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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Hot Shots

 

… when the sea was calm all boats alike
Show’d mastership in floating …
—William Shakespeare.
     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.

30 Seconds Over Waialae

“It needs to be good for the next player,” the man was telling me, though it took me a moment to understand him through the molasses of his Georgia-inflected speech. We were on the fourth hole of Augusta National—named “Flowering Crabapple”—and the man, who was considerably older than me, was raking out his player’s bunker to the left of the green with the care that, very likely, the White House gardeners devote to the Rose Garden. But we were done with the hole; we were moving on; there wasn’t time to do things the old man’s way. He was thinking of his responsibility to the other golfers; it was better, I thought, that he take care of his own player first.

Jeff Maggert—and Air Vice Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane, whom I’ll get to a bit later—might disagree. First though, it’s necessary to explain that I’ve been reading Dan Jenkins’ The Money-Whipped, Steer-Job, Three-Jack Give-Up Artist this past week, which mentions the term “lurkers” (guys who haven’t won on tour) and why they are anathema to sportswriters. “Lurkers,” Jenkins explains, “are your basic nobodies,” players who “lurk around the top of the leaderboard where big names are involved and occasionally win a tournament, thereby screwing up everybody’s story.” But why do they screw up everybody’s story? Jeff Maggert, so I think, can answer part of that question.

Ask Jeff Maggert, for instance, about the 2003 Masters. Or better, ask his caddie, Brian Sullivan. To rehearse the story: on the third hole of the final round at that year’s Masters, Maggert hit himself in the chest with his own golf ball after rebounding it off the face of a fairway bunker. (There are, to be fair, rather a lot of them.) Maggert took a two-shot penalty, lost the lead he’d slept on Saturday night to Mike Weir, and never really recovered.

What not many remember though is that Maggert wasn’t completely out of the tournament until the twelfth hole, where he managed to hit his second shot into Rae’s Creek (incurring more penalty shots) because of what his caddie, Brian Sullivan, said was a case of “Somebody” doing “a very poor job of raking that trap”: instead of rolling back to the bottom of the bunker, his tee shot hung up on the bunker’s face, in a furrow created by a rake. Maggert ended up making an eight on the par-three hole—if he’d just bogied that hole and the third, he would have won the tournament by a shot.

The “somebody” whose rake job may have cost Maggert several hundred thousand dollars (and his looper tens of thousands) was Paul Tesori, best known for his “Tiger Who?” hat during the 2000 Presidents’ Cup when Tesori was working for Vijay Singh, then competing with Tiger for the #1 ranking. About that rake job, Tesori said in 2010 that it “was perfect,” and that when he heard about Sullivan’s comments he approached Sullivan and offered to settle it “like men.” Which is to say that what happens in a bunker can very often lead not only to fiscal consequences, but also physical ones.

But no matter how violent those consequences might be, they’re not as weighty as those that pressed on Sir Ralph in 1943 and ’44, when the black-painted night bombers flown by the men of Cochrane’s 5 Group, along with all the other bomb groups, were taking heavy casualties from Nazi night fighter planes because at that point in the war the long-range American fighter, the P-51, had yet to make an appearance in Europe. The only protection the bombers had from enemy fighters was their own gunners.

What Cochrane proposed to do was, instead of loading up the bombers with more guns, was just the opposite: he wanted to take all the heavy guns out of the bombers, along with their turrets and, incidentally, the gunners. What that would do was make the bombers lighter, hence able to fly not only faster, but higher, therefore avoiding the night fighters—and the anti-aircraft fire, or “flak”—altogether. (Also, for perhaps poetic reasons, Cochrane wanted to paint these planes white, instead of black.) But Bomber Command nixed Cochrane’s idea.

The reason Bomber Command didn’t want to follow Cochrane’s suggestion was because (in the words of Freeman Dyson, who conducted the original research and whose article “How To Dispel Your Illusions” from the 22 December issue of the New York Review of Books I’ve freely used here), Bomber Command “saw every bomber crew as a tightly knit team of seven.” Bomber Command also believed that as each “team … became more skillful and more closely bonded, their chances of survival would improve.” Experience, that is, improved survival chances, and the gunners were part of each team’s collective experience. Taking out the gunners, in other words, would destroy unit teamwork, thus making it less likely that each crew would ultimately survive. Such at least was Bomber Command’s theory.

Unfortunately, as Freeman Dyson, who ran the numbers, found out, this theory was entirely false. “Teamwork” or “morale” or “experience” didn’t actually improve any given bomber crew’s ability to survive. After canceling out for weather and geography and so forth, Dyson found that “whether a crew lived or died was purely a matter of chance.” Bomber Command’s belief in the value of experience, or skill, “was an illusion.” The men who crewed the bombers and survived the war did so by sheer luck.

Translating this awful story into the story of the 2003 Masters (perhaps a horrifying reduction to some people), what we could say is that Sullivan’s contention is that Maggert lost simply due to chance, or luck, whereas Tesori’s contention would be that ultimately Mike Weir’s skill overcame all obstacles. As the story of Bomber Command’s fateful decision makes clear (the pathos of which makes Randall Jarrell’s 1945 poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”—“I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters”—all the more awful) Tesori’s version is one that we are more susceptible to believe in. The idea that the universe is orderly, one supposes, is more important than the lives of bomb crews.

