Brooks and Bruni

Mr. Nocera is off today.  In “What You’ll Do Next” Bobo says Big Data and numbers know a lot. But they can’t explain all the whys.  Mr. Bruni, in “The Locker and the Closet,” says the predicted coming-out of a gay player in one of the major sports isn’t served by invocations of Jackie Robinson.  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past few centuries, there have been many efforts to come up with methods to help predict human behavior — what Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic calls mathematizing the subjective. The current one is the effort to understand the world by using big data.

Other efforts to predict behavior were based on models of human nature. The people using big data don’t presume to peer deeply into people’s souls. They don’t try to explain why people are doing things. They just want to observe what they are doing.

The theory of big data is to have no theory, at least about human nature. You just gather huge amounts of information, observe the patterns and estimate probabilities about how people will act in the future.

As Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier write in their book, “Big Data,” this movement asks us to move from causation to correlation. People using big data are not like novelists, ministers, psychologists, memoirists or gossips, coming up with intuitive narratives to explain the causal chains of why things are happening. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, such human intuiting of causality does not deepen our understanding of the world,” they write.

Instead, they aim to stand back nonjudgmentally and observe linkages: “Correlations are powerful not only because they offer insights, but also because the insights they offer are relatively clear. These insights often get obscured when we bring causality back into the picture.”

This method has yielded some impressive observations. Analysts can look at Google search terms and pick up where flu outbreaks are occurring. In doctor’s offices, statistical predictions often make better diagnoses than clinical predictions. Wal-Mart executives looked at the data and noticed that, as hurricanes approach, people buy large quantities of Strawberry Pop-Tarts. They began to put Pop-Tarts at the front of the stores with storm supplies.

In my columns, I’m trying to appreciate the big data revolution, but also probe its limits. One limit is that correlations are actually not all that clear. A zillion things can correlate with each other, depending on how you structure the data and what you compare. To discern meaningful correlations from meaningless ones, you often have to rely on some causal hypothesis about what is leading to what. You wind up back in the land of human theorizing.

Another obvious problem is that unlike physical objects and even animals, people are discontinuous. We have multiple selves. We are ambiguous and ambivalent. We get bored, and we self-deceive. We learn and mislearn from experience. Thus, the passing of time can produce gigantic and unpredictable changes in taste and behavior, changes that are poorly anticipated by looking at patterns of data on what just happened.

Another limit is that the world is error-prone and dynamic. I recently interviewed George Soros about his financial decision-making. While big data looks for patterns of preferences, Soros often looks for patterns of error. People will misinterpret reality, and those misinterpretations will sometimes create a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Housing prices skyrocket to unsustainable levels.

If you are relying just on data, you will have a tendency to trust preferences and anticipate a continuation of what is happening right now. Soros makes money by exploiting other people’s misinterpretations and anticipating when they will become unsustainable.

Then there is the distinction between commodity decisions and flourishing decisions. Some decisions are straightforward commodities: what route to work is likely to be fastest. Big data can help. Flourishing decisions are things like who to marry, who to befriend, what career calling to pursue and what college to choose. These decisions involve trying to find people, places and things that harmonize with your subjective self. It’s a mistake to take subjective intuition out of this decision because subjectivity is the whole point.

One of my take-aways is that big data is really good at telling you what to pay attention to. It can tell you what sort of student is likely to fall behind. But then to actually intervene to help that student, you have to get back in the world of causality, back into the world of responsibility, back in the world of advising someone to do x because it will cause y.

Big data is like the offensive coordinator up in the booth at a football game who, with altitude, can see patterns others miss. But the head coach and players still need to be on the field of subjectivity.

Most of the advocates understand data is a tool, not a worldview. My worries mostly concentrate on the cultural impact of the big data vogue. If you adopt a mind-set that replaces the narrative with the empirical, you have problems thinking about personal responsibility and morality, which are based on causation. You wind up with a demoralized society. But that’s a subject for another day.

