Why aren’t more teams outside of sport playing Moneyball? Because they’re human, stupid.

After reading Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, I asked myself: why hasn’t this data-driven approach to the evaluation and recruitment of talent been embraced by more teams and organizations outside of professional sports? Why, after all of these years and with the very tangible success of professional sports to look to as an example, why are we still evaluating and recruiting talent like we always have? 

After all, when you cut through the sound and the fury of Lewis’ tale, the innovation described in Moneyball is pretty straightforward. Billy Bean and Paul DePodesta of the Oakland Athletics use data to identify players who are undervalued by other teams and then sign them to contracts at a bargain price. Essentially, they get more for less by exploiting information the other teams ignore. It’s smart, but it’s also a tactic that every bargain hunter, thrifter and value investor understands. Because the core idea described in Moneyball is so straightforward and has been so widely celebrated, you would think (or, at least, I would) the data-driven approach to the evaluation and recruitment of talent described in Moneyball (or something approximating it) would have swept through all other industries by now.

Instead, it seems that most teams and organizations rely on recruitment practices that are probably older than baseball. You know the drill: after a largely arbitrary sorting process based on self-reported data points (i.e. a resume is pulled out of a hat based on a crappy keyword search or because a friend-of-a-friend recommends that it be pulled), the evaluation of a potential hire boils down to a highly subjective gut-check, which may or may not be based on an assessment of the candidate’s skills in highly artificial circumstances. A few reference checks later — which everyone agrees are useless — and, blammo, a new hire is being onboarded. If a professional sports team recruited like this, it would be out of business in no time. How is it possible that so many teams and organizations continue to recruit in this essentially arbitrary fashion? 

Overlooking the rhetorical nature of my question, you might reply, “well, probably because most teams, organizations and industries don’t have access to the kind of dataset baseball has. Baseball has always been kind of nutty for numbers.” To which, I might reply, great point, Dave, but there is no necessary reason why a baseball-like dataset couldn’t be developed and maintained by, say, a professional association. Isn’t the market supposed to identify opportunities like this and fill them? Potential employers, it is fair to say, would probably pay oodles of money to access this kind of data, if it led to better and less costly hires. Moreover, I would quickly add, not giving you a chance to get a word in edgewise, because that’s how I roll, once someone is hired, a team or organization can create and maintain as much data about the new hire and their performance as they would like. So, if some hungry-for-success team or organization wants to evaluate a new hire based on their contribution to the success of the team or organization, generating the right kind of data should be a straightforward exercise once the person is onboarded.

Instead, much like the recruitment process itself, the evaluation of new hires seem to be largely a matter of feel. If a new hire “fits” into their new team and seems to contribute, the recruitment process is normally judged a success, whether or not the person measurably contributes to the success of the team or organization. To be fair, group harmony and team cohesion is always going to play a role in any team’s success. However, group harmony and team cohesion are very often a by-product of team work rather than a catalyst for it. Whether or not a person “fits” is probably irrelevant, so long as they make some effort to cooperate and work well with others. Proximity and time will take care of the rest. 

Before you interrupt me with another objection that I already have a clever reply to, it was probably around this point in my thinking and writing that the penny dropped. Duh, Sterling, of course, most organizations and industries hire based on “feel”, where “feel” more or less translates into, “yep, gut sure says that they’re like me.” We humans are tribal. From the very outset of our lives, we tend to form relationships and social groups based on physical proximity and physical similarities. Why would it be dramatically different for the workforce? Well, Sterling, I guess I was assuming that competition and/or the desire to achieve our aims would have nudged us to adopt more rational, coherent and less arbitrary approaches to building teams and organizations. Whether an organization is for-profit or not-for-profit, it makes much more sense to recruit people who measurably contribute to the achievement of the organization’s aims rather than people who just happen to look and talk like the friends-of-friends we have in common.

Think about it, if the jocks — of all people — have figured this one out, why hasn’t anyone else? 

Then, it was around this point that another penny dropped for me. Most people agree that Michael Lewis’ version of the events in Moneyball “torques” the facts for the sake of a more compelling story. In particular, it seems likely that there was far less conflict and debate about the data-driven approach Bean and DePodesta championed. Strictly-speaking, once a certain caricature of scouts and scouting is set aside, the difference between player evaluation and acquisition as it was traditionally done in baseball and the approach described in Moneyball is one of degree rather than kind. Moreover, by the time that Beane and DePodesta had turned to data to drive their player acquisitions, amateur data aficionados had already been using data to dissect and criticize professional baseball’s approach to player evaluation and acquisition for some time. The notion that data could lead to better recruitment practices was already well and truly in the air.

