November 18, 2009

Philosophizing via phootball

In my Wednesday Taki's Magazine column, I use a popular football argument to explain the philosophy behind why my punditry is so off-kilter from everybody else's.

Last Sunday evening, while watching the final minutes of the now famous Indianapolis Colts - New England Patriots football game, I experienced a moment of middle-aged serenity. I realized that I didn’t actually need to have an opinion on perhaps the leading topic of office water cooler debate in this decade: Which quarterback is better—the Colt’s Peyton Manning or the Patriot’s Tom Brady?

I could just sit back and enjoy the show.

The everlasting Brady-Manning controversy reminded me of an epistemological insight that Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker suggested when I interviewed him in 2002 during his book tour for his bestseller The Blank Slate. It didn’t fully register upon me at the time, but what has stuck with me the longest is Pinker’s concept that “mental effort seems to be engaged most with the knife edge at which one finds extreme and radically different consequences with each outcome, but the considerations militating towards each one are close to equal.”

To put it another way, the things that we most like to argue about are those that are most inherently arguable, such as: Who would win in a fight, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?...

Read the rest here and comment upon it below.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

31 comments:

dearieme said...

I was taught long ago that you need lose no sleep over a 50:50 decision - whichever you choose is right. But you must learn to recognise the 60:40 decisions - they are important and, happily, they are dead easy. That's one reason why I've always grinned when some oaf complains of his burden of responsibility.

Anonymous said...

Completely OT, but it came to my attention yesterday that FeministX is a Half Sigma hoax.

Guys, it just is.

I hope he quickly fesses up as I can't wait to get the synopsis.
Why Gamers? What was the purpose of making her a kinky bi-sexual? I bet it will turn out to be much more interesting than Libertarian Girl and Liberal Abigail.

I'm not holding my breath, too much. FeministX just added "Bitch PhD" to the blogroll as of this typing, but hadn't written the summary. I guess he is desperately trying to keep it going.

Anonymous said...

+385 means 3.85:1

Peter A said...

last year’s best teams get this year’s hardest schedules

For whatever reason sports commentators want to believe this, and the NFL pays lip service to that idea, but it actually isn't true. Half your schedule consists of your division rivals year after year, and doesn't change. You are also locked into a fixed schedule against other divisional opponents that is set years into the future. Winning the Superbowl causes a swing of maybe 1 or two games. Look at Pittsburgh's schedule this year. It's a cakewalk - they get to play the mediocre NFC North, which includes Detroit, the mediocre Bears and the inconsistent Packers. Then they get to play the AFC West - facing monsters like KC and Oakland. In fact according to ESPN (http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/draft09/news/story?id=4027503) the Superbowl Champions have the 4th easisest schedule in the league! The Patriots, as a reward for not making the playoffs last year got the 3rd hardest, and the Dolphins, for no reason at all have the hardest.

TH said...

Completely OT, but it came to my attention yesterday that FeministX is a Half Sigma hoax.

Based on what? The FeministX character is really weird, but where's the smoking gun? Interestingly, I remember she said that she had talked with HS on phone.

Where do her nudie pics come from? Some brave soul should browse through desi porn sites for evidence;)

Anonymous said...

This article sure struck a resonant chord for me. I'm in the middle of trying to select a private school for my kid and as far as I can tell, they're all about the same, with tiny differences like no-trash lunch on Tuesday vs jump rope club on Thursdays. What I need to know is the average ERB and SAT scores of their students, not the text book being used in 3rd grade math, but such useful info is unavailable.

pat said...

Sailer ".... leads me to a betting site that says the New Orleans Saints are +360, while the Indianapolis Colts are +385. (I don’t even know what those numbers are supposed to mean.)"

If I were to make a wager on the Saints to win the Super Bowl, I would have to give a Las Vegas sports book teller $360.00. If the Saints win, I receive $100.00, plus my original ante of $360.00. If the Saints lose, I obviously do not get back my $360.00.

teacher.paris said...

http://barackobamaforpm.blogspot.com/2008/09/its-not-just-wardrobe-its-new-day-in.html

robert61 said...