Oh, heaven spare us a Bobo column on personal responsibility and morality.  It’ll be the end of poor Moral Hazard…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

I’ve been hearing the name Jackie Robinson a lot lately, and not just because a movie about him, “42,” hit multiplexes on Friday and had a bigger opening-weekend gross than any baseball movie ever.

I’ve been hearing it in the context of an intensifying drumbeat: that the “gay Jackie Robinson” is just weeks or months away.

We should retire the phrase now. It’s a flawed comparison.

As a few other observers have noted, it doesn’t do justice to Robinson’s experience and to the many differences between the challenges he confronted and those facing the first man or men to acknowledge being gay while still active in one of America’s four major professional sports (baseball, football, basketball and hockey).

It doesn’t do any favors to the gay trailblazer. Robinson’s cleats — his place in history, his meaning then and now to a nation almost cleaved in two by racism — are pretty much impossible to fill. There’s only one number in major league baseball no longer put on players’ jerseys, in tribute to the titan who wore it. That’s 42. His number.

I’m shocked that he never got a splashy Hollywood movie before. I wish the current one were better. It paints with too broadly sentimental a brush, giving us a Robinson who’s more icon than individual.

But it’s still an important, stirring reminder of our country in 1947, when he broke baseball’s color barrier. He couldn’t stay in hotels open to white teammates. Other teams’ pitchers threw at his head. The manager of the Philadelphia Phillies loudly taunted him with racial epithets as he stepped up to bat.

In laying out this galling ugliness, “42” elicits all the disgust and outrage it should.

The movie also makes clear that Robinson got his precedent-setting assignment not just because of his talent but because of his character. Branch Rickey, the team president who hired him, wanted and picked someone who might not buckle, as most men surely would, under such pressure and such a mantle.

The first openly gay player in a major sport could instead be an accidental and unwilling hero, hauled into history by a random photo, a talkative boyfriend, some other unintended exposure or the fear of it. That sort of messy scenario was suggested by Cyd Zeigler and Howard Bragman in a post on the sports Web site SB Nation. Its headline: “Hoping Our ‘Gay Jackie Robinson’ Isn’t the ‘George Michael of Sports.’ ”

Robinson was openly black, if you will, before he played in the big leagues, and what he ended in baseball was apartheid.

The trailblazer still to come will most likely have his place in the big leagues before he’s openly gay, and the frontier he’ll inhabit is not one of access — there have been and are gay players in the four major sports — but of candor. What he’ll end, or erode, is a culture of duplicity and denial. And if he hasn’t in fact been forced out of the closet, there will a particular kind of decision and volition in his emergence.

It will in turn be met with a particular kind of scrutiny. Why didn’t he act sooner? What’s his motivation now? Is he creating an unnecessary distraction for his team?

That last issue was raised last month by a player for the Seattle Seahawks, who responded to forecasts of an imminent disclosure in the National Football League with disapproving tweets.

“Who on God’s earth is this person saying he’s coming out?” asked the player, Chris Clemons, in one tweet. In another he said: “It’s a selfish act. They just trying to make themselves bigger than the team.”

At the league’s scouting combine in late February, concerned recruiters reportedly quizzed prospects about their sexual orientations. A month earlier, before he played in the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49er Chris Culliver said, “We don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.”

The first openly gay player in football, baseball, basketball or hockey will be tested, no question. With an extra measure of fame will come naysaying and nastiness.

And he’ll potentially have a huge impact, toppling certain stubborn stereotypes by “smashing through the closet door in the most masculine of our pastimes,” as Brian Ellner, a prominent gay rights advocate, said to me.

That burden and promise are noteworthy enough that whoever takes them on needn’t be framed in terms of anybody else.

But there’s one Robinson analogy I’ll indulge.

In a few emotional scenes, “42” emphasizes his special meaning to black children, who see in him a future they weren’t sure they had. The first linebacker or center fielder to say “I’m gay” will be a similar agent of hope, assuring more than a few scared boys that glory and honesty are both possible, even in our country’s sacred cathedrals of sport.


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