Of balls and brains

Posted on February 13, 2010

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(Originally posted 8 Feb. 2010)

In a world steeped in traditions and wives’ tales, it takes courage to be sensible. Prairie women of my grandmother’s generation were sure that the best way to kill germs in milk was to boil it. But it turns out this also kills “good” bacteria, which makes milk more susceptible to hosting future germs when the temperature cools back down. “Scientists” from the Department of Agriculture (or whatever) visited my grandmother’s village and told them to pasteurize milk by heating it at just below boiling temperature. But as soon as the city slickers left town, most of the women turned the flames back up. They weren’t going to be the ones to make their families sick by listening to these “outsiders.”

And so it goes in American professional sports. The most notable revolution came from the sabrmetricians in baseball in the 1980s and 1990s, and the tale of how sophisticated statistical reasoning turned many truisms of baseball recruiting and strategy on their head is famously recounted in Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball. But the “outsiders” are at work in football too now, and for an exquisite explanation of courage in the face of wives’ tales, check out Brian Burke’s defense of Sean Payton’s four gutsy calls that won his team the Super Bowl.

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