Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Jack Morris explains politics in this country

The baseball season is closing.  This means it's almost time for my favorite part of the baseball calendar.  My favorite time is the debate for the Hall of Fame.  But it's bittersweet, this year.  This is the last year that Jack Morris is on the Hall of Fame ballot.  The Hall of Fame argument for Jack Morris is a perfect example of political discussions in this country.

Eventually, the conclusion that you will have is Jack Morris, either, is or isn't a Hall of Famer.  Some people will end the argument there.  Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer.  Jack Morris is not a Hall of Famer.  They will conclude it there, without any supporting facts.  Relating this to politics, there are a number of people who essentially equate politics to that.  Republican = good, Republican = bad.  People may vote based on their gut reaction or a straight party ticket.  They may believe that the best governance comes from a particular political party.  Or they may be even less informed than that, they may believe that they can vote strictly on the name alone.  Let's call that true uninformed voting.

Another way of voting is single issue voting.  This, I believe, will become more popular if the two parties begin to converge on the middle as opposed to the left and right sides.  For Jack Morris, supporters will say their issue is that Morris led the major leagues in wins over an entire decade.  In politics, that issue could be same-sex marriage, abortion, no war, or whatever you would like it to be.

A popular theory among political scientists is that superficial things can change an election and affect who people vote for.  This could be something like Richard Nixon sweating on the televised debates with John F. Kennedy, which may have changed the election.  But nowadays, it is more likely to be the thought that a politician looks like a leader.  Or looks presidential.  Jack Morris supporters like to say that he "looked like a Hall of Famer."  This is essentially the same thing.  It's nonsense.  Although, with Barack Obama, we have an interesting case.  Because he is the first black President, white Americans are now reminded of their race every time that Obama is on television or in the news.  It becomes a racially charged event.  Politicians use code words to describe these racially charged events.  Attacks on him being a Muslim, the food stamp president, not being born here, etc. arguably stem from the fact that Obama is a black man in the Oval Office.  But oh well.

The clutch argument is pervasive in Morris supporters.  Morris was able to pitch great in Game 7, one of the greatest games ever.  Obviously, he, too, must be great enough to be in the Hall of Fame.  There are some voters who will vote based on who they think won a debate.  Despite this being remarkably stupid, because they are not really sure who won the debate.  See below.

The next is confirmation bias voting.  This is very common.  To explain it in a different way than usual, it is when you take your conclusion first and then find information to support that conclusion.  Usually, this is an unconscious bias of the brain.  If you think of a certain conclusion, then you naturally gravitate towards facts that support it.  What you should be doing is allowing the facts to inform or naturally decide your conclusion.  Let's take Jack Morris.  If we start with the conclusion that Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer, we see certain statistics and narratives that enforce their opinion.

Now the conversation begins to focus on things like he looked like a Hall of Famer, or he felt like one.  Obviously, that's an argument that seems absurd on its face.  He is a Hall of Famer because he felt like one? But say we want to focus on actual statistics or facts.  So, one of the ones if you believe Morris is a Hall of Famer is that he had the most wins of any pitcher during the 1980s.  This is true and can be presented as a fact.  But the win is a flawed statistic in its own right.  For any number of reasons.  It is definitely not enough to be an end-all argument about his merits for the Hall of Fame.  You would have to conclude that all pitchers who led their league in wins an accumulation of 10 years belong on the Hall of Fame.  Maybe you're willing to do that, but I assume you're only willing to do it with special pitchers.

The next argument is that he was the best pitcher on three World Series champion teams.  This one can be presented as fact, but ensures that any pitcher who you choose to be the best pitcher for three World Series teams is also a Hall of Famer, again, maybe.  But you also have to prove that he was the best pitcher.  He was probably 2nd or 3rd best in 1984 with the Detroit Tigers, 2nd or 3rd best in 1991 with the Minnesota Twins, and 3rd or 4th best with the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays.  Another argument is that he is a big game pitcher, as evidenced by Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.  But they conveniently forget the rest of his postseason numbers, where he did not pitch well, at all.

So, you selectively choose statistics that best show your conclusion.  If you've already decided that Morris is a Hall of Famer or you've already decided which party to support, you begin to look for positive statistics on your conclusion.  But just as important, for confirmation bias voters, you begin to refute any negative information about your conclusion.

With Jack Morris, it's easy, his career ERA is 3.90 and ERA+ is 105.  To explain, ERA+, it compares a players ERA to league average for a season or a career, with 100 being average.  Morris's ERA+ is 105, which means he was 5% better than average at preventing runs.  So, if you believe that Morris is a Hall of Famer then you have to explain why Morris was not very good at preventing runs.  So, the theory of pitching to the score came about.  The theory is simple, Morris would pitch to contact and generally pitch worse when his team was ahead by more runs to save his arm for the important games.  Consequently, Morris gave up a lot of runs but they were of no consequence.  Of course, this theory has largely been refuted.  So then supporters of Morris dig in deeper, they then say that if you just exclude his last two seasons, then you'll see that his ERA isn't all that terrible.  But that changes the pitching to the score argument.  Consistency is not guaranteed with confirmation bias.

So, attempting to refute or ignore negative information may provide you with inconsistencies.  But your conclusion is still around.  You still believe that you should vote a certain way even if someone shows you the flaw.  You begin to say that things have bias or do not tell the whole story.  After all, your defensive bias begins to kick in and you begin to merely shutdown.  That's confirmation bias voting.  It's very popular.  It is the way the majority of people vote.

Think about most of your friends who post things on Facebook about politics.  When you try to refute their claims, are they willing to actually read or learn or do they dismiss it out of hand because of perceived bias?  The fact is, most people are not willing to take that next step to actually learn about issues but would rather read articles or stories reinforcing an already entrenched worldview.  Real learning and real discussion takes place when you're allowing evidence that is hostile to your worldview in.

That's the type of voting we should have.  We should take in as much information as possible.  We should allow the information dictate our conclusion.  Instead of the other way around.  For baseball, you should look at wins, innings pitched, home runs allowed, Wins Above Replacement, how he did against his peers, how he compares, postseason play, all of it.  For politics, we absolutely need to take in as much information as possible and allow it to inform instead of persuade.  But that's a pipe dream.

And Jack Morris is not a Hall of Famer.  


  1. If it's a pipe dream that people will inform themselves and vote based on facts alone, and, as you write in your previous post, huge portions of the voting population believe conspiracy theories, why do you want to increase voter participation? Shouldn't you want to discourage these people from voting?

  2. Rational choice theory would suggest I should discourage other people from voting. In fact, all informed voters should discourage uninformed voters from voting. Rational choice theory also suggests that you shouldn't vote. You are not likely to influence an election. You are way more likely to die in a car accident than you are to influence an election.

    But people who vote are more likely to have political discussions or do research and vice versa. We'll never have a fully participatory or fully informed electorate. But we can improve. Just because a majority of people will engage in confirmation bias voting, as I call it above, doesn't mean that some of the people who are newly informed won't actually vote based on facts.

    But as to why I think it is important? With more people even being marginally more informed, maybe they'll find new politicians who will do a better job representing them. Maybe they'll find a new issue or cause to support.

    It will get frustrating, sure, as people believe some ridiculous claims but they may also introduce us to new ideas or claims that were ignored before. They may vote for a ridiculous person but if enough people vote for that person, whatever issue that they represent may become salient.

    We have real world examples of this, such as 1992 with Ross Perot bringing up trade and in 1996 with NAFTA. Issues that were not on the table to begin with. Or a more recent one would be in 2008 where healthcare became a large issue in the Democratic primary debates.

    I got kind of rambly but that is my answer.