… when the sea was calm all boats alike
Show’d mastership in floating …
Coriolanus Act IV, Scene 3 (1608).
“Indeed,” wrote the Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan in 1964, “it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.” Once, it was a well-known line among literate people, though much less now. It occurred to me recently however as I read an essay by Walter Benn Michaels of the University of Illinois at Chicago, in the course of which Michaels took issue with Matthew Yglesias of Vox. Yglesias, Michaels tells us, tried to make the argument that
although “straight white intellectuals” might tend to think of the increasing economic inequality of the last thirty years “as a period of relentless defeat for left-wing politics,” we ought to remember that the same period has also seen “enormous advances in the practical opportunities available to women, a major decline in the level of racism … and wildly more public and legal acceptance of gays and lesbians.”
Michaels replies to Yglesias’ argument that “10 percent of the U.S. population now earns just under 50 percent of total U.S. income”—a figure that is, unfortunately, just the tip of the economic iceberg when it comes to inequality in America. But the real problem—the problem that Michaels’ reply does not do justice to—is that there just is a logical flaw in the kind of “left” that we have now: one that advocates for the rights of minorities rather than labors for the benefit of the majority. That is, a “cultural” left rather than a scientific one: the kind we had when, in 1910, American philosopher John Dewey could write (without being laughed at), that Darwin’s Origin of Species “introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion.” When he was just twenty years old the physicist Freeman Dyson discovered why, when Winston Churchill’s government paid him to think about what was really happening in the flak-filled skies over Berlin.
The British had a desperate need to know, because they were engaged in bombing Nazi Germany at least back to the Renaissance. Hence they employed Dyson as a statistician, to analyze the operations of Britain’s Bomber Command. Specifically, Dyson was to investigate whether bomber crews “learned by experience”: if whether the more missions each crew flew, the better each crew became at blowing up Germany—and the Germans in it. Obviously, if they did, then Bomber Command could try to isolate what those crews were doing and teach what it was to the others so that Germany and the Germans might be blown up better.
The bomb crews themselves believed, Dyson tells us, that as “they became more skillful and more closely bonded, their chances of survival would improve”—a belief that, for obvious reasons, was “essential to their morale.” But as Dyson went over the statistics of lost bombers, examining the relation between experience and loss rates while controlling for the effects of weather and geography, he discovered the terrible truth:
“There was no effect of experience on loss rate.”
The lives of each bomber crew, in other words, were dependent on chance, not skill, and the belief in their own expertise was just an illusion in the face of horror—an illusion that becomes the more awful when you know that, out of the 125,000 air crews who served in Bomber Command, 55,573 were killed in action.
“Statistics and simple arithmetic,” Dyson therefore concluded, “tell us more about ourselves than expert intuition”: a cold lesson to learn, particularly at the age of twenty—though that can be tempered by the thought that at least it wasn’t Dyson’s job to go to Berlin. Still, the lesson is so appalling that perhaps it is little wonder that, after the war, it was largely forgotten, and has only been taken up again by a subject nearly as joyful as the business of killing people on an industrial scale is horrifying: sport.
In one of the most cited papers in the history of psychology, “The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences,” Thomas Gilovich, Robert Vallone and Amos Tversky studied how “players and fans alike tend to believe that a player’s chance of hitting a shot are greater following a hit than following a miss on the previous shot”—but “detailed analysis … provided no evidence for a positive correlation between the outcomes of successive shots.” Just as, in other words, the British airmen believed some crews had “skill” that kept them in the air, when in fact all that kept them aloft was, say, the poor aim of a German anti-aircraft gunner or a happily-timed cloud, so too did the three co-authors find that, in basketball, people believed some shooters could get “hot.” That is, reel off seemingly impossible numbers of shots in a row, like when Ben Gordon, then with the Chicago Bulls, knocked down 9 consecutive three-pointers against Washington in 2006. But in fact hits and misses are reliant on a player’s skill, not his “luck”: toss a coin enough times and the coin will produce “runs” of heads and tails too.
