Beating a Dead Horse, Part XVIII
November 21, 2009, 03:55 AM
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Why is it worth thinking about Malcolm Gladwell?

Because Malcolm takes the politically correct conventional wisdom (you can't make useful predictions about people, heredity doesn't matter, just environment and effort, etcetera etcetera) seriously enough to apply it in all sorts of situations where a more prudent hack would shy away, making him the a One-Man Reductio ad Absurdum of fashionable thought.

Malcolm is the mirror image me. I'm always looking for novel ways to poke holes in the ruling discourse, to point out that the ideological emperor has no clothes; and Malcolm's always looking for ways to validate what passes for thought in polite society.

Of course, we end up demonstrating the same thing, as shown by the differing responses we get. Poor Malcolm gets laughed at because he gets so many things wrong, while I get sputtered at because I get so many things right.

With his complaining letter to the New York Times having received a terse thumping at the hands of Steven Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell revisits the question of whether or not draft position is correlated with an NFL quarterback's career on his blog.

Without admitting it, Gladwell seems to have given up former position that NFL achievement "can't be predicted," there's "no connection," etc. etc. He now seems to be saying that, when you take into account the higher pay of higher draft picks, NFL teams aren't economically optimizing their draft picks, which is a wildly different thing. Gladwell blogs:

There’s a second wonderful paper on this general subject by Cade Massey and Richard Thaler–Thaler being, of course, one of the leading lights in behavioral economics–called ”The Loser’s Curse.” ... The key here is that all NFL teams operate under a strict salary cap. So a player’s real worth to a team is the extent to which his performance exceeds the average performance of someone making his salary. ... In fact, according to their analysis, the most useful draft picks are in the second round, not the first: that’s where surplus values tend to be highest. ...

It is important to note here that we are talking about relative value. Personnel decisions in the NFL have clear opportunity costs: if you pay $15 million for a quarterback who only gives you $10 million of value, then you hve $5 million less to pay for a good linebacker. As they write: ”To be clear, the player taken with the first pick does have the highest expected performance . . . but he also has the highest salary, and in terms of performance per dollar, is less valuable than players taken in the second round.”

In other words, Malcolm is now, effectively, admitting that he was wrong in his New Yorker article and in his snit of a letter to the New York Times.

But he immediately goes on:

What Massey and Thaler are saying, in essence, is that NFL general managers are not rational decision-makers. [Emphasis Gladwell's]
Malcolm uses words in a Manichean black-white way so that he can tell himself he's always right. He's unable to think relativistically, which makes him popular, but means he makes a fool out of himself when he runs into a meticulous thinker like Pinker or Charles Murray.

Potential correlations between draft order (reversed so that correlations are positive) and achievement run from:

-1.00 (perfectly irrational: intentional self-destructiveness: e.g., using your #1 draft pick to announce, "Ruth Bader Ginsburg is our Quarterback of the Future") to

0.00 (perfectly random: drawing of names from a hat) to

+1.00 (perfectly rational and competent, e.g., making Peyton Manning the #1 pick and not picking Ryan Leaf at all).

When Gladwell says that draft order and performance were "not connected," he was saying the correlation was 0.00. Well, you don't need to know much about football to say it's probably not 0.00. You just need to know that when human beings set out to select other human beings, the correlation with the selected humans' accomplishments is usually above 0.00 and below 1.00.

When, however, you add market-derived costs to the equation, so that a first round pick costs more than a second round pick, with each pick priced at what it's seen as being worth, then you don't expect a high correlation. In fact, in a competitive market, the correlation would tend toward zero under perfect rationality. It's like buying stocks: Apple has a better track record at making money in recent years than AIG, but that doesn't mean you'd make more money buying Apple stock today than AIG stock. Public information about Apple and AIG has already been included in the price.

But Malcolm's not buying any of this technical mumbo-jumbo:

That’s why I think its so useful in this particular discussion. Those who believe that draft position is a good predictor of quarterback performance are essentially voting for the good judgment of the people who make draft decisions. And what Berri and Simmons in particular–and Massey and Thaler in general–remind us is that that kind of blind faith in the likes of Matt Millen and Al Davis simply isn’t justified.
Malcolm's critics suffer from "blind faith" ...

What Massey and Thaler are actually saying is that NFL decisionmakers suffer "biases" that cause them to overvalue first round draft choices economically. In other words, they aren't perfectly rational, which I suspect isn't Big News. Thaley and Massey content that if the NFL executives used the full power of the data to predict individual performance, they would make better decisions.

You'll notice, however, that this is more or less the opposite of Gladwell's claim in his New Yorker article that "there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won't." Thaley and Massey say there are better ways than the ones being used now.

And, of course, Thaley and Massey's findings don't validate Gladwell's analogy in his original article about inability to select good teachers ahead of time. Spending too much on the highest potential jobseekers is not exactly the problem with unionized school systems.