Thursday, August 18, 2016

Skeptical Worry

Discrete Events and Narrative Lives (Part 2)

            Sabermatricians know that Allen Average’s success in his first three at-bats today says nothing about his chances of success in his next at-bat.  Therefore, they are deeply skeptical about many explicit or implicit narratives we often hear about baseball players:
“Bobby Bewildering has a career .290 average against left-handed pitchers, but for the last week he’s 1 for 14 against them.  His manager will be second-guessed for leaving him in the game to face Lefty Lou in this crucial situation…”
“Pre-season prognosticators pegged Our Town Heroes as a sub .500 team, but the Heroes are in the thick of the pennant race.  Baseball analysts don’t know what to say about the Heroes’ success.  More and more of them are adopting outfielder Cam Comstock’s notion that knowing when to hit is as important as knowing how to hit.”
Now, it may be true that Bobby Bewildering has hit lefties poorly for a week.  It may be true that the Heroes have been clustering their hits and producing more runs than one would otherwise expect—and they may have been doing this for three or four months.  These are facts about the past.  But these facts do not imply that Mr. Bewildering will continue to struggle against lefties or that Our Town Heroes are likely to continue clustering their hits. 
As I say, then, Sabermatricians are skeptical of narratives.  They do not believe in “grit” or “team chemistry” or “momentum.”  They do believe in luck, in the sense that an inferior team can beat a better team on any particular day.  After all, terrible teams win a third of their games and truly great teams still lose a third of the time.  In the course of a long season, the eventual champion team will have lost games to the worst team in the league.  At some point in the season, a really bad team will win four or five in a row; that does not mean they have “turned their season around.”
Many Sabermatricians would agree: When it comes to predicting the future, narrative doesn’t matter; talent does. 
There is an obvious limitation or exception to that slogan, well known to Sabermatricians.  Talent changes over time.  Young players tend to get better as their bodies mature and they practice their skills.  Old players’ talent tends to regress; inevitably a time will come when they are no longer able to play at an elite level.  It is a player or team’s true talent that determines the probability of success in any discrete event, but talent does increase and decrease over time.
I muse about baseball and discrete events not merely to indulge my inner baseball fan.  The Sabermatricians’ skepticism about narratives connects with questions in philosophy.  It turns out that narrative is a contentious and mysterious thing.  Here’s a quote from Louis Mink that points to some of the issues:

Stories are not lived but told.  Life has no beginnings, middles, or ends; there are meetings, but the start of an affair belongs to the story we tell ourselves later, and there are partings, but final partings only in the story. … Only in the story is it America which Columbus discovers and only in the story is the kingdom lost for want of a nail. (1970)

I said in part 1 of this essay that we live narratives.  Of course, I also pointed out that in doing so we often deceive ourselves.  The probability of discreet events seems immune to the stories we tell ourselves.  Along comes Mink, saying that we do not live stories; rather, we tell stories.  Perhaps the greatest self-deception is that we explain ourselves to ourselves by telling stories about ourselves.
Are the stories we tell about ourselves accurate?  Plenty of psychological research answers: Not very.
When people tells stories about the past, including stories about their own past, they tend to emphasize some parts and neglect other parts.  In extreme cases some people may repress painful memories or invent episodes wholesale.  Much more often, the storyteller simply fills in the parts he doesn’t remember with plausible details.  He may dwell on the humorous or scary or disgusting elements of the story because these parts fit the point of the story.  Over time, when storytellers tell their story repeatedly, the story gets standardized; the teller uses almost exactly the same words over and over.  This doesn’t mean the story is accurate; it only means it has been reduced to a formula.
A worry begins to emerge.  Call it the skeptical worry, parallel to the Sabermatricians skepticism about baseball narratives.  “Look,” the worry says, “People don’t remember their past accurately.  Most of us have only fragmentary memories of any part of our lives.  It could not be otherwise.  Thousands of seemingly important things happened to us when we were x years old, but we don’t remember most of them.  And psychological research shows that those we do remember have probably been warped by the ways we have told them.  Therefore, the stories we tell about ourselves ought to be regarded as fictions.”
We must admit the skeptical worry gets lots of things right.  Our memories fail us.  The stories we tell ourselves can mislead us about the future, and they may misrepresent the past.  Nevertheless, I reject the skeptical worry.  I will begin explaining why I reject it next week.

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