The “hot hand” concept in fact applies to more than simply the players: it extends to coaches also. “In sports,” says Leonard Mlodinow in his book The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, “we have developed a culture in which, based on intuitive feelings of correlation, a team’s success or failure is often attributed largely to the ability of the coach”—a reality that perhaps explains just why, as Florida’s Lakeland Ledger reported in in 2014, the average tenure of NFL coaches over the past decade has been 38 months. Yet as Mlodinow also says, “[m]athematical analysis of firings in all major sports … has shown that those firings had, on average, no effect on team performance”: fans (and perhaps more importantly, owners) tend to think of teams rising and falling based on their coach, while in reality a team’s success has more to do with the talent the team has.
Yet while sports are a fairly trivial part of most peoples’ lives, that is not true when it comes to our “coaches”: the managers that run large corporations. As Diane Stafford found out for the Kansas City Star a few years back, it turns out that American corporations have as little sense of the real value of CEOs as NFL owners have of their coaches: the “pay gap between large-company CEOs and average American employees,” Stafford said, “vaulted from 195 to 1 in 1993 to 354 to 1 in 2012.” Meanwhile, more than a third “of the men who appeared on lists ranking America’s 25 highest-paid corporate leaders between 1993 and 2012 have led companies bailed out by U.S. taxpayers, been fired for poor performance or led companies charged with fraud.” Just like the Lancasters flown by Dyson’s aircrews, American workers (and their companies’ stockholders) have been taken for a ride by men flying on the basis of luck, not skill.
Again, of course, many in what’s termed the “cultural” left would insist that they too, stand with American workers against the bosses, that they too, wish things were better, and they too, think paying twenty bucks for a hot dog and a beer is an outrage. What matters however isn’t what professors or artists or actors or musicians or the like say—just as it didn’t matter what Britain’s bomber pilots thought about their own skills during the war. What matters is what their jobs say. And the fact of the matter is that cultural production, whether it be in academia or in New York or in Hollywood, simply is the same as thinking you’re a hell of a pilot, or you must be “hot,” or Phil Jackson is a genius. That might sound counterintuitive, of course—I thought writers and artists and, especially, George Clooney were all on the side of the little guy!—but, like McLuhan says, what matters is the medium, not the message.
The point is likely easiest to explain in terms of the academic study of the humanities, because at least there people are forced to explain themselves in order to keep their jobs. What one finds, across the political spectrum, is some version of the same dogma: students in literary studies can, for instance, refer to American novelist James Baldwin’s insistence, in the 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” that “literature and sociology are not the same,” while, at the other end of the political spectrum, political science students can refer to Leo Strauss’ attack on “the ‘scientific’ approach to society” in his 1958 Thoughts on Machiavelli. Every discipline in the humanities has some version of the point, because without such a doctrine they couldn’t exist: without them, there’s just a bunch of people sitting in a room reading old books.
The effect of these dogmas can perhaps be best seen by reference to the philosophical version of it, which has the benefit of at least being clear. David Hume called it the “is-ought problem”; as the Scotsman claimed in A Treatise of Human Nature, “the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects.” Later, in 1903’s Principe Ethica, British philosopher G.E. Moore called the same point the “naturalistic fallacy”: the idea that, as J.B. Schneewind of Johns Hopkins has put it, “claims about morality cannot be derived from statements of facts.” The advantage for philosophers is clear enough: if it’s impossible to talk about morality or ethics strictly by the light of science, that certainly justifies talking about philosophy to the exclusion of anything else. But in light of the facts about shooting hoops or being killed by delusional Germans, I would hope that the absurdity of Moore’s “idea” ought to be self-evident: if it can be demonstrated that something is a matter of luck, and not skill, that changes the moral calculation drastically.
That then is the problem with running a “left” based around the study of novels or rituals or films or whatever: at the end of the day, the study of the humanities, just like the practice of the arts, discourages the thought that, as Mlodinow puts it, “chance events are often conspicuously misinterpreted as accomplishments or failures.” And without such a consideration, I would suggest, any talk of “values” or “morality” or whatever you would like to call it, is empty. It matters if your leader is lucky or skillful, it matters if success is the result of hard work or who your parents are—and a “left” built on the opposite premises is not, to my mind, a “left” at all. Although many people in the “cultural left,” then, might have the idea that their overt exhortations to virtue might outweigh the covert message being told by their institutional positions, reality tells a different tale: by telling people they can fly, you should not be shocked when they crash.