I've been in Chicago visiting Joannie and Mike, and so I haven't been online much the past several days. Since I work on my computer so many hours out of each day (writing, editing, surfing, blogging, and lately, trying to learn linear editing software), vacations often feel like extended departures from the computer as much as they are departures from home. Laptops, an ever-widening net of wi-fi, and the seemingly ubiquitous Internet access in homes around the U.S. mean that I don't have to make such a tradeoff, but I do out of choice. Occasionally broadening the frame of the world beyond the confines of your LCD computer screen is relaxing, a break from information consumption/production compulsion.
I did want to mention and tout one book, though, a book I've mentioned before: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by famed economist Steven Levitt and reporter Stephen Dubner. A representative from Harper Collins was kind enough to send me a galley, and I've been up since three in the morning and have just finished devouring it. It is the logical successor to the Guns, Germs, and Steel --> The Tipping Point --> The Wisdom of Crowds --> Blink daisy chain of thought-provoking page-turners. For fans of Levitt who've always had to read about his work secondhand through articles, the arrival of the book is like finally sitting down in a theater to watch a blockbuster movie for which they've watched tantalizing movie trailers for months on end. The book doesn't disappoint; I found myself pulling out my moleskine notebook to jot down notes and thoughts as I read through it, something I rarely do with a book. His studies of cheating in sports like sumo wrestling are particularly relevant right now in the wake of all the steroids investigations in baseball. I'll post a review once I'm back in NYC from my vacation.
The official Freakonomics website is a work in progress consisting only of a front page for now. By the time the book arrives in April, I'm sure it will be populated with content.
Speaking of reading about interesting ideas secondhand, Salon's sports columnist wrote Thursday about a Bill James article in the Baseball Research Journal No. 33 that concludes: The absence of stats that prove clutch hitting ability exists doesn't mean clutch hitting ability doesn't exist.
On the face of it, not a particularly earth-shattering conclusion. It should raise the eyebrows of devotees of Baseball Prospectus and the sabermetric schools of thought, however, because they've conducted many studies attempting to detect clutch hitting and found no evidence that clutch hitting is a repeatable skill. The usual study tracks a hitter's hitting statistics with runners in scoring position and/or in late-inning high leverage situations (e.g. postseason games) over several years. High variability in such statistics from year to year (or the statistician's inability to accurately forecast those stats from year to year) has often been taken as proof that clutch hitting is a myth, an urban legend.
I don't have a copy of James's article, but the Salon article excerpts the following:
"We ran astray because we have been assuming that random data is proof of nothingness, when in reality random data proves nothing," James writes of his own and others' studies. He cites a famous article about clutch hitting by Dick Cramer. "Cramer argued, 'I did an analysis which should have identified clutch hitters, if clutch hitting exists. I got random data; therefore, clutch hitters don't exist.'"
James pronounces himself guilty of the same thing, many times. But: "Random data proves nothing -- and it cannot be used as proof of nothingness. Why? Because whenever you do a study, if your study completely fails, you will get random data. Therefore, when you get random data, all you may conclude is that your study has failed."
James doesn't go so far as to say clutch hitting exists, only that he's no longer certain it doesn't exist. Drop clutch hitting in that category of phenomena you believe in but can't measure; thus the common comparisons to religion.
One example of this that I subscribe to is the phenomenon of hitters getting hot and cold. Analysts have often described a series of at-bats by a hitter as a series of coin flips. Hot streaks are merely stretches where many hits occur, but each new at-bat is a new coin flip. When I played Little League Baseball, however, I experienced what hitters commonly describe as periods when the baseball appeared to travel slower and to grow in size, when I could center the ball on my bat with unusual frequency. Conversely, I went through phases where I couldn't make good contact or feel comfortable at the plate at all. This was something I could actually physically feel.
Was my feeling of invincibility at the plate a product of a few chance hits strung together or did some physical change occur that allowed me to hit well for a period of time? The former seems more likely, especially since I don't have even the slightest hypothesis as to what physical changes might have caused me to hit better. It's also entirely possible that some other unidentified factor(s) may have been in play. However, ask any athlete who can't miss a jump shot or golfer who shoots a fabled round of 59 because their putter is on fire, and I suspect they'd profess a belief in hot streaks.
If someone discovers a copy of James's article online, do pass along a link!
One last link to some non-conventional thinking: in today's NYTimes Sunday magazine, Roger Lowenstein writes about David Cutler's proposal for health care reform. One line in the article caught my eye:
Cutler wrote a still cited dissertation on how changes in Medicare's compensation scheme caused hospitals to release patients after shorter stays. It proved, Cutler says, that doctors were incredibly and, in some cases, ''horribly,'' responsive to incentives.
It caught my eye because Steven Levitt bases much of his thinking on incentives, and since reading Freakonomics I've been thinking about everything in those terms. Two myths I've been guilty of believing are that doctors are sacrosanct, immune to human foibles, and that all doctors are equal. Something in my childhood education or my cultural environment fostered that belief in me, and it wasn't until I became an adult and experienced some distressingly horrible health care that the mystique around doctors evaporated (that's not a knock on doctors, of which there are many in my family; no one needs the unhealthy expectations that come from mythologizing, and good doctors probably deserve more credit than they receive).
Doctors are humans, health care is not uniform in quality. Not surprising at all. Replace doctors and health care in that sentence with any other profession, and I would have agreed with you all my life, yet doctors got a free pass in my book for years. Very odd. Perhaps movies and books present doctors in an overwhelmingly positive light, and perhaps there's a lack of data (or publicized data) on the variability of the quality of health care.
David Cutler's CV links to many of his papers and articles. Another related article: "The Bell Curve" by Atul Gawande, about measuring the quality of doctors.