I speak SQL, the lingua franca of data, fluently. I have helped build database queries for telecom monopolies and nuclear power plants, for police departments and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States. Indeed, I might as well come right out and admit it: I am a querier. Some of my best friends are queriers. I have worked and played intimately with the founders and designers of some of the world’s most widely used database query engines. I hang with some of the queriest people on the planet.

But do any of these people have a World Series ring? Simply put: no.

As the season wore on, I came to learn my lesson. Over time, instead of telling the facts to you, I began, like the best of analysts, to feel the news at you. In the end, I used no logic at all for my playoff predictions, and ended up correctly picking the White Sox to be champions.

It’s very difficult to change. Sometimes your rational mind just tries to take over, trying to make you make sense. But that’s not the real you talking, that’s your logic addiction. But you can overcome it. I did. You just need to take it one day at a time. If you just wake up every morning and confront your rationality, saying, “today, I’m not going to let you win,” you can turn your life around. It’s up to you.

Go with your gut. Don’t trust the data. Data isn’t cool. Data doesn’t rule.

Data is dead. Truthiness is king. Long live the king!

Comments: 17
1.   The Cheat
2005-10-27 00:27

1.  The A's are the team that I feel are the most likely to put a 2005 White Sox-like team on the field next season.

They are already very much alike. Pitching and defense. -- The A's just didn't have enough power.

If some of their bats mature, Bobby Crosby stays healthy, the arm continue to develop, and Eric Chavez shows up for a full season, they'll be a very, very dangerous team.

2.   Ken Arneson
2005-10-27 00:56

2.  A dangerous team, eh The Cheat? Yes, I see from your last paragraph that you have already begun to channel your inner Peter Gammons. That's a very good first step. Congratulations. Only 11 more to go.

To celebrate, I think The Cheat should go fix all of us a nice cup of suudsu and then read us all a bedtime story. Maybe the one where Moses Malone gets inserted into the Random Diamond Note Generator.

Understand, no one can truly replace Mike Piazza, but if Omar Minaya can be convinced that Moses Malone's knees will last through the 162-game schedule, Minaya could have a monster, as Malone would go to the Mets in a three-way deal that would make Barry Zito a Philadelphia 76er and Billy Beane a happy man, bringing him Aaron Heilman, Lastings Milledge, whose astounding athleticism is wholly appropriate for a team named Athletics, and Mark Iavaroni.

3.   TFD
2005-10-27 06:14

3.  Omigod, was that a Mark Iavaroni drop?! Awesome!

BTW, great post, Ken.

"Beer and tacos - - beer and tacos."

4.   FirstMohican
2005-10-27 07:45

4.  Have you ever - and it's probably time to be honest about this - have you ever written a baseball-themed poem in SQL?

5.   Ken Arneson
2005-10-27 08:54


'I have not poemed
in SQL.

I fear I would not
do it well.

Perhaps if I had
learned it young,

It would roll right
off my tongue.

I learned it when my
voice had cracked,

So it is hard to
be exact

As worthy poems should

My poems would end up
being bland.

I am understood and I

But I lack that kind of
great command.';

6.   FirstMohican
2005-10-27 09:21

6.  the table or view does
not exist?

7.   JMK
2005-10-27 09:32

7.  Reason tells us that when rolling dice 7 is the most likely outcome. If we then roll the dice and 7 is not the result do we say that reason is flawed?

8.   FirstMohican
2005-10-27 09:57

8.  7 - Yes, as "the most likely outcome" is another way to say "the only possible outcome."

9.   Ken Arneson
2005-10-27 12:30

9.  6 Tables are not required to select a constant.

7 Paradise is not a pair of dice. Denial is not a river in Egypt.

If reason were superior to intuition, natural selection would have made it dominant in our species. Instead intuition is in charge of our brains. Every decision we make runs through the emotional center of our brains, not our rational center. There's a reason why we're designed like that. It's better that way.

Those who use "reason" like to think they're "superior". But they're "not". Nobody is "smarter" than Mother Nature.