Regrettably for Sullivan, the evidence appears to be that if there was anyone who “deserved” to win the 2003 Masters, it was the man who did win: Mike Weir, who arguably had the steadiest tournament of any player. ’03 was a year of tough weather—the Thursday round was washed out—and high scores were typical even for players who finished well up on the leaderboard. Ernie Els for example, who eventually finished in 6th place, had a first-round 79. Tiger Woods, who came back on Saturday to scare everyone, had to come back from a first-round 76. But where all of the golfers who finished in the top-ten had one low round to balance their high round, Weir (who also had a 75 in his mix) had two low rounds of four-under 68s. And Weir’s first round of 70 was just a bit better than anyone else’s third-lowest scoring round.

So what one could say is that, while Maggert’s lowest scoring round, 66, was better than Weir’s lowest scoring round, overall Weir had the better tournament—though that would mean discounting the two disastrous holes that cost Maggert the tournament: the 7 and 8 that, had they been merely a bogey and a double bogey, would have made up the difference between the two. In other words, our perception of Weir’s tournament as “steadier” is driven by our knowledge of what eventually happened, not necessarily by the actual value of each player’s golf. Or to put it another way, thinking that Weir “deserved” to win still could be a bit like thinking that the bomber crews that survived the war “deserved” to survive.

In golf, it’s usually only a single shot that makes a difference between first and second place, which is to say that a single round, or even a tournament, is something of too small a sample size to declare whether one player is intrinsically better than another. What we could do instead is compare the careers of Maggert and Weir, in which case what we’d find is that Weir has 8 PGA Tour wins to Maggert’s 3—and Maggert’s wins were at the Disney, the St. Jude, and the World Match Play.

The first two of these tournaments are what could be called “second tier” events: the level of competition is not so high as in some other tournaments. (The Disney is played in the fall, when most of the superstars take time off, while the St. Jude also isn’t on most top players’ rotations because it falls near the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus’ tournament.) And match play, as I’ve discussed before, is an inherently uncertain format that virtually every year it’s played generates complaints about “no names.”

Weir though has not only won a major (which, granted, is just what the discussion is about) but also a Tour Championship (he beat David Toms, Ernie Els, and Sergio Garcia in a playoff) and a World Golf Championship tournament, along with back-to-back wins at the Nissan Open (formerly the L.A. Open and now the Northern Trust Open) at Riviera Country Club. It’s arguable that the quality of Weir’s wins is better than Maggert’s—in addition to the greater number of tournaments Weir has won. In that sense, we could argue that Weir has, over the course of his career, demonstrated a higher quality of golf than has Maggert.

These days the PGA Tour has developed Shotlink, which tracks every shot hit by every player, with what club and with what result. As it happens, that technology was introduced in 2003 at the Nissan Open that Weir won, which is to say that it must be available for the Masters tournament that year. But that data is locked up behind a paywall that I, for one, haven’t ponied up for, so while the question is in principle answerable, it’s also true that obtaining that answer requires resources that probably would be better spent elsewhere.

Anyway, even if that data were freely available, it’s not as though it would end the argument necessarily. While both Weir and Maggert have been very solid players, neither is the superstar sort. You aren’t going to find either one on the cover of any non-golf magazine; if there is some difference in quality between the two, it isn’t necessarily that great. Even if Weir’s second shots ended up marginally closer to the hole, perhaps Maggert’s second shots during his round of 66 were much, much better than Weir’s, or Maggert’s putting was demonstrably better than Weir’s throughout the tournament, or some other thing. Regardless, who raked, or didn’t rake, whose bunker doesn’t particularly matter now, nearly a decade after the event, to anyone outside of those involved.

The point however is that, even if we are able to construct a narrative after the fact that awards Mike Weir the prize, that narrative is not any more “real.” Perhaps, in other words, the “real” quality of their golf is about the same, but Weir somehow received more “breaks” than did Maggert. Improbable, perhaps, but then so is throwing heads 17 times in a row—or surviving thirty missions 6 miles over Germany.

Had things gone differently, we would have constructed a story that would convince us that Jeff Maggert deserved the trophy more because of the sheer brilliance of his third-round 66—just as we very nearly did, in reality, have to consider that possibility due to the scary 65 Len Mattiace did actually throw at Weir in the final round, which led to the playoff that Weir won. But playoffs are, perhaps, the ultimate in coin-tossing luck when it comes to golf: Weir, who has been involved in 5 playoffs during his PGA career and lost two of them while winning three, might affirm that himself.

Most times, in other words, merely a coin flip or less separates winners and losers on the PGA Tour, and yet every week someone is required to come up with that week’s storyline. It’s kind of heroic what golf writers are able to do week in and week out: they turn absurd coincidence into high drama, turn the recipients of good fortune into Bronze Age heroes. It’s been noted by many that golf is one of the few sports where no one cheers for the underdog: everyone wants Tiger (or Phil or some other “star”), not some no-namer, to win.

“When I died,” says Jarrell’s ball turret gunner, a man with no name, “they washed me out of the turret with a hose.” A win for a “star” is, in a curious way, an affirmation of human ability in a cold universe; a win for a no-name is just another affirmation of the random chance that surrounds us. That is why the title of one of Dan Jenkins’ books about golf is The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate.  Jarrell’s finale is a line pregnant with our own mortality: a reminder that, at the end of our days here on the Big Golf Course, there are no winners and losers. Lurkers are like Jarrell’s gunner—unlike when Tiger or somebody wins, they are signs, essentially, of that pale rider whose vehicle might be the Ghost of St. Trond’s Messerschmitt or, say, a rake.

Incidentally, Johnson Wagner won the Sony Open this past week—the first full-field event of the year—by two shots over four other guys.

What, haven’t you heard of him?