I thought that during this afternoon and tonight I would have been able to read a good part of James Goldgeier and Michael McFaul's Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy Toward Russia After the Cold War and then watch the Broncos-Chargers game, but instead there was drama in today's Rockpile. I'll admit that I am to blame for some of it. I made a comment about the Rocky Mountain SABR site having a problem with Troy Renck. The unintended consequence of that was that it devolved into another accusatory discussion about traditional baseball observations/scouting/stats and those new wave stats.
It's a debate that we've had over the last several months, and it has usually devolved into name-calling and other personal attacks. This must stop. We can, we must debate this peacefully.
Now, I believe that I generally come off as pretty even-handed in all of this debate or not even have an opinion (or don't express it). But yes, I do come down on the side of the stats community. Still, I understand how members such as Redhawk, Sandlotkid8, BroJB, and other feel when trying to debate this topic. They feel marginalized and shouted down. I'm a student of military history and U.S. foreign relations. I doubt many of you know the debate that has gone on about the state of academic military history over the last twenty years or so, but there are similarities between the two debates.
In 1997, John Lynn published "The Embattled Future of Academic Military History" in The Journal of Military History (Vol. 61, No. 4 (Oct 1997), pp. 777-789). As Lynn explains, the future of academic military history looked bright with Michael Howard serving as the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University throughout the 1980s, Yale created a chair for military history, and Duke and North Carolina created a joint program in the field that attracted top academics there. But this was really an illusion. The academic community still looked upon military historians as the discipline best forgotten. The "cutting edge" studies of cultural and women's history, for example, were valued, but the more applicable ones to current events, like military history, became marginalized.
Lynn demonstrates great wit when he recounts a story about a historian interviewing for a position at his university. The historian believed that analyzing the turnings of a chair could explain the world view of an entire group of refugees who arrived in New York. A colleague of Lynn's was astounded, but Lynn reminded him that chairs were for asses.
Universities have not filled their military history positions when the professors in those areas retire. They hire the new wave historians, like the chair guy.
Yet, academic military history can adapt. Lynn argues that culture and gender history can be incorporated into military history. Combat is at the heart of the discipline and those two "cutting edge" histories can add depth to it, but they do not overtake it. It will take time for academic military history to emerge from the shadows, but when it does the rewards will be great.
Like academic military history and historians, traditional observers of baseball are in the shadows waiting for the turnaround. BroJB wrote this in the comments today:
Stats folks view baseball in objective terms — i.e. you can judge a player’s value clearly based on statistical breakdowns.
Non-stats folks (I guess I fall in this realm) view baseball in subjective terms — e.g. he’s got great stuff; if he fixes that loop in his swing he’ll be an all-star; he plays hard and is a winner; he’s "clutch".
Of course, there’s a cross over. Statheads often make subjective observations, an non-statheads do look at stats.
The conflict often stems, from my point of view, from statheads feeling as if they own the "truth" because they have the numbers, and non-statheads chafing at this position. For example, as someone who watched almost every game, the vehemence with which the sabermetrics folks argued for Ianneta over Torrealba just made no sense. I saw both guys play game after game and it was really, really obvious to me which one needed to be in there down the stretch. Are there statistics that could be used to contradict this? Sure. And so sabermetricians, who believe they have objective truth on their side, don’t accept my position. And I, who formed an educated opinion from observing the games up close, can’t accept theirs.
Somewhat like Lynn, BroJB argues that "statheads" push to the side the "non-statheads" because they are not "cutting edge." But the underlying message of BroJB's is something that I think we all accept but don't pay attention to much: that this isn't an either-or decision. They complement each other and help give us a better overall view of everything.
Join me after the jump for more.
My problem with the stats community is when objectivity is thrown around. In 1988, Peter Novick's That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession examined how supposed objectivity in writing history isn't. Histories written during the First World War tended to portray the members of the Central Powers as historical villains and the like. Those historians who didn't were marginalized. And in the 1960s, the new wave of histories, as discussed above on Lynn's article, pushed aside the old histories because they didn't add anything of value, supposedly. In the end, objectivity in the historical profession is a non-starter. It is a noble dream, but only that.
Yes, objectivity exists in so much as "a" is a fact or that "b" happened, but when the stats community begins to argue with their numbers they are not being objective anymore. They are subjectively using their numbers to prove a point. There's nothing wrong with that, nor is there anything wrong with non-stats people arguing there view. It's that both sides to acknowledge that neither has the full answer.
Much of the synthetic work on American military history since 1973 is based on the work of Russell F. Weigley. I've mentioned Weigley several times on the site. In 1973, Weigley's The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy first appeared. Even today, that work is the basis for military teaching at West Point and pretty much every U.S. military institution. The main argument for Weigley is that the American way of war has been of two strategies: attrition and annihilation. The former the American way of war up until the Civil War, the latter from the Civil War onward. But as with any argument, there is bound to be disagreement. In 2002, Brian McAllister Linn wrote an article in JMH revisiting Weigley's work. He argues that Weigley downplayed the importance of the interwar years between the Civil War and WWI, that the Civil War had an ambivalent impact on events during that time period. He spends the rest of the article demonstrating this and hoping Weigley would revise his work.
Weigley responds to this criticism. Far from being defensive, he welcomes the evaluation and states that he wouldn't revise his work. Not because he doesn't want to, but because he would need to write a totally new book. Unfortunately, Weigley died two years later in 2004 at the age of 74. However, his impact still endures. Recently, two works have come out trying to move beyond the Weigley thesis. One is from Linn, whose The Echo of Battle: The Army's Way of War argues that the American way of war has been more characterized by its peace-time thought. These views are seen in three categories of military thinkers: guardians, heroes, and managers. The other work, and I'll admit I have yet to read it, comes from John Grenier and his The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814 . From what little I know of it, Grenier looks more at the way of war during the colonial era and argues that the Weigley thesis is wrong as a result of how wars were fought then, something Weigley left out of his work. But my professor says that in the end, Grenier makes the same argument that Weigley does, though Grenier does not admit it.
(I should, at this point, mention that my professor was one of Weigley's last students.)
One day there will be a military historian who is able to synthesize these various arguments on the American way of war and displace the Weigley thesis. I look forward to that day as much as Weigley would have. As for baseball, one day we will hopefully have a synthesis of how to argue baseball. Though I have a feeling that that will be about humans vs. robots.
Right now, Purple Row seems more like the early American Republic. We have the stats people as the Federalist Party and the nonstats people as the Democratic-Republican Party. I stand in the middle as George Washington. As the founder of this nation exhorted in his Farewell Address:
All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.
We must move beyond factionalism. We must, as Lincoln urged,
bind up [Purple Row's] wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves [...]
We are Rockies fans.
And if you are still reading this, I applaud and thank you.