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Philosophy and pop culture

Moneyball: It’s Intuition vs. Evidence

In the competition between intuition and evidence, evidence wins.

Moneyball opened this past weekend, a film starring Brad Pitt and based on the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. The book itself is based on the true story of Billy Beane, who pioneered the use of "sabermetrics" in baseball--mathematically evaluating and valuing players based on their past statistics, and placing them in strategic positions.

The movie is great for many reasons. It's funny, it's interesting, it's well written and there are many conflicts in the movie that make it exciting--the underdog vs. Goliath, Beane vs. his team's uncooperative manager. While trading players, Beane's conflicts with other general managers are especially entertaining. But there is another conflict in the movie that many may overlook.

As Beane argues with his head scout Pittaro (played by Vyto Ruginis), Pittaro criticizes Beane for going against tradition--specifically for making selections based purely on statistical evidence, rather than relying on the intuition of scouts. Although in real life scouts do rely on some statistics (sabermetrics disagrees regarding which ones are relevant), in the film we mainly hear the scouts favoring or dismissing players based on their intuitive reactions to seeming irrelevancies--a player's personal life, his jaw line, or whether or not he has "the look." The war here is between two ways of forming beliefs. Intuition vs. evidence.

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This is a battle that has long been fought by philosophers. For years, countless people think that when the gut tells them something is true there's good reason to think that it is true. Charlatans, pseudoscientists, religious fanatics, medical quacks don't think they need evidence. John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, called such gut thinking enthusiasm and showed that it cannot justify belief; it cannot lead to knowledge. Gut feelings are a dime a dozen, and can be had by anyone, anywhere, to support anything. Your gut tells you something is true, but someone else's gut tells them the same thing is false. Of course, something can't both be true and false. And if you try to use your gut feelings to justify the reliability of your gut feelings, then you are just arguing in a circle. So gut feelings are worthless when it comes to providing justification; they can't lead to knowledge.

In the film, Beane makes exactly this point to Pittaro; Beane points out that on countless occasions Pittaro has told young prospects that "he just knew" that the rookie would be a star--only to find out later that he was a flop. In fact, this happened with Beane himself; he was drafted right out of high school by the New York Mets because his "superstar status" felt like a sure thing. He washed out after only six years (and three trades). "You say you know, but you don't."

Relying on evidence and good reason, not gut feeling, to form your beliefs is philosophy. The great success of philosophy in employing evidence and reason ended up creating new disciplines. Most of the major classic philosophers were also mathematicians, and mathematics is just an extension of logic--the basis of all philosophy. Further, the entire discipline of science was first called "natural philosophy," and science is driven by induction and abduction--forms of reasoning perfected by philosophers. It's all philosophy and Beane himself is a philosopher. In fact, like Beane, philosophers have been trying to convince everyone else to base their beliefs on evidence for a long time. William Clifford, in The Ethics of Belief, argued that: "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

Clifford overstates things a bit, I think, and so might Beane. It's not like gut feelings don't have a role. They can do nicely in a pinch, when one doesn't have the time or ability to gather all the relevant evidence. And sometimes our unconscious mind picks up on things our conscious mind does not, and can only express itself in the form of intuition. After all, it is widely agreed that a baseball team can't rely solely on sabermetrics. Although most teams now have full-time sabermatric analysts, they don't run the whole show. But it's undeniable that when the evidence points one way, and someone's gut points another, you go with the evidence--whether in baseball or in life.

By embracing Beane's philosophy, the Boston Red Sox in 2004 broke the "Curse of the Bambino" and won their first world series (since 1918). The truth is, however, the Red Sox won by simply embracing philosophy itself--the notion that decisions and beliefs should be based on evidence and reason, not gut thinking and intuition. That is how you win. That is how you win the World Series. And that is how you ensure that your beliefs are true--that they match up to the way the world actually is. And since your actions are based on your beliefs, that is also how you ensure that your actions are successful. Real life really is like baseball.

(A special thanks goes out to my colleague and local baseball expert Mike Berry, who gave me valuable feedback on this piece.)

David Kyle Johnson, King's College

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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