Sunday, February 19, 2012

Nerds can be destroyed but not defeated

“Moneyball” tells the story of a baseball franchise manager who places his faith in the statistical models developed by a recent economics graduate to recruit undervalued (i.e., cheap) players. They then, despite their coach’s doubts, go on to score the longest winning streak in baseball history against much more expensive opponents. My first thought on watching the movie was: “Isn't the timing here a bit awkward – why tell such an inspiring tale about the power of number crunching after blind faith in mathematical modeling helped almost destroy the global economy and Western civilization?"

One reason could be that success in baseball recruiting is a lot more significant than failure in economic prediction. So a long winning streak in baseball is much more easily remembered than a near economic crash-landing. This is probably the lesson from some recent comments in the NYT evoking “Moneyball.” In one article, Larry Summers lays out six fundamental principles for education in the “digital age.” He formulated those at a high-profile conference on education convened by the esteemed paper. Why Summers is still to be considered an authority in that or any other area is a big mystery to me; which is only deepened by the flippant nature of his utilitarian sermonizing, One of his principles is: don’t waste time and effort to learn a foreign language, because English will remain the global lingua franca until the last judgment. Another nugget of wisdom points, yes, to “Moneyball” as the final proof that “the marshalling of data to test presumptions and locate paths to success is transforming almost every aspect of human life.” So, instead of a useless foreign language, every college student should be required to master “probability statistics.” Curiously, another NYT article (“The Age of Big Data”) refers to “Moneyball” to drive home a similar point without making any reference to the financial crisis. As I said, the latter has apparently left a fairly weak – and fast fading – emotional trace (which is the true measure of significance in the human brain) in the minds of many. As a result, the Dow Jones has again soared to the heights it had reached four years ago. Back in 2009, Stephen Colbert interviewed journalist Emily Yoffe. She had written an article alleging that “narcissistic personality disorder” was spreading as a cultural virus in American society, and the irresponsible behavior it encouraged had helped usher in the crisis. He asked her: “But the market is all based on confidence. Why don’t we just recapture that narcissism that we had from a year ago and pretend everything is OK? And won’t the market just come right back?” We now know the answer: yes it will; at least until the next bubble bursts.