I shared an A’s game a couple of years ago with Markos Moulitsas, and he asked me if I ever participated in the Daily Kos discussions, and I said no, and he asked me why, and I don’t quite remember what I said, I think I made up some lame excuse about focusing on baseball blogging. The truth was that I didn’t really feel like my political views had a solid philosophy behind them that I really believed in, so arguing about political details felt like a pointless waste of time to me, like arguing about wallpaper patterns before you have any sort of blueprint to your house, but I was afraid that if I tried to explain this to Markos that it would come out wrong (your blog is a pointless waste of time!) so I left the truth unsaid.
Lately, though, I find more and more that I am starting to have a general philosophy of things, and that I am getting closer and closer to being able to articulate my beliefs. I feel like I am circling around the same themes, firing bullets at some central target which I keep getting closer and closer to hitting.
And as I get closer to having my own philosophical legs to stand on, I feel like I am now more ready and willing to argue the wallpaper patterns, so to speak.
Here’s another bullet fired around that target. Yesterday, Steven Goldman of Baseball Prospectus made a very political argument in discussing Michael Barrett’s suckerpunch of A.J. Pierzynski. An excerpt from Goldman, with a quote at the end from Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:
It’s not that Americans lack the skills for a good rhetorical bout, but that the art of negotiation is something that the culture doesn’t prize as highly as the sudden stroke, the force majeure. We like to hit people, or at the very least fantasize that hitting someone cuts a problem to the quick in a way that talking can’t do. Americans rejected the League of Nations and to this day many of them hate the United Nations. Membership in diplomatic organizations restricts our ability to unload a good haymaker when that irresistible urge arises. There is a streak of primitivism in American culture, “a persistent preference for the ‘wisdom’ of intuition, which is deemed to be natural or God-given, over rationality, which is cultivated and artificial.”
This paragraph is, if I may read between the lines a bit, criticizing three groups of people:
1. Michael Barrett
2. Iraq war supporters
It implies, by carefully selecting words such as “fantasize” and “primitivism” and by placing quotation marks around the word ‘wisdom’, that intuition is inferior, and that rationality should be the preferred, superior choice whenever possible.
And that’s where I’d choose a different wallpaper.
Let me start by choosing a few selected words of my own. First, I’d like to kill the word “intuition”. It has a negative connotation that puts it at a disadvantage in any argument against rationality. A decision made by intuition runs through a pattern recognition algorithm in our brains. So let’s replace “intuition” with the phrase “pattern recognition”.
By choosing the words “pattern recognition”, we can also get rid of the word “primitivism”. Because the pattern recognition algorithms in our brains are anything but primitive; they are extremely complex. We can easily program a computer to follow a rational algorithm, but nobody has even remotely figured out how get a computer to match a human brain’s pattern recognition ability. Rationality is far, far simpler (dare I say, primitive?) than pattern recognition.
Goldman then goes on to quote the BP book Mind Game, where they conclude via statistical analysis of teams pre- and post-fights, that baseball fights do not benefit the fighters. To which I say, of course they don’t.
Fights begin out of anger, and anger is an emotion that has evolved over millions of years. What evolutionary purpose does anger serve? To make a creature willing to overcome his self-preservation instincts, and risk physical harm to itself in order to communicate to another creature that it is behaving inappropriately. Anger is supposed to be costly.
Ever had a bird attack you when you get too close to its nest? You’re 20 times bigger than the bird, and you could probably kill it with one blow. But it doesn’t care; it’s angry at you. And it works, too. You’re not hanging around that nest to get pecked at; you’re gonna skedaddle away. Anger is a complex, effective interspecies communications tool, evolved over hundreds of thousands of generations of animals.
Rationality, on the other hand, is a brand new tool in the evolutionary chain. Only humans have it. It hasn’t been tested by hundreds of thousands of species over hundreds of millions of years. It’s been tested by one species over maybe a hundred thousand years.
Being skeptical of rational choices is the rational thing to do. I believe that our pattern recognition algorithms are often so much more sophisticated than our rational algorithms, that when they disagree, the rational argument is wrong more often than not. The rational argument is always missing something: some assumption, some variable, some pattern that the sophisticated pattern recognition algorithms don’t miss. Over time, after further analysis, and years and years of study, when all the variables are finally in, the rational analysis often ends up at or near the same place the pattern recognition algorithm started out with in the first place.
Now, don’t mistake me. I’m not saying pattern recognition is always better than rationality. Humans have both, and there’s a reason we have evolved both. Rationality has given us a huge advantage over other animals. There’s probably a time and a place where communicating with A.J. Pierzynski with a fist would be more effective than using a more rational communications tool, but Michael Barrett probably didn’t pick the right one. Given the context, Barrett’s anger didn’t seem appropriate or justified. What I am arguing is that we should not simply dismiss our intuition and emotions as primitive and inferior out of hand.
If you ask me, this is the reason the Afghanistan war has been (viewed as) more successful than the Iraq war. Americans were angry at the Afghan government after 9/11. Anger makes you willing to risk personal suffering. Iraq, on the other hand, was invaded based more on rational arguments than anger. WMDs, therefore blah blah blah. Americans weren’t really all that angry at Iraq. Which had two effects: (1) the decision was more likely to be flawed, because the rational mechanisms for making the decision to invade Iraq were less sophisticated than the complex, emotional mechanisms used to decide to invade Afghanistan, and (2) the lack of anger made Americans less willing to endure the physical suffering that the war would entail, making success even that much less likely.
To make a long point short: to maximize your odds of success, make sure your logic and your intuitions/emotions are in full agreement before making a decision.
* * *
All of which brings me around to the reason I started writing this blog entry in the first place, which was that I was angry with Ken Macha about today’s loss to the Rangers. The grand slam to Rod Barajas when the A’s had a 7-0 lead was infuriating. I can’t communicate my anger with Macha by throwing a good haymaker at him, so instead, at the risk of being ridiculed in public with my arguments, I am issuing this longwinded complaint instead. My anger must out!
The A’s are infamous, thanks to Moneyball, for being rational about their decision-making. Take the emotions out of it, Billy Beane likes to say. To which I say, that’s just wrong.
Sometimes Ken Macha drives me nuts, and sometimes it’s because I think he’s making an irrational decision, but I think the ones that drive me the most nuts are the ones that seem too rational. It’s like Macha won’t trust his pattern recognition tools at all, and requires rational, empirical proof that X is Y before he’ll act on it.
This manifests itself in the worst way when Macha is trying to decide whether to yank a pitcher or not. He seems unable to trust his eyes that a pitcher has run out of gas. He has some logical algorithm: if the pitcher:
(1) hasn’t maxed out his pitch count, and
(2) hasn’t yielded over five runs yet, and
(3a) hasn’t gone five innings yet, or
(3b) has gone five innings and still hasn’t given up a run this inning,
(4) leave him in the game.
Meanwhile, anybody with eyes can see that Brad Halsey has completely run out of gas. He loads the bases, but since no one has scored yet, there is logically, I suppose, insufficient evidence that Halsey is done. Whatever. Halsey serves up the grand slam to Barajas. Suddenly, a game the A’s should win by a blowout becomes a huge Texas comeback. Thank you, Ken “One Batter Too Late” Macha!
The human brain is constructed with the emotional center in charge of decisions, not the rational system. That is exactly as it should be. Let the rational inform your decisions, of course, but in the end, trust your pattern recognition system.
Nature has evolved over millions of years a persistent preference for the wisdom of intuition. This wisdom needs no quotation marks.