Monday, January 29, 2007

I bet my sociological winning percentage is at least .657

Unfortunately, sociologists are obsessed with rank. I say unfortunately because we know better than that. Ranking people on things as qualitatively impossible to compare as educational and professional achievement is not only an incredibly suspect practice in every field, but we of all people should know better. There is little more than depressing than spending your undergrad career learning that standardized tests in no way predict academic performance, but instead are only correlated with parental income and are used in a variety of racist, sexist, and classist* ways to reproduce current power structures, and then have to take the GRE to get into grad school.

But it most certainly does not stop in admittance. In grad school we're all ranked against one another such that we may fight each other like wild dogs for limited funding. Then we jockey for position to get the best job, and then begin the life-long process of tearing down those around us to make ourselves look better by comparison, though some profs who shall remain nameless are much better at this than other profs who don't, say, talk to students like children or write them really nasty e-mails that they have to apologize for a couple of days later on regular occasion. And it's not just individuals, but institutions as well. For example, we here at the U are trying ever-so-desperately to crack the elusive top-10, so that we may all feel better about ourselves, I guess.

In all of this, though, very little is ever said about what determines these various rankings. How do you compare undercover ethnography at a weaponry convention to something like the highly complex statistical models run by a guy named Stinky? I certainly could never run those equations and programs (or even understand them), but I also like to think he'd have a heck of time doing what I do.

The point is, you can't really compare them. It'd be like comparing apples and cats, both of which are pretty useless to begin with.

Perchance this is why baseball seems to be the preferred sport amongst academics (if such a thing indeed exists), and not just because it's the nerdiest of the major sports. In baseball, you can clearly compare and rank players. You can figure stats for everything in existence, from batting average to earned run average, to my new favorite, the Win Probability (for an excellent discussion of win probability and a calculation for every player in professional baseball, check out this site). These kind of things make it quite easy to rank baseball players. For example, I know that Joe Mauer is a worthwhile backstop because he boasts the best batting average in the major leagues and a pretty darn good fielding average. I think I'd take him in a draft over Ken Caminiti, and not just for the drug reasons, and pretty much everyone would agree with me.

So until they find me a Sociological Win Percentage (S.W.P.) that can calculate the likelihood of an individual coming through with a clutch publication when a department really needs it, or who can finish a book that can bring home the sociological pennant, I don't think I can give any credence to the bullshit that will determine the rest of my life.

But when they do come up with the S.W.A., I'll be in line for some phat-ass paychecks, because we all know I'm the most clutch sociologist this side of Howie Becker.

*Ironically, while bemoaning a society that doesn't recognize class-divisions, the spell-check on blogger refuses to acknowledge "classist" as a least it's not just sociologists who are blind, I guess


Stinky said...

Win probability added is some cool business, but I always find myself wondering why it assumes that teams start out with an equal probability (e.g., .5) of winning. I can think of any number of reasons why this is suspect. Road teams, for example, historically fare far worse record-wise than the hometown nine, on average -- and usually by a healthy margin. Maybe someone could come up with some sort of Bayesian WPA, in which prior odds get factored into the equation.


Woz said...

Once again, our methodological lives have us worlds apart. It would be indeed interesting to factor prior odds into the equation, but wouldn't it be even more interesting to figure out why the home team has such an advantage in the first place?

I've always wondered that one, especially in baseball. I can see it in football, when the home crowd can cause false starts and mess up verbal cues and in general just intimidate and disrupt the other team. But baseball games are typically sparsely attended (save for the few big-name tradition teams like ChiCubs and BoSox) and the crowd rarely gets very loud. And even then, crowd noise would have the same impact in a game that relies completely on visual cues anyway.

Is it the playing field? Other than the odd center-field mound in Arlington, a ballpark is a ballpark, more or less.

Or is it really just the fact that you can't play your A game in a hostile environment?

Either way, I think this is the project I want to be working on. Some good in-depth interviews oughtta take care of it. I'll start by doing some ethnographic observation at Jimmy John's in St. Paul to see if I can overhear any two random baseball players that may or may not be there discussing the subject while I wait for teams to grant me locker-room access...