You want some reason? Here's some reason. There's a reason geeks usually have trouble getting a date. There's a reason why a guy who uses his "guts" instead of his "brain" is the most powerful man on earth. There's a reason Kenny Williams has a ring, and Billy Beane doesn't.

Repent, JMK! Acknowledge your true, human self, the part of yourself that really ought to be in charge! You are addicted to logic. Don't deny it. Don't let this logic addiction ruin your life. Trust your instincts. Feel the force flowing through you, and everything around you. Only then can you become a true Jedi.

10.   JMK
2005-10-27 13:14

10.  Ken,

If natural selection favors intuition over reason than why is the most dominant or rather the most highly evolved species the one with the most developed ability to reason? Perhaps, even intuition or "gut" decisions are based on reason. Malcolm Gladwell argues in "Blink" that gut decisions are based on data stored in our subconscious. So even though intuition seems to be from the "gut" they are really rational decisions based on subconscous reasons.

I will acknowledge that my true human self consists of both emotion and reason and that they are both dependent on one another. In other words, reason and intuition are in a dynamic reactive relationship and both need the other to function properly. I realize you are probably saying much of this tongue-in-cheek but I find the issue fascinating.

11.   Ken Arneson
2005-10-27 15:09

11.  Yes, I am being tongue-in-cheek here; I don't really believe that rationalism is bad; I'm just poking some fun at the self-righteousness of rationalism.

I wouldn't call the "gut" decisions rational. I tend to think of "rational" equating with "logical": a completely deterministic decision based on a step-by-step, rule-based process.

Gut decisions aren't step-by-step. They're the result of non-deterministic parallel processes, which may not produce the same result every time. They're based on pattern matching instead of logic.

- - -

Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. The primary advantage of our rational system is that it is very accurate and reproduceable. The disadvantage is that the process is much, much slower.

Our intuitive system, while less accurate and reliable, is really, really fast. We can make fairly accurate decisions almost instantaneously. Why natural selection hasn't let the rational system take over: imagine you're on a savannah, and you notice a lion sneaking up on you in the grass. If you use the rational system to calculate the optimal behavior here, by the time you are done with that slow process you will already be a meal. The speed of your decision at this point is more important than your accuracy. If you want to survive to pass your genes on to the next generation, you better make a quick decision of where you're gonna run to.

- - -

Another disadvantage of the intuitive system is that it's pretty much a black box. The data isn't accessible to you. You can't query it to ask it, for example, what muscles to use when you ride a bicycle, and how much force you should apply, even though that data is obviously in there, otherwise you couldn't remember how to ride a bicycle. You only have access to the result: riding the bike.

So when you make an intuitive decision, you're using some data (called non-declarative memories) that you can't consciously query, using a completely automatic parallel-processing pattern-recognition algorithm that you can't consciously examine.

- - -

But just because intuition is a black box does not necessarily mean that the result is less accurate than reason. Reason and intuition work with entirely different data sets (declarative and non-declarative memories, respectively), which may or may not overlap. The intuitive system may have more and better data than the rational system, and as a result, may come up with a better answer.

But here's the thing: when you make an intuitive decision, you cannot possibly know why. Any explanation you come up for your decision with is pure humbug. What people do 99% of the time is make an intuitive decision, then go back to the rational system to find the facts there to support their decision.

- - -

Hence, Joe Morgan. Morgan has a brilliant intuitive system, which enabled him to make marvelous instantaneous decisions on the playing field, making him one of the greatest players on all time.

But if you then go and ask Joe Morgan to justify those decisions, he can't. He doesn't have access to Joe Morgan's decision making process any more than you or I do. So he has to resort to his rational system to explain those decisions, and the result is often just humbug and contradictions.

- - -

And finally, my point: don't be afraid to trust your instincts, particularly if you're very experienced in the area in question. Experience is data, even if you can't consciously access it, and more data usually leads to better decisions.

But if you make an intuitive decision, don't bother trying to justify it. Just accept that it's intuitive, and you can't explain it. Rejoice in the results, and in being human.

- - -

More detail on this topic is here:
(Note: some of that stuff, particularly about the amygdala, I have since learned is not entirely accurate.)

