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Martin Schneider writes:

Exhilarating day of four New Yorker Festival events stretched across 14 hours. I'm beat, and yet I have to get at least one of these accounts down now, or they won't happen at all. I might not be as verbose as I was for Shteyngart/Saunders, but I'll do my best. (Then again, maybe I'll write on and on. We'll see.)

Let's start with New Math, with Nate Silver, Nancy Flournoy, Sudhir Venkatesh, and Bill James, hosted by Ben McGrath.

I scored a choice seat front row center fairly early, and after a few moments an older gentleman with what I took to be a British accent inquired about the vacant seat next to me. Having ensconced himself in the seat, he asked me what had interested me about this event, and thus began a good quarter-hour of pleasant and stimulating discussion with Graham Gladwell, Canadian mathematician (Ret.) and (of course) father of Malcolm.

Graham showed a lively interest in every subject on offer, as I explained the back stories of James, Silver, Venkatesh. Talk drifted to Malcolm's latest article about the permanent neurological effects of violent NFL play, and he took the opportunity to reminisce about his youthful days of playing "rugger" and boxing. I must say that this professorial chap looked like just about the last person I could imagine trading jabs in the ring, but that was more or less his point, in his day that was what young men once did at the better schools. Anyway, he's a wonderful fellow, and I greatly enjoyed chatting with him. (Come to think of it, I enjoy just about every conversation I have at every NYF.)

On to the main subject. I have to preface this by saying that I have only two real intellectual heroes who were important to me in my formative years, and one of them is George Orwell (deceased, 1950), and the other one is Bill James. I think there's literally no other person on earth the NYF could have enlisted to speak who has more personal meaning to me. And yesterday morning I got to see the man up close, in person. It was obviously a heady moment for me. And I'm going to write about him to the exclusion of the others, if you don't mind. (After pointing out the grace and wit with which Ben McGrath ran the panel.)

If you don't know, Bill James has been writing about baseball statistics (and other aspects of baseball) since about 1975, and through a huge amount of work and persistence and insight and originality, was able to teach a new, educated generation of fans a way of looking at the sport that deviated from the rather platitudinous fashion of the previous few generations.

James spoke the least of the four panelists (by far), which fact I ascribe to a kind of reticence and shyness that may—perversely—be typical of the kind of self-directed, bold, irreverent genius (if I may put that out there) James is. Bold on the page, tentative in the flesh, something like that. It might have something to do with the Midwest, too. (James is a Kansan to the bone.)

James had one very good moment, which went almost entirely unnoticed, and one very bad moment, which likely made more of an impression. Let's start with the misstep.

At a certain point, Venkatesh was discussing the role of statistical analysis in the history of ideas, good and bad, and he made reference to the use of statistics by eugenicists, obviously a pretty bad idea. James actually interrupted Venkatesh to say, no no, eugenics didn't come out of statistical analysis, at all. Venkatesh countered, Certainly it did—look at Sir Francis Galton. And James said, quote, "Who the hell is Francis Galton?"

(Wince.)

After a bit of exposition by Venkatesh, James recovered with a rather good point, that if the conclusion was so pernicious and agenda-driven, then it can hardly be said that impartial statistical analysis was occurring.

What's interesting about the exchange is that the mistake, of making such a sweeping statement without command of all the facts, is rather typical of James and yet is also part of what made him such a powerful advocate in the areas in which he knew his shit and was dead right, of which there were many. James sometimes uses the reach of his own knowledge as the measure for the subject, and a lot of times that's OK but when it's not you really notice it, as was the case here. If you don't know about Sir Francis Galton, you probably shouldn't make sweeping statements about eugenicists. I still find such blunders a small price to pay for his general fearless attitude toward cant. But that's just me.

The good moment he had was every bit as interesting, I think.

