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Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Comparative Advantage of Bullshit

There are worse ways to spend $3 a month than subscribing to Bill James' website (  I can't link to this, because it's subscriber-only, but it's just a piece of a much longer thing, so here's why bullshit has a comparative advantage in everyday discourse:

IV. On the Practical Advantages of BS
                Did you ever think about this:   that Bullshit has a huge advantage over actual knowledge, in that bullshit can be created and deployed wherever it is needed, whereas actual knowledge has very limited ability to travel?
                At this time of year I get a lot of questions from people who want to know who I think is going to win the World Series, and whether it is better to win your division and have a 7-day cooling off period before you go into the playoffs or whether it is better to have to compete right up to the end of the season, and whether it is meaningful that a team ends the season playing well as opposed to limping into the playoffs after a two-week slump, and whether a team whose best pitcher has two different-colored eyes has an advantage in post-season play.
                The only honest answer to these kind of questions is "I have no idea."   This is not a satisfying answer to those who ask the questions, nor is it particularly gratifying to me to have to answer so many questions by saying "I’m sorry; I really have no idea."    Some of these questions I can’t answer because there is no answer; the only way to answer the question would be just to make something up and go with it.   Others I could answer if I had done the right research, but the right research very often would be a two-week project, and I can’t really find space in my life to undertake an awful lot of two-week projects, and anyway, if I could, it would still be two weeks before I could answer the question.
                From my perspective, then, it often seems that what people want from me is that I should be a bullshitter like the guys on TV.    "The guys on ESPN,". . ..this is what I hear, when people ask me questions about which there is no relevant research. . .."The guys on ESPN are able to give expert opinions on every question under the sun.   Why can’t you?   Why can’t you just make something up and go with it, like everybody else does?"
                Generally, we decry and denounce bullshit.   My point here is that actually there is a huge advantage to bullshit.   It fits everywhere.   You never run out of it.    It’s always in stock.   Once you decide that you are happy answering questions with bullshit. . .you’re set.   The cupboard is always full.
                I was watching a football game today.   Kansas University got ahead of a much better team 10-0, then settled in to lose the game 54-16.   The announcer had a ready explanation for the surprising start (paraphrasing).    "Texas Tech had to travel in here yesterday.    They spent most of the day getting to the airport, taking the flight, getting on the bus to Lawrence, getting off the bus, getting into the hotel, sleeping in a strange room.   Sometimes, particularly to a young team, it takes you a few minutes to get your feet on the ground and to get your head back into the game."
                Bullshit?   Of course its bullshit—but he got paid to say that.   That’s the wonderful thing about bullshit:  you can never run out of it.   No matter what happens, you can make up an explanation for it on the spot.   Every effect can always be traced back to some readily apparent cause.   Whenever you have a condition (a) and an outcome (b), you can always assert that a caused b.  Since conditions and outcomes exist in almost limitless supply, any number of supposed causal links can be established.  
                That sounds pejorative, but I don’t mean it that way.  We all do that.  His assignment was to say something that might be true, and. . .that might be true.   Nobody can prove that it isn’t.   We all use bullshit, including myself, because we are all "asked questions" or confronted by issues for which there is no obvious answer except bullshit.  
                But research isn’t like that; research runs out.   Research is always in limited supply.   Research is never around when you need it most.    That’s why knowledge can never take the place of good, old-fashioned, time-tested bullshit.


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