I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of reality or truth, and particularly how we think about it. This in turn got me thinking about ‘common sense’ and ‘conventional wisdom’, where it comes from and how it can be challenged.
The most salient case study that came to mind was baseball. Baseball, more than any other sport (by far) is obsessed with numbers. For generations the same statistics were used. Quality pitching was determined by won-lost record (W-L) and earned run average (ERA). Quality hitting was determined primarily by batting average and runs batted in (RBI). Conventional wisdom determined quality on reliable benchmarks: 20 W seasons for pitchers, 100 RBI seasons for batters, the elusive quest to hit 0.400, and so on. I remember even as a child, however, having serious questions about the reliability of these statistics. To start, the more I learned about how these statistics were defined, the more data I saw that they ignored. For example, batting average only accounted for ‘official’ at bats, and ‘official’ at bats did not include when a player was walked, or hit a sacrifice fly or bunt. In addition, some statistics seemed to reward or punish players for things out of their control. For example, a pitcher could throw a complete game and give up only one run and still “lose” the game if his team didn’t store or alternately get credit for a “win” after giving up six runs in five innings if his team happened to score more than six runs. Perhaps even more egregiously, batters’ RBI totals are to a large degree contingent on how players batting before them perform. Despite my father’s best efforts at defending the conventional wisdom, I was never really comfortable with it.
Imagine my surprise when a few years ago, after a few years of casual fandom, I returned to the game to find that the conventional wisdom — and the statistics defining it — was in the process of being overthrown. Apparently I was not the only child of the ’80s with serious concerns about the reliability of the old stats. In their place, a whole range of new statistics were being used to get a better handle on quality performance. The old guard remains, certainly, but they are increasingly being silenced by the legitimacy of the new stats. Even non-statistical conventional wisdom in terms of the use of relief pitchers, the value of walks or bunting, etc. are increasingly being challenged and I assume will be overthrown within a generation.
This is obviously a silly example — baseball is after all just a game — but it is still an example of a long-standing body of conventional wisdom simply being wrong, of not reflecting reality.
Despite being perceived as being liberal, and identifying myself as such in certain contexts, I am still at heart pretty conservative. I believe in change and progress, but only inasmuch as that change strengthens and builds communities and human interaction and reflects reality at a deep level (Live not by lies!). At the same time, I don’t support the status quo because it so often fails to meet its own values and standards. Strong communities must reflect reality, and the status quo must be challenged and challengeable. As a former professor liked to call it, it’s a dialectic of sedimentation and innovation: newness but newness that builds on what already exists; tradition but tradition that is open to criticism and fresh air.