It’s also important to remember that Bean and DePodesta were evaluating and recruiting players who had already been through a very long and very difficult vetting process. To be among the players who are even on the radar of being considered for a spot on a professional baseball team, a lot of people in the baseball community would have already vouched for that player in some way or the other. It’s not like the Athletics were using data to recruit hockey goalies to be catchers or signing Tim from the mailroom. If a team is trying to decide between signing this guy and that guy, and everyone already agrees that both of them are part of the very exclusive club known as professional baseball, why wouldn’t you roll the dice and pick the cheaper guy if the data also seems to predict he would do fine. Shorn of Lewis’ drama, the Athletics faced a pretty simple choice. On the one hand, they could continue evaluating and recruiting talent as they always had and expect the same middling results or, on the other, they could take a chance on a newish approach broadly recognized as having some merit, generate results no worse than they might otherwise expect, and save money while doing it. Really, when you think about it, it’s a no-brainer, but, “the not-so-remarkable tale of safely entrenched insiders making an even safer bet that works out better than expected” doesn’t make for compelling dust jacket copy.

With all of that throat-clearing now well in hand (uh, gross), the answer to the question I started with is this, I think: teams and organizations outside of professional sports haven’t yet broadly adopted a data-driven approach to the evaluation and recruitment of talent because, all things considered, the age-old approaches work well-enough; as a result, no well-established insiders have felt compelled to try something new. On the one hand, successful organizations tend to attract a lot people who have already been vetted in some fashion. Randomly picking, more or less, among those people who present themselves for selection is probably a safe bet and, if random selection is a safe bet, why not also pick people “like me,” if it will make you and everyone else on the team feel more comfortable with the new hire. On the other hand, struggling organizations tend to cut employees rather than than make new hires and, you can be sure, any hires they do make are going to be on the safe and familiar side. In other words, even after very many years of working together in groups to achieve different aims, it seems that we humans haven’t confronted any situation that would compel us to change how we recruit people or how we evaluate their contributions to our efforts. And, if it hasn’t happened yet, don’t hold your breath! Businesses fail every day and entire industries have collapsed over the years and yet these very negative consequences have not driven business or industry insiders to fundamentally and systematically rethink how they evaluate and acquire talent. If it hasn’t happened yet, I doubt it it will happen anytime soon.

Now, if you are like me, at this point, you might be somewhat disheartened to realize that organizations build their teams using methods that wouldn’t look out of place on the schoolyard (i.e. pick that kid, he dresses like us!). However, if you are a normal human being, you are probably actually thinking, “Are you serious?” Did you really only just figure out that hiring decisions are primarily an exercise of “like” hiring “like”?” Well, sort of. I have always understood that humans have a habit of grouping together based on superficial similarities and excluding those who are superficially different, but I have always thought of it as a bad habit, which would eventually be broken, both at the individual and group level, either consciously as people and societies matured or unconsciously through something like competition. What has dawned on me (thanks to Moneyball and baseball!?) is that the human tendency to socialize, build teams and act collectively by looking for and finding people “like us” is so fundamental that nothing will ever compel us to change, other than a true evolutionary shift in our DNA, which, strictly-speaking, is just a fancy way of saying, “if people who embrace difference reproduce more than all those other people who prefer homogeneity.” It’s “we like us” and “different like them” all the way down. 

Moreover, on a personal level, it is also dawning on me that whatever I have accomplished in my life is probably best understood as being a consequence of my similarities to others  rather than my differences. I’m not a beautiful unique snowflake; I’m a me-too drug. And, yes, while I am one hundred per cent talking about social privilege, I am also driving at something that runs deeper. Returning again to evolution (which probably should be the subordinate clause that starts every discussion about human nature), in my experience, evolution is often characterized as a triumph of difference because it is a heritable difference in phenotype that leads to a reproductive advantage that, over many generations, leads to a new breeding population. Hurray for difference — so long as you overlook the fact that the difference is one tiny bit in a whole lot of sameness. Without the sameness, the little bit of difference wouldn’t ever take hold in a breeding population. To put it bluntly, if you are too different, your difference ain’t being passed along to anyone because you won’t get the opportunity to reproduce and, if you are really different, the breeding might not even work. In other words, what makes you and me human are the ways in which we are the same; insofar as we aspire to be unique, it it only possible because we are like others — and not in spite of it.

