Thursday, June 28, 2007

Gladwell: Knowledge can be Dangerous

To avoid immediately being stricken with a case of blogger's remorse, I'll push onwards. Someone linked this exchange between Bill Simmons (an ESPN writer and Boston sports fan) and Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point. It would be better if so much of their exchange wasn't focused on basketball, which is a sport I care very little about, but it's interesting to hear Gladwell's thoughts on sports and psychology.

Gladwell doesn't make any earth-shattering points, but he's very good at using specific examples to explain common-sense concepts. For example, at one points he talks about Isaiah Thomas being a terrible basketball GM and shows why a lot of knowledge can sometimes be a dangerous thing.

Here's the real question. If I was GM of the Knicks, would I be doing a better job of managing the team than Thomas? I believe, somewhat immodestly, that the answer is yes. And I say this even though it is abundantly clear that Thomas knows several thousand times more about basketball than I do. I've never picked up a basketball. I couldn't diagram a play to save my life. I would put my level of basketball knowledge, among hard core fans, in the 25th percentile.

So why do I think I would be better? There's a famous experiment done by a wonderful psychologist at Columbia University named Dan Goldstein. He goes to a class of American college students and asks them which city they think is bigger -- San Antonio or San Diego. The students are divided. Then he goes to an equivalent class of German college students and asks the same question. This time the class votes overwhelmingly for San Diego. The right answer? San Diego. So the Germans are smarter, at least on this question, than the American kids. But that's not because they know more about American geography. It's because they know less. They've never heard of San Antonio. But they've heard of San Diego and using only that rule of thumb, they figure San Diego must be bigger. The American students know way more. They know all about San Antonio. They know it's in Texas and that Texas is booming. They know it has a pro basketball team, so it must be a pretty big market. Some of them may have been in San Antonio and taken forever to drive from one side of town to another -- and that, and a thousand other stray facts about Texas and San Antonio, have the effect of muddling their judgment and preventing them from getting the right answer.

I'd be the equivalent of the German student. I know nothing about basketball, so I'd make only the safest, most obvious decisions. I'd read John Hollinger and Chad Ford and I'd print out your mid-season NBA roundup and post it on my blackboard. I'd look at the box scores every morning, and watch Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith on TNT. Would I have made the disastrous Marbury trade? Of course not. I'd wonder why Jerry Colangelo -- who I know is a lot smarter than I am -- was so willing to part with him.

Would I have traded for Curry? Are you kidding? All I know is that Chicago is scared of his attitude and his health, and Paxson knows way more about basketball -- and about Eddy Curry -- than I do. Trade for Jalen Rose? No way. One of the few simple facts that basketball dummies like me know is that players in their early thirties are pretty much over the hill. And Jerome James? Please. I have no idea how to evaluate a player's potential. But I'd look up his stastistics on and see that's he's been pretty dreadful his whole career, and then I'd tell his agent to take a hike.

I'm Back...Hopefully

Okay folks. It's time to return to blogging. I have no illusions this will be permanent, but I've decided I've got the time in the summer to give it another shot and I've read enough things that are pissing me off or seem interesting enough to link to that I'll resume and hopefully won't quit three days and ten entries later.