Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Bill James

When I was a sophomore in high school, a friend and I went to the local mall on a Saturday night.  This is what we did as high schoolers in the 80s, when it wasn't a night to check out girls at the roller skating rink.  While there, we stopped in at a local bookstore and I saw People magazine had an article:

Rotisserie Baseball:  'the hottest craze to hit the national pastime since trading cards.'

It mentioned a book called Rotisserie League baseball, which I immediately purchased.  I read it in its entirety that night, and recruited my friend as the second team.  We didn't sleep that night; we stayed up all night cutting out box scores for all the NL teams and preparing for a draft that we didn't know how to run.  By midweek, we had eight teams, and held the draft at my house.

That league is still in its existence, playing its 30th year this draft (we took off in 1988, while all of us were away at school).

I did horribly; I drafted Darryl Strawberry and Dale Murphy for $106, which left me with no money to fill out the rest of my team, and I wound up finishing sixth.  The following year, I vowed I would do better, and my first purchase for the 1985 draft was Bill James' Baseball Abstract.  He was the only one writing at length about the intricacies of baseball statistics at that time, and he wrote in a way that read like a Midwestern veteran telling stories about The Great War.  

If you're not a baseball fan, you may have read Bill Bryson - they write in similar fashions.

Since then, I've been a huge fan of Bill James.

Until this past week.

A few months ago, I signed onto Bill James' website BillJamesonline.com.  It wasn't a big splurge, so I was able to get my fix without my wife complaining about spending too much money on my fantasy baseball addiction.  He and a few others contribute articles to the sight, but they also have a "Hey Bill" section, where members can ask or comment to Bill directly.  I thought it was brilliant;  I would be able to write to Bill himself and have read my comments!  So when Bill wrote an article in MY field of history, I felt the need to respond.

The article was called "Small Towns and Mating", in which he wondered the following:

1.  Who were the "winners" and "losers" in history?  While today we view our American ancestors as being "winners", they were in fact losers, fleeing their homeland for some reason or another.  He then rightfully surmised that those people who fled the American small towns for metropolises to have been "losers" as well, but today we look at them in reverse.  
2.  He then stated:  
One of the most critical factors driving the population from small towns to cities was:   Mating. People who write about the urban migration write about it in economic terms, and tend to assume (and assert) that it was economic forces that drove the population from small towns to big cities.  That played some role, yes—but almost all of the economic things that are done in big cities could perfectly well be done in a small town.  I would bet that an equally large or larger cause of the urban migration was (and is, in the places where the urban migration is still occurring) that small towns don’t work particularly well in terms of mating.
3.  He drew this belief based on his own experience of graduating with 18 seniors, 13 of one gender and five of the other, and surmised that in order to find a spouse, these 8 who missed out on the mating "musical chairs" left because they had to be better options in the larger communities.

All fine and nice, and actually a well-written piece, but then again it's Bill James and Bill always writes good articles.  (Another sign of his writing style is that I always refer to him as "Bill", as his writing evokes friendliness - I'm fairly certain that if I ever met Stephen King, I would call him "Mr. King") 

The only problem with his article is that it's wrong.  Not wrong in the sense that no one leaves the small towns looking for mates, it's that he believed based on personal experience that it was the number one cause for migration.  He finished the article with:  "Economics follows yet harsher realities: a community has to work as a mating center, or it doesn’t work."

Actually, there's a greater drive that the need to mate...and that's the need to survive.  If a person is going to starve to death, are they really worried about who they're having sex with?  Mating is important, and it most certainly has contributed to a number of people leaving small towns and moving to a city...but it isn't the number one reason.  I felt the need to write "Hey Bill".

Hey Bill, I found your article about the lack of a mate interesting, but while it makes for interesting speculation, I feel enough research into it has been done to suggest that "finding a mate" to be well down the list of reasons why "losers" left the towns and moved to urban settings. Karl Marx for all his failures was an excellent economic historian, well before this became a dedicated field in history. His research into the English society changing from one based on feudalism to capitalism shows the extraordinary economic struggles the "losers" went through. About five years ago, I lived in Sydney Australia and went to visit a friend who farmed a few hours west of the city. He took me on a tour of the area, which included a series of ghost towns abandoned by people who moved to Sydney. As specialization took over the farming "industry", the average farm expanded greatly, and left the "losers" with two options - repetitive, low-paying jobs (and alcoholism), or moving away.
Asked by: thegue
Answered: 2/17/2014
Did I word it perfectly?  Hell no - questions are limited to 1000 characters, and I had much I wanted to say that I had to narrow down.  So I shouldn't have used "enough research", and maybe written "other studies".  I could've given him some ideas on where to look specifically if he wished to investigate his hypothesis...but then, that would've started me on a 5,000 word article.  I had to keep it short.

He responded:

I find it difficult to believe that any historian would ever suggest that a theory had to wrong because so much research in the area had already been done.

Completely true, and I would've left well enough alone, except for a comment written by another reader a few days later:

 How is your answer to thegue's question different from "My mind's made up, don't confuse me with facts"?Asked by: steve161

And that, ladies and gentleman, got Mr. James going.