And that is the moral of a completely different after-school special than the ones I watched growing up.

Go home, Philosophy. Evolution has got this.

Blue and BrutalI have no memory of a time when I didn’t believe in evolution.

Of course, that can’t actually be the case.

I was raised, at first, in a bland non-denominational Christianity. Then, after my parents separated, I was immersed whole hog into Catholicism. It seems likely, at some point, I believed in some version of Creationism. Even so, if I had a conversion moment — not on the road to Damascus, as it were — I don’t remember it.

I do, however, remember when I first started to understand the full implications of the theory. It was when I taught this essay by John Dewey, as part of an introductory course on human nature. I had, of course, read and studied the essay before I taught it, but it was only when I taught it that its message really hit home.

The message is simple, if you are ready to hear it.

Evolution elegantly explains the variety of species. It is also an explanation that offers no guarantees. Broadly-speaking, any outcome for any species is possible. The only condition is that the outcome is always going to be the result of a reproductive advantage.

That’s it.  

That conclusion may seem pretty innocuous these days. We live, after all, in the worldview that was shaped by evolution’s discovery. It is, nevertheless, a pretty earth-shattering conclusion for a vain little species like us.

Evolution tells us we aren’t special. We weren’t preordained. We weren’t a necessary outcome. We aren’t the best or even the fittest. The only claim that we can make is that our ancestors reproduced more successfully than their competitors. Who knows? Maybe some prettier, smarter, and stronger version of us decided having kids wasn’t worth the effort.

And, having thought about the implications of evolution for many years, I am also now inclined to think evolution answers – in broad terms – almost all the fundamental questions of philosophy. What are we? Why are we here? What is morality? Why are we moral? What is thinking? Why do we think? What is knowledge? What is beauty? Essentially, any question that can be transmogrified to the question, “why are we the way we are,” is best explained by evolution.

Of course, that means the only questions evolution can’t directly answer are metaphysical – but even now I’m wondering if an evolutionary lens might be usefully focused on these kinds of questions. Evolution, nevertheless, has an indirect answer to metaphysical questions. We ask metaphysical questions because we evolved to think about and understand the universe in these ways. Conceivably, we might never have evolved to ask and answer these kinds of questions. The planet is filled, after all, with very many successful species that aren’t particularly smart, reflective, or concerned about the nature of the universe.  

There are, of course, many smaller, more focused questions worth asking and pursuing, but, as far as the big “why, oh, why?” questions, it seems to me evolution will be the ultimate and fundamental explanation for all those kinds of questions about us. Physics and cosmology will, of course, take care of all the metaphysical questions.

Which is to say, I suppose, that Hawking is essentially right. Philosophy, as a discipline, is dead. Philosophy, thought of as an outlook or way of thinking, should and, of course, will continue. It should, however, be a kind of thinking done within an empirically grounded discipline rather than being a discipline onto itself. The notion that philosophy is a distinct discipline should go quietly into that good night. 




The New Wilderness: On The Frontier of A New Kind of Living

In the 200,000 years since Homo sapiens first appeared on the planet, our ability to use and create resources has improved dramatically and our population has exploded.

When I reflect on the tremendous technological, demographical, and social changes of the past ten, fifty, and hundred years, it seems to me the most significant change concerns how we associate with each other.

Thanks to our increased economic, political, and communicative powers, many of us seem much more willing to create relationships and groups based on personal attachments and shared purposes that are unrelated to brute proximity and / or blood relations.

We also seem more inclined to accept that persons can — and maybe even should — belong to more than one group.

I say “seem” because I suspect some humans always have been willing to associate in this fashion and, because some of us can in fact associate in this fashion now, I suspect we always have been able to do it.

After all, from an evolutionary perspective, we are the very same primates we always have been. The tools we use are different, there are many more of us but, biologically speaking, we are very much the same.

I also suspect we didn’t associate in this fashion only because of a scarcity of resources and a superabundance of coercion. Without today’s technology and freedoms, it was simply impossible for the necessary connections to be made.

The lesson I draw from this line of thinking is that some of us are on the frontier of a new kind of living that was, until now, impossible. I also suspect, because I have faith in the species, it is a kind of living that will one day be taken for granted.

Therefore, in this ephemeral moment of unrealized possibility, I think we should nurture, cherish, and celebrate these new opportunities, relationships, and groups. I am even tempted to say, we should create these relationship and groups as a matter of duty because so many persons previous to us who had no choice but to go alone into the wilderness.