12.   JMK
2005-10-27 16:36

12.  Ken,

Wow, thanks for the response. I read your stuff on neuroesthetics and I learned a lot. I know almost nothing about neurology and art yet I still found it really interesting. I don't know if you're willing to take up this discussion here and I won't be insulted if you don't, but I'm wondering about your description of the role of emotion in art. You said that emotion is the tool used to help create memories in the animal brain. Again, I know almost nothing about art so forgive me if this is a silly question, but isn't the point of much art to move people? To affect them? Isn't emotion more of the point of art rather than just a tool to create non-declarative memories?

Also, it seems to me, we (the humans species) have evolved toward relatively sophisticated animal brains (to process emotion) and android brains (to process reason). Could we not expect that we will eventually evolve to the point when there is not a dualistic relationship between them? That perhaps one day we will both feel so deeply and think so quickly that it would be almost one and the same process? In other words, does the black box, in which our subconscious resides, always have to be closed. We evolved to the point where we're relatively more self-conscious than all other forms of life. Is it possible that we continue and one day evolve to the point where there is no black box?

13.   Ken Arneson
2005-10-27 17:08

13.  If art is more than just a side effect of human evolution, then it must have some sort of evolutionary purpose. What does art do to help people survive and reproduce?

Emotions in and of themselves don't serve much evolutionary purpose. They're a mechanism: to help encourage behaviors that improve survival odds, and discourage behaviors that reduce survival odds. They function in two ways: to trigger needed immediate behaviors, and to create memories which will cause the organism to behave in beneficial ways in the future.

So while it's possible that the end purpose of art is to simply titillate the emotions, I think it's unlikely it would have evolved that way. I think a better explanation is that art has the same evolutionary benefits as emotion, and emotion is the most effective tool we have to deliberately manipulate those benefits.

You tell scary stories around the campfire, because it's really dangerous in the woods at night. We want to encourage you to stay close to your tribe. It helps your survival odds if you feel a little bit of fear if you wander too far away from the campsite.

- - -

As for our brains evolving to make our non-declarative memories accessible, that's possible. But evolution is very slow, and takes many generations to happen. We'll probably be interfacing with computerized versions of brains long before we can evolve the same thing.

This might even be possible in our lifetimes. Check out www.numenta.com, and what they're doing. We're not really that far off.

14.   JMK
2005-10-28 11:28

14.  Does it bother you at all that art, religion, beauty, conceptions of the good, and the human consciousness that makes all of these things possible, exist simply in the service of evolution? In other words, does the reductionism bother you? I mean these are the things which are the sources of meaning for us. I realize I'm way off topic now. We started with the intuition vs reason issue, which led to a question of the purpose of art, and now I'm asking about the purpose of evolution and its relation to the things which give meaning to our lives.

15.   Ken Arneson
2005-10-28 12:45

15.  Well, to bring this conversation full circle, does it bother the White Sox that they vastly overperformed they pythagorean record? No. Regardless of how they got there, they're now the World Champs.

Human beings are amazing creatures. Whether it happened by evolution, intelligent design, flying spaghetti monsters, or some combination thereof, doesn't really change our amaziness.

16.   Brent is a Dodger Fan
2005-10-28 16:06

16.  So black and white! (Or at least, that's a Sox reference, too)...

Let's just take a step back and look at the vital statistic that tells you about the model you are using: R-squared. Take your databases, query them, run regresssions, build your model, and never forget that your equation ends up looking like this:


Where 'b' is your noise factor, and the r-squared value of your equation tells you how much of your equation explains the variances you see in the real world with that equation. You are very, very lucky if you see a real world, econometric equation like the ones we try to apply to baseball that are greater than 80%.

What does that tell you? That your equation can only explain 80% of what will happen (at best), and the other 20% isn't in your equation.

In other words, don't leave your brain behind (or in your behind) when you look at the information the data provides... you still have a real decision to make. 20% of your outcome is up for grabs!

(So, it isn't either you use data, or you use your instincts - you need to use both.)

17.   murphy
2005-10-29 13:20

17.  my brain hurts. i'm going back to bronx banter...

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