Cultural Caviar

Michael Lewis’ Hot Hand

January 18, 2017

Multiple Pages
Michael Lewis’ Hot Hand

From his 1989 Wall Street memoir Liar’s Poker to his new book, The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis has succeeded his mentor Tom Wolfe as our top Southern center-right nonfiction author.

Indeed, Wolfe recently let Lewis read through his old letters to his parents to enable Lewis to write an illuminating article in Vanity Fair about how the 1950s’ Thomas Wolfe Jr. became the 1960s’ Tom Wolfe!

The differences between Wolfe and Lewis, however, are so large that few have noticed their connection. Some of that is no doubt due to Lewis being a more cautious personality, but much of it reflects how much freer American writers were a couple of generations ago.

While I probably prefer Lewis’ lucid, buttoned-down prose to Wolfe’s show-offy style, Wolfe’s heroically ambitious career reflects the Apollo 11-meets-Woodstock ambitions of his era’s America. In contrast, Lewis’ admirable but inoffensive books for frequent fliers seem about as good as an American journalist can do in this touchy era.

Three of Lewis’ nonfiction works have been made into hit movies: The Blind Side, Moneyball, and The Big Short. Perhaps to challenge Hollywood screenwriters to extend their range even more, Lewis has written his least filmable book yet, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, about the Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman and their research into common cognitive mistakes.

“Perhaps to challenge Hollywood screenwriters to extend their range even more, Lewis has written his least filmable book yet.”

In an age fascinated by artificial intelligence, Tversky (who died in 1996) and Kahneman (who is now 82) specialized in understanding “natural stupidity.” Their work won Kahneman the quasi-Nobel prize in economics in 2002.

After the 2008 financial crash, Kahneman became wildly fashionable as a corrective to the “rational man” assumption of economics. His 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, about how people make mistakes on the logic puzzles Kahneman contrived for them, was a huge best-seller (although I doubt too many people who bought it at airport bookstores ever finished it).

Now Lewis has written a biography of the two, claiming that Tversky and Kahneman had figured out the essence of Moneyball, his baseball statistics book about the 2002 Oakland A’s, decades before he’d ever heard their names.

The Undoing Project’s opening chapter entertainingly profiles Daryl Morey, the general manager of the NBA Houston Rockets, who helped introduce sabermetric techniques to basketball. Morey recounts how he’d slowly learned to avoid biases of the kind that had caused him to skip over Harvard star Jeremy Lin in the draft because who had ever heard of an athletic Asian? But then Lin enjoyed a spectacular seven-game stretch for the New York Knicks in 2012.

But the rest of the book, however, is devoted to the careers of the two Israeli academics, who, while they did some interesting work for the Israeli military in fields like fighter pilot training, had virtually no connection to sports.

The one exception was that Tversky co-wrote a famous paper, “The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences,” debunking belief in a “hot hand” among shooters. Contrary to the widespread assumption that a player who made his last shot is more likely to make his next, Tversky found that shooting percentages declined after making a basket.

And yet, Lewis skips over the irony that Morey signed Lin to a contract after his famous Linsanity hot streak, but then dumped him after a couple of years when Morey discovered Lin wasn’t all that.

Although the NBA’s pro-black bias no doubt played some role in his not being drafted out of college, in 2017, it’s looking less like Lin was an overlooked amazing talent victimized by the failure of innumerate NBA executives to internalize Kahneman’s genius insights. This year, Lin has missed most of the season with various injuries, and his Brooklyn Nets are only 3–9 in the games he did play.

Instead, Lin seems more like a living example of the hot-hand “fallacy” that Tversky had pooh-poohed. I watched the most famous game of Lin’s streak, his 38 points against the defending-champion Lakers, and thought he was making wild shots that nobody could be expected to keep up in the long run. (This was before Stephen Curry’s advent.) But in the short run, the Knicks kept feeding Lin the ball and he kept sinking ever more improbable shots.

More generally, Lewis’ description of the breakthrough moment in the careers of the Israeli duo seems underwhelming. In the new book’s telling, Tversky explains to Kahneman an experiment involving predicting whether you’d draw a red or a white poker chip that followers of Milton Friedman saw as evidence that human beings are partly rational about making statistical forecasts.

But, Kahneman thunders, that’s just wrong. People aren’t partly rational; they are partly irrational!

Now, this may sound to you and me like a debate over whether the glass is part full or part empty, but Kahneman’s intellect is more powerful than supple.

For example, here’s one of Kahneman’s first brain twisters:

The mean I.Q. of the population of eighth-graders in a city is known to be 100. You have selected a random sample of 50 children for a study of educational achievement. The first child tested has an I.Q. of 150. What do you expect the mean I.Q. to be for the whole sample?

An I.Q. of 150 is quite rare: It should occur randomly only once out of every 2,330 people. So in this case you might well wonder whether the sample is really “random” or just how confidently it is “known” that the mean is 100.

After all, the United States military severely screwed up the scoring of their I.Q.-like AFQT enlistment test from 1976 to 1980. Senator Sam Nunn kept asking the Pentagon why sergeants were complaining to him that the military was suddenly letting in some real dumb-asses.

The brass, however, scoffed at Nunn’s lowly informants. Obviously, the sergeants were irrationally biased. What could drill instructors possibly know about psychometrics?

But after several years of denial, the Pentagon suddenly announced that their psychologists had accidentally inflated the test’s scoring.

Yet, according to Kahneman, it is irrational for you to worry about real-world concerns like these. He has stipulated that the sample is random and the mean is 100, so that’s all you need to know.

Hence, the rational answer is 101 and no other responses are acceptable.

Here’s the duo’s most celebrated trick question:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

1. Linda is a bank teller.

2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

A majority of people chose the second answer, probably because they are familiar, at least in practice if not in theory, with the storytelling principle of Chekhov’s gun. The great dramatist Anton Chekhov advised:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

But what did Chekhov know about human nature? To the Aspergery Israelis, it was indisputably irrational for listeners to assume that Tversky and Kahneman didn’t just put in the details to fool them. After all, that’s exactly what the professors were trying to do: con them.

Why aren’t humans rational about noticing when they are being hoodwinked?

What’s wrong with people?

Lewis himself isn’t the most cynical inquirer. He’s by no means as gullible as, say, Malcolm Gladwell, but he seems to have a prudent sense of how far to push his reality checks.

For example, it never seems to have occurred to him that Oakland A’s baseball general manager Billy Beane might not have drawn back the curtain on his statistical techniques for the benefit of Lewis’ Moneyball purely out of a disinterested love of advancing learning.

One possibility is that Lewis’ book served Beane’s need to permanently distract from the large role played in the success of the A’s by performance-enhancing drugs, at least since Jose Canseco arrived in Oakland in the mid-1980s. I heard from a baseball agent in the early 1990s that “Jose Canseco is the Typhoid Mary of steroids,” but in Moneyball a decade later Lewis mentioned the word “steroids” only once.

Moneyball diverted attention to obscure Oakland fringe players and away from Beane employing in 2002 a slugging shortstop, Miguel Tejada, who won the Most Valuable Player award by driving in a remarkable 131 runs.

And then, two years later, Tejada knocked in 150 runs.

A shortstop with 150 RBIs is about as plausible as a randomly chosen child with a 150 I.Q.

(See? There was a reason I put in those details.)

A couple of years after Moneyball hit the best-seller lists, Tejada was mentioned in Canseco’s memoir Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ’Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big.

In 2009, Tejada pleaded guilty to perjuring himself to Congress regarding steroids.

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