I won’t make this strong claim, however, because I am sure all those brave persons who ventured into the unknown wilderness alone — whether it be real or allegorical — did so because they longed for a world where a person could choose to live and associate how she pleases — even when it means being alone in the wilderness.

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The Evolution of Fat and A Much Misunderstood Fact of Evolution

I put on a few extra pounds over the holidays. That happens when you eat constantly for four weeks, never exercise, and supplement your daily diet with five to ten thousand calories of beer, wine, rum, and other assorted alcohols. It’s inevitable really.

Now that I am exercising again, not stuffing myself, and drinking less, I’ve noticed that the pounds are a lot harder to take off than they are to put on. My initial reaction was, ah gee-whiz, ain’t life a pain, but then it occurred to me that this tendency to hold weight rather than lose it quickly may have been an advantage at any other period in the history of the human species. Even fifty years ago — and certainly a hundred years ago — turning extra calories quickly into fat that could then be stored for times of scarcity may have been advantageous.

This fact made me think of plump, fat, fatter, and obese persons. Today they are generally regarded to be unhealthy and, perhaps, even genetically unfit — after all, all cultural stereotypes indicate that having a few extra pounds reduces your chances of mating. Now, strictly-speaking, in many cases overweight — truly overweight — people are unhealthy, given the conditions in which most of us live. Famine is not likely any time soon and the stress of the extra weight, as is well known, causes all sorts of health risks and complications. And yet there is a temptation to think, well, isn’t it possible that today’s “bad health” is a result of yesterday’s genetic advantage?

Well, it’s certainly possible because it is true that yesterday’s genetic advantage can become today’s genetic disadvantage and vice versa because of a change in circumstances. As the conditions of scarcity change, so will what counts as an advantage and as a disadvantage. So, yes, obesity today may be the result of yesterday’s genetic advantage.

There is, however, another equally plausible explanation for this trait (assuming it is even inheritable). Our bodies, which are ill-adapted to our contemporary lifestyle and diet, may turn the extra calories into fat quickly because it has no other way to cope with the excess and our bodies may have difficulty burning off the fat because our bodies never needed to burn off that much fat in the past. In other words, our bodies simply don’t have the capacity to deal with these calories because we didn’t evolve in the kind of dietary conditions we have today. This may explain why being even moderately overweight can have serious consequences for our health. Maybe, our bodies simply can’t cope with that which they never had to cope with before.

And this leads me to my main point. There is a crucial feature of evolutionary theory which is often misunderstood even by persons who claim an expertise in the field. Evolutionary theory provides only a plausible explanation why a species — the average characteristics of a specific breeding population — is one way rather than another. Evolutionary theory says there is good reason to think a particular breeding population share in common some inheritable trait or set of traits which give it a reproductive advantage in times of scarcity. It does not and cannot predict what that trait or set of traits is, has been, or will be. It says only that the present instances of the species share some trait or traits which give it a reproductive advantage in times of scarcity.

So, when you hear people saying this or that trait of some species exists because it uniquely provided some evolutionary advantage, they are engaged in speculation — however thoughtful — not really justified by the theory of evolution itself. There are just too many variables to control for, even in an incredibly simple species, to predict which trait or set of traits provided the reproductive advantage and, even then, the environment itself changes too often too quickly to know this or that trait was or always will be an advantage.

For example, big brained scientists who like to use their big brains a lot may be tempted to say it is the big brains of homo sapiens which is its unique advantage but those big brains, especially now, look to be the down fall of our species — thanks to global warming and / nuclear annihilation. For all we know, our species is here because our only direct competitors mutated in some disadvantageous way or simply decided not to breed. Even back in the 18th century it was noted that wealthy well educated persons tended to reproduce less than the poor and uneducated. In other words, we may only be here by default and it may only be a matter of time before our seeming advantage reveals itself to be a disadvantage and we wipe ourselves out. Forget the meek, cockroaches will inherit the Earth.

Understanding the point I am making is important if a person wants a full and proper understanding of evolutionary theory, however, it is also important because my point is the best argument against the greatest misapplication of Darwin’s theory — eugenics. There are lots of reason why eugenics is unacceptable but, crucially, it must be said that eugenics can’t possibly achieve what it intends to achieve, even if some acceptable form of the practice could be discovered. No person or person, however bright, can predict with any reasonable chance of success what trait or set of traits will be an advantage over the short or long term. Better to let a million flowers bloom and see which of them survive than to try to guess in advance which flowers will bloom best. After all, that is exactly what nature has being doing since — well, right from the very start.

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