I would be seriously impressed if Half Sigma were FeministX. He's good, but if he were really doing her, he'd be a force to be reckoned with.

Ryan Leaf appears to have substance-abuse problems. Maybe these are just post-flameout aftereffects, but I'm going to go ahead and guess that they are genetically mediated and are close to the core of his character. Maybe in a few years, an addiction-medicine specialist will be able to predict a future Ryan Leaf's career more accurately than the people weighing the actual Leaf against Peyton Manning could - and intervene to improve it.

Dahlia said...

Hey Steve,
If FeministX is credible as a hoax, it's a huge story (I remember when "Libertarian Girl" broke; it was a story featured everywhere on the Conservative net) and probably needs its own thread so as not to detract from this one.

Anonymous said...

"I would be seriously impressed if Half Sigma were FeministX. He's good, but if he were really doing her, he'd be a force to be reckoned with.

And if he was REALLY really doing her, I would be even more impressed.

robert61 said...

And if he was REALLY really doing her, I would be even more impressed.

That's what Don and Mike used to call a brutal layup.

DCThrowback said...

Pat, you got it backwards.

+350 means you lay $100 to win $350 that the Saints will win.

-350 means you have to lay $350 to win $100.

Steve, nice Krusty pull. "He's just standing there spinning the ball! Take it from him!"

rob said...

Both femX and Half Sigma have commented here. If Steve has blogspot-stored IP adresses, he could know.

Cordelia said...

"Who will win the Super Bowl?"

Who cares!

Eric Rasmusen said...

A perhaps related idea: it takes less intelligence to be a good Supreme Court judge than to be a lower-court judge because only the 50-50 cases reach the Supreme Court and it's harder to make a big mistake.

Anthony said...

If feministx is a hoax, that's awesome timing, as Marginal Revolution just linked to her.

CJ said...

Robert61:

Ryan Leaf brain type

Anonymous said...

"This article sure struck a resonant chord for me. I'm in the middle of trying to select a private school for my kid and as far as I can tell, they're all about the same, with tiny differences like no-trash lunch on Tuesday vs jump rope club on Thursdays."

I have an even better example -- I am in the process of planning my wedding and going through the 8000 options one has to choose from before the big day. To protect my wife's feelings I pretend to be considering the options but mentally I do a little dice throw, since ultimately nothing rides on them and they are very similar. But I can see how people who obsess over 50/50 choices would get frustrated and turn into bridezillas. I did flat out tell the chef I don't know or care about French sauces and just pick one that works. (I am the groom.)

John Seiler said...

1. "On the other hand, scientific knowledge is that which tends to become increasingly less arguable (which might help explain why Nielsen ratings are higher for football games than for chemistry documentaries)."

But even if you found a controversial chemistry subject, your contest among chem eggheads still wouldn't attract any girl cheerleaders.

2. Picking Manning over Leaf was obvious because of Peyton's pedigree. Having Archie as a father didn't guarantee success, but made it more likely -- and more likely he would get better coaching than Leaf in handling the stress of NFL stardom.

John Seiler said...

"This article sure struck a resonant chord for me. I'm in the middle of trying to select a private school for my kid and as far as I can tell, they're all about the same...."

Unfortunately, that's because almost all of them now mimic the government schools, especially concerning state standards mandated by Bush's No Child Left Behind federal takeover. Almost every school, public, private, or parochial, now "teaches to the test."

Instead of independent minds growing into to future Newtons, Shakespeares, and Beethovens, we're indoctrinating P.C. Mandarins.

Middletown Girl said...

I'm not sure if pro sports are popular because it's difficult to predict winners and losers--as competitors tend to be more or less evenly matched. In the 70s, Steelers dominated, winning 4 Superbowls, but football was very popular. In the 80s or the 90s, 49ers dominated many seasons, but football was no less popular. Chicago won 6 championships in the 90s but that made basketball and the Chicago Bulls more popular than ever.

