Monday, July 27, 2015

"A Story That Doesn't Matter, Triggering A Question that Does"

The moment I heard myself say it, I immediately wished that I hadn’t.

This story doesn’t matter.  It could be any story and it would make exactly the same point.  I have chosen it, because it’s the one that returned me to a subject that is never far from my mind.

How do we know what we believe we know?

My most recent deep reading is “The Cartoon Introduction To Philosophy” (by Michael E. Patton and Kevin Cannon.)  It is exactly what it sounds like it is – an introduction to philosophy in comic book form.  Never say that I shrink from an intellectual challenge.

I read two pages a day – I quit when my head starts to hurt.  At the rate I am going, I will complete “The Cartoon Introduction To Philosophy” around Labor Day, at which point, like the painters of the Brooklyn Bridge – which takes four years to paint and it is painted every four years – I shall proceed dutifully to “Page One”, having forgotten everything I have learned along the way.

In the meantime, I have retained this fact.  (Contained on Page 34, which I read yesterday so I have not had time to forget it.)

There is a word, I have learned, that describes the study of how we know what we know.

That word is epistemology.  (And you thought you’d learn nothing about philosophy this summer.)

For reasons I shall not go into – because I do not know what they are – it seems to bother me to believe I know something when I actually do not.  This self-deception, upon its discovery, makes me feel stupid and, if my mistake was grounded in deliberate misinformation, taken advantage of.

To prevent myself from feeling stupid and taken advantage of, I try my best to internalize – and more importantly communicate – only what I certifiably know for sure. 

Sometimes, however, I slip.

The following is the “backstory” to the story that doesn’t matter.

For three-and a-half-years, Jerry Dipoto was the General Manager of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team.  General Manager is an important position.  General Managers run the team for the owners, while they are out making enough money to overpay the players, the manager and, quite likely, the General Manager as well.  The General Manager is “hands-on”, the owner, generally remote from the arena.  Until his team wins the World Series, when they are suddenly everywhere, being inundated with champagne.

Now, if you have seen the film or read the book Moneyball­ – or even if you haven’t – there has been a revolution in baseball concerning the evaluation of the ballplayers.  An intense statistical analysis of a player’s abilities has now supplanted the “experiential” evaluation of ballplayers that the “Old School” baseball practitioners call “feel.”

Jerry Dipoto is a statistics guy.  Angels Manager – and longtime former Major Leaguer – Mike Scioscia has a predilection towards “feel.”  According to reporters, their contrasting approaches caused difficulties, because, when Scioscia’s coaches received statistical information provided by the Angels’ front office, the coaches did something with that statistical information that was not “passing it along to the players.”  We can each of us imagine what that was.

The Angels, it appeared, had an internal conflict concerning the dissemination – or more accurately the lack of dissemination – of statistical information.  And in the consequent power struggle over this issue between the General Manager and the manager, Angels owner Arte Moreno, sided with manager Scioscia, leading Jerry Dipoto to resign.

That’s the story that doesn’t matter. 

And that’s exactly what I passed along to my friend Paul at dinner one night:

That Jerry Dipoto resigned over a conflict with manager Mike Scioscia over the use of statistical analysis.

When I heard it, I immediately regretted that I had said it.

Because it could very easily have been wrong.

I had reported what I had read in the paper.  And maybe heard confirmed on a broadcast on the MLB (Major League Baseball) Channel.  It was not a question of how many places I heard it.  Because the reporters, I imagine, received their information from similar, corroborating “unnamed sources”, whose agenda and personal loyalty were never, at least publicly, factored in.

In the meantime, the principals in the story – Jerry Dipoto, Mike Scioscia and owner Arte Moreno all insisted that there was no internal dispute concerning statistical analysis, and flatly rejected that explanation as the reason Jerry Dipoto was no longer General Manager of the team.

These denials encouraged the reporters to believe it was the opposite.  Their rationale:  “They have to say that.”

That does not mean that the reporters were right.  Or that they weren’t.  The only thing I knew was that I had assimilated their conjecture and had parroted it to my friend.

I felt terrible about my unquestioning acceptance of the information.  I was the next thing to a “Gossip Monger.”  I was a “Reportedly Monger.”

“Jerry Dipoto stepped down as the Los Angeles Angels’ General Manager reportedly because of a conflict with manager Mike Scioscia concerning the team’s use of statistical analysis.”

And there you have it.  The “reportedly” had sailed right into in my ears and flown uncritically out of my mouth. 

As if it were unequivocally true.

It was legitimate-feeling story – Dipoto’s a “statistics” guy; Mike Scioscia favors “experience.”  They go to the mat on the issue.  One of them has to go.

But is that is actually what happened?

Who knows? 

Maybe Dipoto didn’t resign.  Maybe he was fired, but they let him to say he was leaving, so that the General Manager could save face.  And so the owner would not be “the Bad Guy who fires people.”  And so the manager not look like a hysterical prima donna, bellowing, “It’s him or it’s me!”    

And maybe the issue wasn’t statistical analysis at all.  Maybe they found tubs of pilfered complimentary “Double Bubble” in the trunk of Dipoto’s car.  Or some other plausible reason for his departure. 

We just do not know.  But we – or I, in this case – behaved confidently like I did.

And there you have it.  The media constructs a scenario.  And I pass it along as epistemological certainty.  (Did you see how I incorporated my new word?)

How many things do I pass along as incontrovertible truth that are, in reality, nothing of the kind?  Beyond “factual” journalism, we often have help in being misled.  Presidential candidates have these consultants, who fashion images that may bear no resemblance to who the candidate actually is.

Political consultants do not earn millions advising their clients to “Be yourself.”  “Be yourself” advice does not exactly seem worth the money.

What I am saying is, there are professional “Foolers” out there.  And “We the Public” are the perennial “Fool-ees.”

Hypothetical Question:

Is it better to remain silent than to spread information you are uncertain is correct?

I think so.

Though it might make you a less interesting dinner companion.

(Of course, you can always discuss epistemology.  And watch how quickly they ask the waiter for the check.)  

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I suppose it will be no comfort that I hear - having read Moneyball but having otherwise less than no interest in baseball - it *rumored* that now that every team has adopted statistical analysis as a method for choosing ball players they're beginning to go back to intuition to remain at the leading edge. *After* the statistical analysis, of course.

I'd already prefer to dine with someone talking about epistemology rather than someone talking about baseball. :)