These Questions 3: Kathryn Schulz

When I read a book, I usually have a pencil at hand, for marking passages or circling words I want to look up later. With each notation, I'll also pencil in a page number on the book's endpaper. In the case of Kathryn Schulz's "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error," there wasn't much point in noting the page numbers, because I marked up something on almost every page. Yesterday, Schulz was kind enough to answer a few questions about being wrong, via e-mail ...

Rob: My last book was about memory. Or, to be more precise, the running subtext was the failure of memory. My intention was to delve into the mechanics of memory failure, but ultimately I failed to do the necessary work. Anyway, the book was really a collection of baseball stories, and it really was shocking how many of them didn't quite check out. Or checked out hardly at all. I don't think the storytellers were making things up. Not usually. I think they really believed the stories they told. But it wasn't until I read the passage in your book about "confabulation" that I began to understand where those stories came from. Can you explain what that means?

Kathryn: Sure, but first I have to quickly recount my personal favorite baseball-and-memory story. It concerns a 13-year-old kid named Ulric Neisser, who was listening to a baseball game on the radio when a newscaster interrupted to announce that the Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor. The announcement made a huge impression on the kid, and he never forgot it. (Think about your own unforgettable memories of 9/11.) It wasn’t until decades later that Neisser suddenly realized that Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941 -- and major league baseball isn’t played in December. In other words, this vivid, pivotal, life-long memory of his was simply wrong. What I particularly love about this story is that the kid in question grew up to be one of most influential memory scientist of the 20th century, and established a lot of what we now know about the fallibility of memory.

But on to confabulation. Confabulations are basically made-up explanations that people provide when the real explanation is unavailable to them -- most often because they’re experiencing some kind of cognitive impairment. These made-up explanations are sincere (that is, the confabulator isn’t trying to deceive anyone), and they’re more or less plausible, but they’re completely wrong. For instance, an elderly woman who suffers from dementia might claim that a hospice worker stole her purse, when in reality she simply forgot where she put it and needs to account for why it isn’t where she expected it to be. More dramatically, people who are paralyzed by a stroke are sometimes neurologically incapable of recognizing their paralysis; they can’t move, and they can’t know that they can’t move. When you ask such a person why he’s not moving, he can’t give you the real answer, so he’ll often confabulate -- claiming, for example, that he’s exhausted from that morning’s round of golf.

As it turns out, though, you don’t need to be brain damaged to confabulate. We’re all extremely adept at providing plausible explanations for events, decisions, beliefs and emotions whose real explanations elude us. So you’re right: it’s likely that confabulation played a role in some of those mistaken baseball stories -- although, for better or worse, there are also many other reasons we mistake false memories for true ones.

Rob: For a while now, serious baseball analysts (and nerds like me) have been railing about sunk cost; specifically, that when a team is considering whether to release a player, his future contract obligations should hardly be considered because that money's already gone. It's still a problem, but teams seem to have a better handle on the concept than they used to. But you raised a point I'd never considered: Baseball executives are people, people are quasi-rational actors, and sunk costs extend far beyond matters of money ...

Kathryn: They sure do. The term itself comes from economics, and, traditionally, it does refer specifically to money: your sunk costs are whatever funds you’ve already spent and can’t recover. But money isn’t the only thing that keeps us mired in situations that, objectively speaking, we’d be better off getting out of. There are also other resources, most notably time and energy. As in: We’ve been working with this kid all season, he’s come a long way, we can’t let all that effort go to waste. Then there’s public commitment: Not only did we spend a bazillion dollars on this player, we held a big press conference about him and went on the record about our hopes and dreams and made a promise to our fans and owners and the media. And of course there’s ego: I picked this guy, his presence on this team reflects my judgment, so I’ve got to keep believing that he’s going to work out, because to do otherwise is to admit that my judgment is fallible. And there are even more intangible sunk costs as well -- things like affection and optimism -- that keep you standing there saying, Look, I know the record looks bad, but I still like this kid, I’ve got a good feeling here, I think we can turn this around.

Economists are driven batty by this kind of behavior, because, as you said, they want baseball managers to act like perfectly rational actors—to make decisions based on the present and future value of a player, measured as empirically as possible. But in defense of managers (and all the rest of us) who tend to be swayed by sunk costs, I’d point out that, at least to some extent, sports are about irrationality. Certainly they’re at least as much about optimism and ego and affection and emotion as they are about money. And that’s probably as it should be. I suspect that if we tried to rid sports of all its irrational quirks—from sunk costs to superstitions—we’d wind up eliminating a lot of the joy of the game.

Rob: I suppose this question is a little dated and I know you don't follow baseball closely, but I'm still wondering about your take on The Imperfect Game, in which first-base umpire Jim Joyce obviously missed the call that would have given Armando Galarraga -- who doesn't figure to have many chances in his career for great glory -- a perfect game.

Kathryn: I’m glad you asked, since this is one baseball question I’m actually equipped to answer. (I had to be: I was just heading out on my book tour when Joyce made that call, and suddenly everyone started asking me about wrongness and baseball.) Here’s the thing about this story: it could have gone very, very badly. The minute I heard about it, I thought about Don Denkinger, who blew a call at first base during the 1985 World Series and subsequently got death threats and hate mail and is still pretty much despised in St. Louis all these years later. So it was entirely possible that Joyce’s blown call could’ve turned terrifically nasty as well. Galarraga could’ve freaked out. The Tigers could’ve freaked out. The fans could’ve freaked out. Even Joyce could have freaked out; after all, plenty of people get defensive and angry in the face of their mistakes.

But look at what happens instead. Joyce immediately acknowledges the mistake and apologizes for it with obvious sincerity. Galarraga is supremely gracious. Jim Leyland defends Joyce and asks the fans to be kind to him, which they are. Galarraga is treated like a hero; he gets a standing ovation, a Corvette, and at least as much press for his imperfect game as he would’ve gotten for a perfect one. And he’ll still go down in the record books, albeit in a more unusual way.

But here’s the most interesting part: according to an ESPN survey conducted a few weeks after the Galarraga game, the vast majority of fans didn’t want Bud Selig to reverse the call, and didn’t want to start using instant replay to verify base calls. In other words, most fans seem to understand that mistakes are a part of the game -- sometimes even the most memorable part. Mistakes keep sports human. And, at their best, sports show us how to cope with our humanity. That’s why we use them to teach kids about leadership and teamwork and effort and failure and success; that’s why we being a “good sport” means being a good person. In that vein, the Galarraga game gave us a glimpse of how much better things go when we can accept fallibility, in other people as well as in ourselves. So, sure, it might have been an imperfect game. But to my mind, it was a perfect mistake.