People love professional wrestling though it's pretty easy to predict which macho dude will win--plus the fact that it's all fake.
Joe Louis dominated the Heavy Weight division for nearly a decade and a half but generated much excitement--though he beat one 'bum' after another.

And, people love to watch movies where good guy superhero types predictably win over and over and over. Who wants to see 007 or Dirty Harry lose? We want badass villians, but we go to the movies because they give us what we wanna see--OUR guys win.

In the 40s and 50s, NY Yankees won the World Series yr after yr, but baseball was still THE National Pastime.
Of course, it would be no fun if a great team or athlete competed with total mediocrites; we do expect the best to compete against the best. But, we aren't bothered by the superbest winning time and again. Indeed, we come to expect and enjoy a certain continuity. We become fans of certain stars or athletes and would feel let down if they finally lost. Muhammad Ali fans were certainly upset when he lost to Larry Holmes in 1980.

Middletown Girl said...

“mental effort seems to be engaged most with the knife edge at which one finds extreme and radically different consequences with each outcome, but the considerations militating towards each one are close to equal.”

To put it another way, the things that we most like to argue about are those that are most inherently arguable, such as: Who would win in a fight, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? -- Sailer

---------------

Isn't Pinker saying that the most furious debates are ones concerning a single destination with many potential pathways? If you wanted to get to the land of Oz and there was only the Yellow Brick Road, there would be no need to argue. But, suppose there's the yellow brick road, silver brick road, gold brick road, diamond brick road, platinum brick road, and many other roads--each one offering itself as the BEST or ONLY road to Oz. In that case, everyone would have the same destination in mind but would adamantly argue for his proposed path.

If there were various roads and if each person wanted to go to a separate destination, there would be little need for argue. Yellow road will take you to Oz, Gold to Chicago, Silver to NY, Diamond to Dallas, etc.

So, where there is a common or single goal but several or many ways of attaining it, there's likely to be the hottest debate.

Think of "Night of the Living Dead". Everyone in the house has one objective: survival from Zombie attack. But, Archie wants to hide in the cellar, Lionel wants to stay upstairs, and the young couple want to fill up the truck and drive to safety. So, a lot of tension builds up.

Or take the final days of WWII. Some were hotly for using the atomic bomb, some were hotly against it and proposed 'better' ideas. But, all wanted to win the war--shared objective.

Of course, some goals(like getting the best email system for the company) are shared by contentious participants whereas some goals are fought for by ruthless competitors. In NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the goal was for everyone to survive; they just disagreed on the means.
In football, the objective is for ONLY ONE TEAM to win the championship. It's more like a bunch of guys with the same objective: winning the heart of a beautiful girl. Victory cannot be shared. Only one can win.

Acilius said...

"Isn't Pinker saying that the most furious debates are ones concerning a single destination with many potential pathways?"

I'm not sure that's precisely it. It sounds like Pinker's saying that the most furious debates are those concerning systems where small differences in input result in large differences in output. So let's take a Steve-ish example and say two athletes have a physical difference that means one of them can run ten meters in, on average, a tenth of a second less than the other. If they're facing each other in most sports at most levels, that difference might not have any noticeable consequences. If they're running the 400 meters in the Olympics, even the most casual observer will notice it.

That seems to be the case with competition generally. The more intense the competition, the bigger the differences in output relative to the differences in input.

David said...

> it takes less intelligence to be a good Supreme Court judge than to be a lower-court judge because only the 50-50 cases reach the Supreme Court and it's harder to make a big mistake. <

So much less that they often do make big mistakes. The office has bred its own inepts.

Anonymous said...

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
[from Hero and Leander]

It lies not in our power to love, or hate,
For will in us is over-rulde by fate.
When two are stript long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win.
And one especially doo we affect,
Of two gold Ingots like in each respect,
The reason no man knowes, let it suffise,
What we behold is censur'd by our eyes.
Where both deliberat, the love is slight,
Who ever lov'd, that lov'd not at first sight.


