Noble Lie

With a crew and good captain well seasoned,
They left fully loaded for Cleveland.
—“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” 1976.

The comedian Bill Maher began the “panel” part of his show Real Time the other day—the last episode before the election—by noting that virtually every political expert had dismissed Donald Trump’s candidacy at every stage of the past year’s campaign. When Trump announced he was running, Maher observed, the pundits said “oh, he’s just saying that … because he just wants to promote his brand.” They said Trump wouldn’t win any voters, Maher noted—“then he won votes.” And then, Maher went on, they said he wouldn’t win any primaries—“then he won primaries.” And so on, until Trump became the Republican nominee. So much we know, but what was of interest about the show was the response one of Maher’s guests: David Frum, a Canadian who despite his immigrant origins became a speechwriter for George W. Bush, invented the phrase “axis of evil,” and has since joined the staff of the supposedly liberal magazine, The Atlantic. The interest of Frum’s response was not only how marvelously inane it was—but also how it had already been decisively refuted only hours earlier, by men playing a boy’s game on the Lake Erie shore.

Maybe I’m being cruel however: like most television shows, Real Time with Bill Maher is shot before it is aired, and this episode was released last Friday. Frum then may not have been aware, when he said what he said, that the Chicago Cubs won the World Series on Wednesday—and if he is like most people, Frum is furthermore unaware of the significance of that event, which goes (as I will demonstrate) far beyond matters baseball. Still, surely Frum must have been aware of how ridiculous what he said was, given that the conversation began with Maher reciting the failures of the pundit class—and Frum admitted to belonging to that class. “I was one of those pundits that you made fun of,” Frum confessed to Maher—yet despite that admission, Frum went on to make a breathtakingly pro-pundit argument.

Trump’s candidacy, Frum said, demonstrated the importance of the gatekeepers of the public interest—the editors of the national newspapers, for instance, or the anchors of the network news shows, or the mandarins of the political parties. Retailing a similar  argument to one made by, among others, Salon’s Bob Cesca—who contended in early October that “social media is the trough from which Trump feeds”—Frum proceeded to make the case that the Trump phenomena was only possible once apps like Facebook and Twitter enabled presidential candidates to bypass the traditional centers of power. To Frum, in other words, the proper response to the complete failure of the establishment (to defeat Trump) was to prop up the establishment (so as to defeat future Trumps). To protect against the failure of experts Frum earnestly argued—with no apparent sense of irony—that we ought to give more power to experts.

There is, I admit, a certain schadenfreude in witnessing a veteran of the Bush Administration tout the importance of experts, given that George W.’s regime was notable for, among other things, “systematically chang[ing] and supress[ing] … scientific reports about global warming” (according to the British Broadcasting Corporation)—and not even to discuss how Bush cadres torpedoed the advice of the professionals of the CIA vis á vis the weapons-buying habits of a certain Middle Eastern tyrant. But the larger issue, however, is that the very importance of “expert” knowledge has been undergoing a deep interrogation for decades now—and that the victory of the Chicago Cubs in this year’s World Series has brought much of that critique to the mainstream.

What I mean can be demonstrated by a story told by the physicist Freeman Dyson—a man who never won a Nobel Prize, nor even received a doctorate, but nevertheless was awarded a place at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study at the ripe age of thirty by none other than Robert Oppenheimer (the man in charge of the Manhattan Project) himself. Although Dyson has had a lot to say during his long life—and a lot worth listening to—on a wide range of subjects, from interstellar travel to Chinese domestic politics, of interest to me in connection to Frum’s remarks on Donald Trump is an article Dyson published in The New York Review of Books in 2011, about a man who did win the Nobel Prize: the Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the prize for economics in 2002. In that article, Dyson told a story about himself: specifically, what he did during World War II—an experience, it turns out, that leads by a circuitous path over the course of seven decades to the epic clash resolved by the shores of Lake Erie in the wee hours of 3 November.

