01 October 2008

Paul DePodesta On Confirmation Bias

As I have been telling my brother for a long time, much of what I know about the world, I learned from baseball. Not the game itself, per se, but analysis of the game by some really, really intelligent people.

It started with Moneyball, Michael Lewis's seminal work on why Billy Beane is a frickin' genius. And it doesn't have anything to do with drafting fat cathers like the Moneyball-haters think.

From there, it migrated to USS Mariner and Lookout Landing--two of the smartest blogs and collections of writers, who have the misfortune to love and write about one of the suckiest teams in all of baseball, with far and away the stupidest front office in all of baseball.

(just FYI, this is a good example of irony)

Back to confirmation bias.

One of the key figures of Moneyball was Billy Beane's Ivy League assistant, Paul DePodesta. The erstwhile Dodgers GM and current Padres Assistant GM, maintains an excellent blog called It Might Be Dangerous... You Go First. It's (wait for it) awesome.

Do you want to instantly become among the most informed baseball fans in all of baseballfandom while simultaneously learning lots of cool stuff with cross application in the real world? Read the aforementioned 3 blogs and any others that relate to them in purpose and process.

I keep getting segued away from confirmation bias.

A couple of Fridays ago, DePodesta wrote about confirmation bias and his post is incredibly well-written and informative. Here's a sample and a little taste of why you should read these blogs.
Very simply, confirmation bias describes the act of accepting only those facts that buttress a pre-existing opinion while discarding those facts that run contrary to one's opinion. In short, we're much more comfortable continuing to believe what we already believe.

Here's the bad news: this affects every single one of us.

One example in the baseball world where confirmation bias bites us is during cut meetings in Major League spring training. In this setting the Major League coaching staff, a few front office members, and possibly a scout or two sit in a room to discuss all of the players in camp and decide which ones are going to back to the minor leagues.

First, some background: there are generally 50-60 players in Major League camp and all of these guys have survived an incredibly rigorous screening process over the previous five or ten years (high school, college, rookie ball, A ball, etc) in order to be invited to camp. Let's face it - every one of these players does something well enough to merit both the invitation and some enthusiasm from people in the room. On the flip side, there has never been a perfect player.

So, there we sit discussing the skills of a highly qualified and tested group where the distinction between players is very, very thin. However, what becomes clear is that for the players we want to keep in big league camp, we generally talk about what they can do. For the players we want to send down, we tend to focus on what they can't do, so the decisions seem obvious (which they're not). Understand, I keep using "we" because every one of us in the room is guilty - we can't help ourselves!

So, why do we do this?

I remember a time when Bill Parcells was in the midst of a so-called "quarterback controversy" where every week he was being asked about his quarterback. Week after week he had to answer the same questions in the same way, further committing to a certain QB. Then in one game in which they were losing, Parcells changed his QB in the second half, and they went on to win the game. Afterwards the press was grilling him about the QB change, attempting to get him to comment on the controversy, and saying, "I thought you said player x was your quarterback." Bill leaned into the microphone, probably as only Parcells can, and enunciating slowly, said:

"I changed my mind."

The fact is that it can be really difficult to change your mind, especially when you've taken a public stand on an issue. Nobody wants to be seen as a flip-flopper (I'll stay away from any partisan jabs) or someone without conviction. However, that mindset can often handicap us in making the best decision.

Circumstances change, rules change, new information becomes available. Many things can happen that should alter our position on a topic, but that's simply tough for us to do.
(emphasis added)


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