No idea in the world what that's in reference to. But I'll do my best to appreciate the instruction. . . . .... . .. . . . . . . . . . .Oh, I see what your problem is. I had proposed a theory about the population evaporation in small towns, and let us say that it was a novel theory; it's probably not a novel theory, it's probably a trite theory, but that's not the point; the query in question addressed it as if it were a novel theory, I think, so let's use that term. I offered a novel theory, and this gentleman suggested that this had to be wrong because migration patterns have been heavily studied. In saying this, of course, he had lapsed into the fundamental anti-intellectual argument, an argument which is ALWAYS invalid, and I was trying to point this out to him as gently as possible. . . . .. I remember my Grade School principal, who attended college just after World War I, told us that when he studied chemistry in college, his professor told the class that they were studying science at the right time, because all the important discoveries had been made now; everything important that was going to be known was known, now, so it was a good time to study science. He told us this, of course, to point out the absurdity of assuming that the search for knowledge is ever finished. . . .. . When Perry Miller was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, late 1920s, he told his advisor that he wanted to study the Puritans. The advisor told him that the Puritans had been studied to death, everything that could be known about them was already known, and he should choose some other subject to work on. He got a different advisor, and stuck with the Puritans. He spent most of his career studying the Puritans, and became one of the greatest historians of the 20th century. He had dozens of protégés over the years, and many of THEM spent THEIR careers studying the Puritans, and many of them went on to distinguished careers, studying the Puritans. . . .. .. Again, the inherent absurdity of suggesting that a field of knowledge is ever "finished". No field of knowledge is ever finished. The intellectual understands that, and accepts it. It's Black Letter Law. A college undergraduate in Physics is allowed to challenge Einstein--if he has argument to make. . . . .. .. It isn't that way, in the rest of the world, and I have spent my career battling this. . ..this turgid, anti-intellectual assumption that everything worth knowing is already known. The non-intellectual world assumes that knowledge is the property of experts, that people who are not experts are not allowed to challenge the experts, but can only learn from them. When I started writing about baseball, I was the undergraduate in Physics who was challenging Einstein; not Einstein, but Casey Stengel, Sparky Anderson, Dick Young and the Elias Charitable Foundation. In the minds of many people I HAD to be wrong, because these other people were the experts, and I hadn't even played the game, so of course I couldn't be right and the experts wrong. I still get the same argument today, in a different form; people will tell me that the advantage inherent in sabermetrics has played itself out now. Everybody knows these things, so the advantage that WAS there, in the Moneyball era, has evaporated. Same argument; everything is known now; shut up and let us go about our business. The gentleman had forgotten this Black Letter Law, and had lapsed into the assertion that I shouldn't offer a novel theory about this, because. . .well, this has been studied; everything worthwhile is known about it. I didn't want to bust his balls about it; I assumed that he would be embarrassed if I pointed out to him what he was saying, so I tried to say it in the gentlest way I could, saying that I would be surprised if any historian were to make that argument. . .. .. .... ...You, on the other hand, I will bust your balls. Pay more attention in class, kid. If you were half as smart as you think you are, I wouldn't have had to explain this to you.

Where do I begin?  In dealing with "Steve161", Mr. James threw me under a bus.  He called me an "anti-intellectual", and how he treated me with kid gloves in responding as he did, but since someone dare called him to task on it, he would speak his true feelings on the matter.  He didn't want to "bust my balls", but since Steve161 asked for it, he would.

I never intended to state my position as Mr. James read it, and I thought I would clarify my earlier statement with an addendum.  I wrote:

I’m sorry if I came off as curt and “anti-intellectual”, or suggested that you shouldn’t do any research concerning urban migration (2/17).  As a historian and a teacher, the last thing I would want to do was discourage any research whatsoever.  However, if a student of mine suggested an idea about a topic that they haven’t investigated, I would direct them to learn about that field.  If I were to write an article suggesting the offensive explosion of the 1990s was caused by the opening of the Arlington Ballpark due to what I witnessed as a season ticket holder of the Texas Rangers, I would hope you or someone in your field would direct me to learn about research already completed.
And that, in essence, was my point.  If I were going to theorize that the Earth was flat, shouldn't I learn more about the subject then just going by what I saw out my back window?  If I were going to step outside my comfort zone and make "novel" theories about quantum physics, shouldn't I know more about it, rather than make myself look like an ass by those in the field?  My example in baseball (his field) is spot on:  if I were a season-ticket holder with the Texas Rangers in 1994 (the season it opened), and had been the years before, wouldn't I have been shocked at the offensive explosion before my eyes?  What if I suggested years later, say, in 2014, that the reason for this boom in home runs, RBIs and the like took place because of one stadium?  Wouldn't someone suggest that I investigate a bit further before stating something so quaint?  (forgive for sounding a bit turgid on the matter)

He responded...and this is what he posted as my response.

I’m sorry if I came off as curt and “anti-intellectual”, or suggested that you shouldn’t do any research concerning urban migration (2/17). As a historian and a teacher, the last thing I would want to do was discourage any research whatsoever. However, if a student of mine suggested a theory about the abandonment of young people to metropolitan areas, I would suggest they learn about some of the research already done.Asked by: thegueAnswered: 3/3/2014
Mr. James left out the second half of my retort, which drives home the point...and leads directly into his previous argument, which he then reiterates:
Well, I'm sure you're a good teacher. It still sounds improper to me. In telling the student to study the previous research, are you, in essence, telling him to keep his mouth shut and hit the books? It would seem to me that it would be more productive to debate the merits of his idea, rather than attempting to enforce an academic hierarchy.
That's bullshit, but since it's his website, it's his rules, and God forbid should Mr. James look like an ass.  
So, I can't for the life of me call him "Bill" anymore.  Mr. King, you have some company...hopefully he doesn't look down upon you as he does others.