Monday, August 4, 2008

Logical Fallacy of the Week: Summer Re-Run

It's tempting to let the story drive the characters. The characters, though, tend not to think their fates are being written by an author other than themselves.

Fans like stories, and fans like repetition. Baseball is pretty much the same game everyday, played over and over again. And of course each game, each season, has it's own little narrative, it's unique story to tell, but they are often just variations on a theme.

So, as Boston Herald writer Jeff Horrigan points out, "the comparisons to 2004 were inevitable when the Red Sox finally parted ways at the nonwaivers trading deadline with a disgruntled superstar and retooled with two months remaining."

Well, we liked this story so much the first time, we bought the DVD. And now seems as good as any to watch it again, maybe with commentary and bonus features of Orlando Cabrera handshakes.

Nothing wrong with that. But the sportswriter, and many a fan, like to push and stretch, to make the story drive the events, when maybe that's not what's really going on. We do like our causality in storybook form, with pictures if possible. But whether the book of nature is in fact telling a familiar story, or the similarities are added to the margins at the expense of the text, is, well, something to wonder about.

Horrigan continues, writing "Four years ago, the jettisoning of Nomar Garciaparra in a four-team, blockbuster deal shook the Sox from the malaise of a lackluster July and jump-started them for a 42-18 finish and the eventual end of 86 years of frustration. Thursday’s three-team deal that sent Manny Ramirez to Los Angeles and brought in Jason Bay from Pittsburgh involved fewer teams and players but is beginning to have the same effect."

Horrigan's blurb is filled with causation-attributing terms: "shook", "jump-started", "effect."

Horrigan, like many of us, looks to the jumble of events, the blooming buzzing confusion of the world, and tries to see a pattern, a meanginful causal sequence that brings order and predictability to events.

But of course just because two sequences of events are similar in some ways doesn't mean they'll be similar in all ways. In short, the "argument by analogy" is not valid, and this is our logical fallacy of the week, sponsored by W.B. Mason. Who else but etc?

Imagine, for a moment, that this similarity that Horrigan reads into involved 2008 and 1904, not 2004. Would anyone suppose that just because it happened that way in 1904, it would have to happen that way in 2008? Of course not. And, among other reasons, that's because the characters in this story, the ones whose actions cause victory and defeat, aren't able to come out and play today.

Of course, not many remain from the championship squad of '04 (2004. The A.L. champs of 1904 were McGraw-blocked from winning it all.) But even if we still had Curtis Leskanic the Shirtless Mechanic and our other old favorites, the everyday stuff of causality- seeing the ball, hitting the ball, catching the ball, and, in Manny's case, lollygagging- are inevitably different; every game, every inning, every pitch, is new and unique. Just as Luddites and intellegiphobes say the players play the games, not the numbers on paper, well, the story doesn't play the game either.

Horrigan compounds the fallacy by pointing to a respect in which the two seasons are not analogous- that the trades this time around involve fewer teams and players- as if THIS, rather than a billion other things that are actually relevant, was the potentially disruptive element, the reason that 2008 might not play out the same as 2004. Oh, Theo, if only you'd have gotten more players involved with this trade! Then, surely, we'd beat the Cardinals and get George W. re-elected! If only!

(Excuse me. I just threw up a little.)

Right. As earlier, the characters in stories tend not to think of themselves as in a story, and so don't see their fates as written by authors not themselves. Naturally, Kevin Youkilis resists the storybook interpretation, and attributes the recent victories to "putting together good at-bats."

The sportstwriter sees narrative, meaningful similarities. Youkilis just sees one damn good at bat after another. We'll have to see how this one plays out.


Eric said...

We break it down pitch by pitch, of course, but in our perception of time, every subdividable moment of time differs in infinite ways from the moments that bookend it. We can't find real patterns, because there are none.

Didn't stop me from making the 2004 comparison too, though. I'm just a slave to the human perception of reality, I guess ;)

Soxlosophy said...

eric- well, i can't say i like the idea of people who read my blog coming away from it thinking i've calld them slaves. boo me!

so upon rereading my post this morning, i'm a little uncomfortable with it, especially becasue i don't want to suggest that the 2004 comparison isn't perfectly appropriate. it is appropriate, as there are definately similarities.

The question is whether they'll continue to be similar, and even if so, for what reasons. There are a couple of tricky issue entangled here, which i didn't distinguish adequately in my post. firstly, whether, or the extent to which, that plot device/story form of '04 caused the team's turnaround in '04, rather than merely preceded it, and, then secondly, whether the same can be said here.

further complicating the issue is that sometimes arguments by analogy are acceptable, and i didn't make this clear in the post. the fallacy is thinking it's logically necessary that just becasue A and B have some features in common, that they'll have further features in common. they don't have to- not logically. but of course they might very well have further features in common. it's just not a logical guarantee.

so the question is then: is 2008 being like 2004 one of those times? and maybe it is. after all, the trade of the cranky slugger might very well have tangible effects on the guys who play the game, and, human pscyhology being what it is, in fact similar things might result from such a scenario no matter when it happens (perhaps 1904 can be included.)

i think i wandered away in my post from my original thread, so to speak- just the contrast between the sportswriters'/fans' way of looking at things, and the players', depending on whether we're the audience/reader or the character in the story.

and the larger philosophical issue here is about how causality works at all; the philosopher david hume, for instance, thought that causality didn't exist at all in nature, and that there was just one damn thing after another, and the perception of causality is something that humans project onto the world because of a pscyhological habit, but this corresponds to nothing. (he did say we're all slaves to our passions, and certainly would say we're slaves to our perceptions of reality.) other philosophers do believe in causality, but then there's a question of what things cause what, and the forms they take, and in this case, whether there's a narrative form, explicable in human story psychological terms, or a bunch of molecules or statistics interacting according to laws of physics that don't make for a fun story.