Monday, June 23, 2008

Hacks and wonks

(The news about George Carlin's death, strangely enough, reminded of this post I wanted to make.)

It tickles me to learn that Nate Silver, a top sabermetrician (aka baseball stats nerd) whom I’ve been reading for several years now in Baseball Prospectus, is making a name as a politics blogger. I’d been thinking, hmm, where have I heard that name before? Newsweek magazine clued me in.

I could go on at stultifying length on the lessons of baseball analysis that can be applied to other walks of life. Trying to be brief: There are these rarified arenas of society that are daydream fuel for great swaths of Americans, especially men. Politics is one, sports is another, financial markets are a third I’m sure--supremely competitive, highly remunerative, high-profile businesses. Among those who actually succeed, who ascend to the highest levels of these fields, the effect of egos and status is often to create a bubble of privilege and self-congratulation, the corrosive arrogance of insiderdom.

Yet all of these fields are quite amenable to wonkery, that is, understandable to any interested lay person with brains and diligence. (Also, a little training in the use of statistics never hurt.)

It's all too tempting to divide the political universe into two groups, Hacks and Wonks. To be sure, hacks and wonks are mutually dependent, and arguably the greatest political figures combine the best of hack and wonk. But the last generation or so of American politics, the Dubya years especially, have been marked by a rising tide of empty hackdom. Maybe it's just that television is an inherently hackish medium, and the Net is inherently wonkish. Anyway, it's high time for wonks with DIY attitude to push aside the more hackish hacks. Is that clear enough?

A longtime hero of mine, or maybe anti-hero is a better term, is Bill James, the baseball writer and patron saint of sabermetrics, a guy from the sticks with no qualifications or pedigree in baseball (or journalism either), who, beginning in the late 1970s, transformed the baseball business with the patient, persistent application of logic and evidence. It helped that he took a certain gusto in puncturing myths and pretensions. For me the example of Bill James looms in the background when I survey the blogosphere. Baseball was a relatively easy nut to crack (for many years now, reams of data about it have been published in each day's newspaper) but the proliferation of information in the Internet Age is causing many inside rackets to bust open. It can be a beautiful thing.

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