The subject of political ends in relation to statistics was raised, and climate change had already been mentioned as an area in which statistical work is important. James pointed out that something is amiss in a debate in which the statistical basis for the conclusion that humankind is contributing to rapid climate change is essentially the private property of the tiny minority who can actually understand the debate (who all agree about it). If those conclusions are so rock-solid, there must be a way of distilling the arguments/data in such a way that regular people can understand it, and that manifestly has not happened at all. James added that he's looked into the matter a bit, and he works with statistics every day of his life, and he can't understand the data either. Something's wrong here.

I don't know about you, but I think that's a pretty trenchant and profound point. Right or wrong, the argument is dysfunctional. The responses of the panelists who tackled James's point actually dodged the issue. Flournoy made reference to the general heating of the earth since the last Ice Age, and said that the question is whether humans are compounding it, which seems to be the case. Silver made a rather good point, which was that when you have a sound scientific theory (adding carbon to the atmosphere heats the atmosphere) that the data is decidedly corroborating, that makes it far more difficult to dismiss either the data or the theory—but none of that alters the fact that the climate change crowd has failed to create models of the problem that people—the people who vote and could possibly be mobilized to solve the problem—can understand.

In a sense, it's the scientists who are unwilling to give up their cherished intellectual superiority or whatever institutional perks come with keeping science specialized and arcane, the property of a certain kind of well-paid professional class. And (if the problem is as dire as all that) that's an awfully high price to pay for such fleeting fame, status, salary, whatever. Just like SUV owners of only a few years ago, that's the luxury they don't want to give up. That incomprehensibility isn't an accident, it has a clear institutional history (specialization etc.). As with Darwinism, the scientists' attitude has been, basically, "Trust us." And that kind of thing isn't going to help us jettison the political static that has been souring the debate—which we're going to have to do if we want to solve the problem.

I don't think the panelists, so generally convinced that climate change is a sound theory (perhaps on a second-hand basis), quite grasped the point James was making. He wanted to argue about what's wrong with the nature of the debate and the data, and what he got in response was the reasons to believe the experts—without a word about how we can, in practical terms, bring the debate to the people so that they can accept it (if it's such a sound theory).

Afterward, in that random milling about that always occurs after such panels, I bounded on stage and told James how important his work had been to me, and I shook his hand. That felt really good!

So there you have it. James is my intellectual hero, and warts and all, I'll pit mine against yours and I'll win best three throws out of five, dammit. (Is that the expression?) Maybe Professor Graham Gladwell (Ret.) can be the referee.

Comments

I think you’re giving Mr. James too much credit on the global warming issue. Nate Silver made the point that Al Gore has made an eloquent and comprehensible argument about climate change. I didn’t get the feeling that James has seen “An Inconvenient Truth.”

That said, if he wants the analysis, I’d love for the experts to give it to him and to hear his take.

It’s possible, Dan, and yet I think that could be true and he could still be right, and his concerns basically unaddressed. The problem here is that the argument quickly devolves from “What is the state of the relationship between the data and the public?” to something like, “Ah, but Bill probably hasn’t seen An Inconvenient Truth.” That actually can’t be the complete rebuttal against Bill, and the existence of Al Gore and/or his movie doesn’t prove Bill wrong about the state of the debate. Everyone tends to adopt the certitude of the scientist in answering Bill, and that’s not really the right starting point to explore the question.

Now, I’ll say this: Bill’s speaking from the perspective of someone who wants to wade through the data, and then doesn’t find any layman’s route to a good thesis in that data. The proper questions are more like, (1) is it the case that the data simply cannot be reduced into something that USA Today can make a daily chart out of?, and (2) is there any reason to believe that regular citizens have much desire to wade through the data first-hand, as they regularly do with baseball, the arena in which Bill picked up his habits?

I’m willing to believe that Bill’s perspective is flawed while also seeing the question he raised as trenchant and unaddressed in the context of the panel. The telling thing isn’t how many people Al Gore’s won over, it’s the people he hasn’t won over…. maybe they can’t be won over—but that’s a philosophical debate about the disposition of the unconvinced, not one about Bill’s ability to be persuaded by the scientific status quo.

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