Entitled “How to Dispel Your Illusions,” Dyson there tells the story of being a young statistician with the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command in the spring of 1944—a force that suffered, according to the United Kingdom’s Bomber Command Museum, “a loss rate comparable only to the worst slaughter of the First World War trenches.” To combat this horror, Dyson was charged with discovering the common denominator between the bomber crews that survived until the end of their thirty-mission tour of duty (about 25% of all air crews). Since they were succeeding when three out of four of their comrades were failing, Dyson’s superiors assumed that those successful crews were doing something that their less-successful colleagues (who were mostly so much less successful that they were no longer among the living) were not.

Bomber Command, that is, had a theory about why some survived and some died: “As [an air crew] became more skillful and more closely bonded,” Dyson writes that everyone at Bomber Command thought, “their chances of survival would improve.” So Dyson, in order to discover what that something was, plunged in among the data of all the bombing missions the United Kingdom had run over Germany since the beginning of the war. If he could find it, maybe it could be taught to the others—and the war brought that much closer to an end. But despite all his searching, Dyson never found that magic ingredient.

It wasn’t that Dyson didn’t look hard enough for it: according to Dyson, he “did a careful analysis of the correlation between the experience of the crews and their loss rates, subdividing the data into many small packages so as to eliminate effects of weather and geography.” Yet, no matter how many different ways he looked at the data, he could not find evidence that the air crews that survived were any different than the ones shot down over Berlin or lost in the North Sea: “There was no effect of experience,” Dyson’s work found, “on loss rate.” Who lived and who died while attempting to burn Dresden or blow up Hamburg was not a matter of experience: “whether a crew lived or died,” Dyson writes, “was purely a matter of chance.” The surviving crews possessed no magical ingredient. They couldn’t—perhaps because there wasn’t one.

Still, despite the conclusiveness of Dyson’s results his studies had no effect on the operations of Bomber Command: “The crews continued to die, experienced and inexperienced alike, until Germany was overrun and the war finally ended.” While Dyson’s research suggested that dying in the stratosphere over Lübeck had no relation to skill, no one at the highest levels wanted to admit that the survivors weren’t experts—that they were instead just lucky. Perhaps, had the war continued, Dyson’s argument might eventually have won out—but the war ended, fortunately (or not) for the air crews of the Royal Air Force, before Bomber Command had to admit he was right.

All of that, of course, might appear to have little to do with the Chicago Cubs—until it’s recognized that the end of their century-long championship drought had everything to do with the eventual success of Dyson’s argument. Unlike Bomber Command, the Cubs have been at the forefront of what The Ringer’s Rany Jazayerli calls baseball’s “Great Analytics War”—and unlike the contest between Dyson and his superiors, that war has had a definite conclusion. The battle between what Jazayerli calls an “objective, data-driven view” and an older vision of baseball “ended at 48 minutes after midnight on November 3”—when the Cubs (led by a general manager who, like Dyson, trusted to statistical analysis) recorded the final out of the 2016 season.

That general manager is Theo Epstein—a man who was converted to Dyson’s “faith” at an early age. According to ESPN, Epstein, “when he was 12 … got his first Bill James historical abstract”—and as many now recognize, James pioneered applying the same basic approach Dyson used to think about how to bomb Frankfurt to winning baseball games. An obscure graduate of the University of Kansas, after graduation James took a job as a night security guard at the Stokely-Van Camp pork and beans cannery in Kansas City—and while isolated in what one imagines were the sultry (or wintry) Kansas City evenings of the 1970s, James had plenty of time to think about what interested him. That turned out to be somewhat like the problem Dyson had faced a generation earlier: where Dyson was concerned with how to win World War II, James was interested in what appeared to be the much-less portentous question of how to win the American League. James thereby invented an entire field—what’s now known as sabermetrics, or the statistical study of baseball—and in so doing, the tools James invented have become the keys to baseball’s kingdom. After all, Epstein—employed by a team owner who hired James as a consultant in 2003—not only used James’ work to end the Cubs’ errand in baseball’s wilderness but also, as all the world knows, constructed the Boston Red Sox championship teams of 2004 and 2007.

