SABERMETRICS , ECONOMICS, AND THE PROBLEM OF UNQUANTIFIABLE VALUE
There is nothing more pragmatic than quantification. Numbers tell us things that are remarkably specific. Because of this, they are remarkably alluring. It is tempting to state the value of all things numerically or to be able to make an argument using a percentage. In this sense, one could even argue that statistics represent an extreme form of pragmatism. But, as American culture has become increasingly concerned with numerical values (in economics, government, education, and many other areas), we have increasingly risked losing sight of important benefits that can be seen, but not measured.
The German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers once argued that pragmatism was an enemy of modern philosophy. Nevertheless, one can’t deny the importance of taking a pragmatic approach to life. Jaspers himself was a professor of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, presumably because he liked to eat, be clothed, and have a place to live. So, I’d like to begin by saying that I am a big fan of pragmatism. I exercise it every day without fail. Nevertheless, Jaspers’s point is well taken. Sometimes, we benefit in very real ways by leading with our hearts, rather than our heads. So, this article will argue not against pragmatism, but in favor of supplementing it with a broader approach to viewing the world we live in.
One area in American life that seems to have become obsessed with statistics is our national pastime. Baseball has long been concerned with numerical measures of success (for proof, just look at the back of any baseball card), but this concern has grown exponentially in recent decades. It was ratcheted up to its current level in large part by Billy Beane’s book Moneyball (later adapted into a film starring Brad Pitt), which described the way the Beane, the manager for the Oakland Athletics, assessed the value of players using a host of previously unused statistics. He was able to find value in players that were otherwise forgotten or cast aside by other teams. Beane’s teams performed remarkably well and his statistical approach (or some variation of it) was adopted by many other teams. Any sports fan in the 1970s (prior to this hyperstatistical way of thinking) probably could have explained the notion of batting average or runs batted in. Today, on the other hand, we are inundated with new statistics: OBP, OPS, SLG, WAR, etc. And those are only batting statistics. There are also lists of statistics that measure pitching, fielding, base running, and overall player value.
This method of assessment has become widely used and highly successful in baseball and has permeated other sports, as well. Peter Keating, writing for ESPN the Magazine, notes this trend among professional sports franchises in Boston, Massachusetts . Keating writes that “the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics have become sabermetric pioneers in their leagues. By doing so, they have gained advantages on the field, in the war room and at the gate, helping Boston claim seven titles and 29 playoff berths since 2001.” Interestingly, the success of the most recent Red Sox season (in which they won the World Series) was not predicted. The Red Sox’s internal pre-season statistical projections showed that the team would win 86 games in the regular season. They won 97. The winning percentage for 86 out of 162 games is just over 53%; for 97 out of 162, it is just under 60%. (Imagine the jump in stock prices that would be experienced by a company that achieved productivity that was 7 points higher than projected.) It is possible that the Red Sox’s internal math was flawed. But I would argue, as others have, that a significant portion of their increased success can be attributed to team chemistry–an unquantifiable commodity. Many players on the team performed above expectations. This could be a wild coincidence, but I think we need to admit that, while numbers tell us a lot, they don’t tell us everything that we need to know. Sports analysts know this well, which is borne out by the language that they use. Turn on sports radio and you will regularly hear terms like “intangibles” used to describe the beneficial aspects of a player that are not numerically measurable.
The above example takes place in the world of sports, which lends itself to statistical analysis. Now imagine the difficulty of assessing specific value in the arts. Recently, Joanne Lipman wrote an article for the New York Times titled, “Is Music the Key to Success?” . She cites a profusion of economically and culturally successful individuals from film directors to business executives to government officials, all of whom studied music seriously and many of whom continue to make music. The article does an excellent job of describing music’s benefits in the lives of its subjects. Benefits that are observable, but not directly measurable. Lipman writes quotes Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft), who notes that music “reinforces your confidence in the ability to create.” She cites Chuck Todd’s assertion that music instills a “drive for perfection.” She also cites former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn’s observation that music “helped him to understand ‘the culture of people, as distinct from their balance sheet.'” Ironically, she talked to Alan Greenspan (a noted number-cruncher), who says of the correlation between music and success that “I can tell you as a statistician, the probability that that is mere chance is extremely small.” But he also acknowledges that, beyond an assessment of probability, statistics cannot tell us much about why there is a correlation. Nor can it quantify the value of this correlation.
I think the most important of the above benefits is increased creativity. Clearly, there are benefits to being creative that are very real, but impossible to measure. Even if we correlate economic success with creativity, questions of measurement abound: To what extent is creativity directly responsible for this success? Is one’s creativity-level directly attributable to artistic study? Is this caused by nature, rather than nurture? And so on. It’s important for us to remember that something that has a real impact can nevertheless be immeasurable (at least in a numerical/statistical sense). I argue that American society has become overly concerned with quantifiable value. One need look no further than our federal education standards to find egregious examples of over-reliance on statistics. These standards assume the universal numerical measurability of the academic success of our children–a deeply problematic assumption indeed (but that is another article).
Joanne Lipman has demonstrated the benefits of musical study without quantifying them. These benefits resist standardization and statistical assessment, so they are often ignored. Yet, they are still profoundly important. We should not ignore them simply because we do not want to take the time to try to understand their intrinsic but unquantifiable value. If we fail to take the time, that is, frankly, lazy. And what message does that send?
1. Sabermetrics (from the acronym SABR, referring to the Society for American Baseball Research) is a term that describes the collection and analysis of baseball statistics. For more on sabermetrics, see http://seanlahman.com/baseball-archive/sabermetrics/sabermetric-manifesto/.