Anonymous here. The above appears to me to be, among other things, a gloss on "the heart has reasons of its own," to which the conscious, decision making mind (Marlowe's "will") is not privy.

Taking the case "Of two gold Ingots like in each respect" [Manning, Brady?], when the heart, for reasons of its own, makes a choice between the two, the mind, to reconcile itself to that choice, rationalizes. Someone else comes along and they choose the other. So now the mind must not only rationalize the choice to itself, but also to this other mind, and vice versa. Thus, the paradox of lively argument over two equals.

Whether such argument is interesting, and therefore pleasurable, I don't know. It is certainly human.

Sometimes it turns out that one of the ingots was not actually real gold but, say, fool's gold [Ryan Leaf?], and the surviving, not disqualified rationalization claims for itself mental acumen. But what has really happened is that one heart has been broken and the other hasn't.

Whether the above thoughts have anything to do with this article, I don't know, as I didn't understand much of it. Especially incomprehensible to me was the Pinker quote containing "militating towards." What that phrase can possibly mean is beyond me, let alone all that "mental effort...engaging...the knife edge" and so on. As David Stove would say, "one hardly knows where to look."

Too bad, because Pinker's statment concering art & science & reality & sentiment is so clear and precise. One concludes that, on that subject, he knows what he is talking about.

Middletown Girl said...

Gladwell dismisses Sailer as someone claiming that blacks generally have lower IQ than whites but respects Pinker though Pinker has written a long-ish article in the New Republic accepting the premise that Jews have higher intelligence than gentiles.

Where is the consistency? Why is it not okay for Sailer to discuss racial differences but it's okay for Pinker? I guess saying that Jews are smarter than whites is just more PC than saying whites are smarter than blacks.
Also, since Pinker is a Jewish liberal of sorts, his views are seen as merely as scientific whereas Sailer's views are seen essentially as ideological.

john said...

Well, I'm older than Steve and care even less about football(and a lot of other things) but Manning is better. He doesn't have nearly as good a team around him. His receivers apparently can't catch a cold (even in Baahstin) and he really runs that offense. Plays radioed in to him are merely suggestions--the real call comes when he is at the LOS and analyzes the defence.

He was lucky to have won that game, but it says volumes that he kept it close for 58.5 minutes.

josh said...

Good article except for the fact that Manning really ought to be regarded as inarguably better than Brady. I think people are interested in this because of underlying philosophical differences, not because its a close call.

OhioStater said...

Brady has picture perfect throwing mechanics and a stronger arm, but he learned the no-huddle offense from Peyton Manning.

Middletown Girl said...

“mental effort seems to be engaged most with the knife edge at which one finds extreme and radically different consequences with each outcome, but the considerations militating towards each one are close to equal.”

----------

I was reading a book on the Long March recently, and Pinker's idea came to mind. At one point during the march, Mao and some guy named Zhang Guo-tao disagreed on what path to take. They were all commies and shared the same considerations and objectives: to flee from the nationalists and find safe haven. But, Mao said 'go this way' and Zhang said 'go that way'. The two sides, though commies, nearly came to blows. Eventually Mao went one way, Zhang went another. Mao eventually arrived at a place called Yenan and set up safe haven first. Zhang arrived a few weeks later. Those few weeks made all the difference, giving Mao just enough time to set himself up as the supreme leader of the communist leader. What would the outcome of 20th century history have been if Zhang had arrived first and established himself as the premier leader of the communist movement?
"Considerations militating" were close to equal but the outcome--Mao or Zhang--would have been 'radically' different.

I wonder if the same could be said for Stalin vs Trotsky. They both had the same goal and considerations--strengthening communism and spreading it all over the world. Yet, Stalin wanted to build it first in Russia whereas Trotsky wanted to incite revolution in Germany(as he had no faith in lazy stupid Russians).

Then, there's Hitler vs Rohm.