What James had done, of course, is shown how the supposed baseball “experts”—the ex-players and cronies that dominated front offices at the time—in fact knew very little about the game: they did not know, for example, that the most valuable single thing a batter can do is to get on base, or that stolen bases are, for the most part, a waste of time. (The risk of making an out, as per for example David Smith’s “Maury Wills and the Value of a Stolen Base,” is more significant than the benefit of gaining a base.) James’ insights had not merely furnished the weaponry used by Epstein; during the early 2000s another baseball team, the Oakland A’s, and their manager Billy Beane, had used James-inspired work to get to the playoffs four consecutive years (from 2000 to 2003), and won twenty consecutive games in 2002—a run famously chronicled by journalist Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which later became a Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt. What isn’t much known, however, is that Lewis has noticed the intellectual connection between this work in the sport of baseball—and the work Dyson thought of as similar to his own work as a statistician for Bomber Command: the work of psychologist Kahneman and his now-deceased colleague, Amos Tversky.

The connection between James, Kahneman, and Tversky—an excellent name for a law firm—was first noticed, Lewis says, in a review of his Moneyball book by University of Chicago professors Cass Sunstein, of the law school, and Richard Thaler, an economist. When Lewis described the failures of the “old baseball men,” and conversely Beane’s success, the two professors observed that “Lewis is actually speaking here of a central finding in cognitive psychology”: the finding upon which Kahneman and Tversky based their careers. Whereas Billy Beane’s enemies on other baseball teams tended “to rely on simple rules of thumb, on traditions, on habits, on what other experts seem to believe,” Sunstein and Thaler pointed out that Beane relied on the same principle that Dyson found when examining the relative success of bomber pilots: “Statistics and simple arithmetic tell us more about ourselves than expert intuition.” While Bomber Command in other words relied on the word of their “expert” pilots, who perhaps might have said they survived a run over a ball-bearing plant because of some maneuver or other, baseball front offices relied for decades on ex-players who thought they had won some long-ago game on the basis of some clever piece of baserunning. Tversky and Kahneman’s work, however—like that of Beane and Dyson—suggested that much of what passes as “expert” judgment can be, for decades if not centuries, an edifice erected on sand.

That work has, as Lewis found after investigating the point when his attention was drawn to it by Sunstein and Thaler’s article, been replicated in several fields: in the work of the physician Atul Gawande, for instance, who, Lewis says, “has shown the dangers of doctors who place too much faith in their intuition.” The University of California, Berkeley finance professor Terry Odean “examined 10,000 individual brokerage accounts to see if stocks the brokers bought outperformed stocks they sold and found that the reverse was true.” And another doctor, Toronto’s Donald Redelmeier—who studied under Tversky—found “that an applicant was less likely to be admitted to medical school if he was interviewed on a rainy day.” In all of these cases (and this is not even to bring up the subject of, say, the financial crisis of 2007-08, a crisis arguably brought on precisely by the advice of “experts”), investigation has shown that “expert” opinion may not be what it is cracked up to be. It may in fact actually be worse than the judgment of laypeople.

If so, might I suggest, then David Frum’s “expert” suggestion about what to do to avoid a replay of the Trump candidacy—reinforce the rule of experts, a proposition that itself makes several questionable assumptions about the nature of the events of the past two years, if not decades—stops appearing to be a reasonable proposition. It begins, in fact, to appear rather more sinister: an attempt by those in Frum’s position in life—what we might call Eastern, Ivy League-types—to will themselves into believing that Trump’s candidacy is fueled by a redneck resistance to “reason,” along with good old-fashioned American racism and sexism. But what the Cubs’ victory might suggest is that what could actually be powering Trump is the recognition by the American people that many of the “cures” dispensed by the American political class are nothing more than snake oil proffered by cynical tools like David Frum. That snake oil doubles down on exactly the same “expert” policies (like freeing capital to wander the world, while increasingly shackling labor) that, debatably, is what led to the rise of Trump in the first place—a message that, presumably, must be welcome to Frum’s superiors at whatever the contemporary equivalent of Bomber Command is.

Still, despite the fact that the David Frums of the world continue to peddle their nonsense in polite society, even this descendant of South Side White Sox fans must allow that Theo Epstein’s victory has given cause for hope down here at the street-level of a Midwestern city that for has, for more years than the Cubs have been in existence, been the plaything of Eastern-elite labor and trade policies. It’s a hope that, it seems, now has a Ground Zero.

You can see it at the intersection of Clark and Addison.


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