Friday, January 27, 2012

Is reason taking a beating?

Last night I watched the latest episode of Real Sports on HBO.  They had a segment in the spirit of Moneyball called Between the Numbers.  It was about a high school football coach in Arkansas at a private school, Pulaski Academy, who based on looking at data has abandoned punting the ball on fourth down.  Further after his team scores a touchdown, they always go for an onside kick.  In a recent playoff game they scored 29 points before the other team got possession of the ball!

During this segment they also had a bit with a University of Chicago economist doing Freakonomics work (it wasn't Steven Levitt).  He said that in the pros, going for it on fourth down made sense when the ball was between the two forty yard line markers, even if it was fourth and eight.  Coaches almost always punt in this case unless it is very late in the game or if they only have a yard to go.  Punting is sub-optimal in this case.

They had a different segment, this one with Sean Payton, who is famous for going for the onside kick when the Saints were in the Super Bowl.  Payton said, the pros were a lot different than high school.  Agreed.  But surely, Payton goes by the numbers, doesn't he?  Not according to this segment. Payton goes with his gut.  And the gut is too cautious in most cases.

Back to high school.  One idea that seems to make sense for the opposing teams that Pulaski Academy plays, is that the player are sufficiently immature and inexperienced that they will wilt under pressure.  So Pulaski's strategy seems geared at putting pressure on the other team and taking pressure off its team.  They don't field punts, because a muff or a fumble appear too likely.

Given the recent success of Pulaski Academy, you might think that coaches at other schools would also embrace the approach.  Know how many have done so?  None.

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On the NewsHour yesterday the concluding segment was an interview with Thomas Edsall, who had been a journalist and is now on the faculty at Columbia University.  He has a new book, The Age of Austerity:  How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics.  The thesis is that at present and in the future politics will be about playing a zero-sum game (possibly a negative-sum game).  Republicans/Conservatives are disposed to play this game better than Democrats/Liberals.  The former don't care so much about the overall, in particular whether there are losers, so long as they are winners.  The latter do care about the overall and about fairness.

In an economy that is growing, the Democrat/Liberal approach can work.  But in a zero sum world, there will be losers.  If they proceed as if it is otherwise, it will be they who are the losers.  President Obama seems to have learned this lesson, but only painfully and after several attempts at bipartisan solutions that went nowhere.

Once it is acknowledged that it is perfectly acceptable to fight rather than negotiate, then demagoguery becomes an acceptable tactic and paying attention to facts more a burden than an obligation. Among the current candidates for President, Newt Gingrich is the master of demagoguery.  He appears to be in a dead heat with Romney and his supporters are far more exuberant.

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I don't know what the politics of Phil Knight are.  Knight is the CEO and co-founder of Nike.   He is also a Penn State alumnus and he spoke at the Memorial Service for Joe Paterno, getting a standing ovation from the crowd for saying that Paterno had done the right thing in the Sandusky matter and that the blame lay elsewhere.  What Knight shares with Gingrich is not politics, but rather knowing how to rouse an angry audience. 

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In the book, What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain teaches us that students don't know what to do when they confront evidence that contradicts their prior held world view.  Perhaps it is surprising to learn that the initial student reaction is to deny the evidence.  The world view has sanctity and deep down the student wants to preserve it.  The excellent teacher understands the tension the student is under.  With patience and persistence, the instructor nudges the student to reconsider his position.  It would be good for that position to account for the evidence that is observed.  Of course, in this case Bain is referring to an academic matter.  When looking at circular motion the students are apt to have an Aristotelian view.  A Newtonian perspective appears unnatural.  There is a getting used to period necessary to take on the new perspective.  There is leadership in helping students make the transition.

One might hope that having had such a lesson in college adults would then be open to the possibility that their perspective needs to change when the evidence implies a contradiction with a prior held view.  Instead, it seems, for many of us our beliefs harden and evidence to the contrary gets ignored.   Leadership has taken a holiday.  Pandering becomes the order of the day.

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