Tuesday, August 05, 2014

How I know Moneyball is a true story. Do we clean up theorems and life too much?

A few years ago I saw the movie Moneyball about how the Oakland A's used intelligent statistics to... win?
No, but to do better-than-expected.  Even if I didn't know it was a true story I would have assumed it was because the following are very rare or odd in a fictional story:

  1. At the end of the team doesn't win- it just does better than expected. In the typical sports movie the underdog pulls it all together and wins. In some the underdogs loses but they are now better people or something. In an episode of Cheers where they were the underdog to Gary's Tavern in a bloody mary making contest  the Cheers gang cheats and wins. But in Moneyball, and in NO other sports (or contest) movie that I know of,  does the underdog do better-than-expected in  an undramatic matter. This is NOT a complaint- just note that its real life.
  2. In Moneyball the General Manager wants to try out mathematical methods and the Manager resists. In most movies its the suits that are wrong and the people on the ground that are right. This is even a theme of many articles about business that I read in magazines on airplanes. So this inversion is odd - but again, you can't argue that a true story is unrealistic or undramatic.
  3. Bill Beane, the one who wants to use math techniques, thinks that what Baseball scounts look for is the wrong thing. In fact, they misjudged him when he was a young player. But in what direction?--- they thought he was BETTER than he was. If this was a fictional story surely the scouts would think he was WORSE than he was.
I am glad that (as far as I know) neither the book nor the movie tried to make the story more satisfying or dramatic.

In academia we do clean things up for a better story line. If the true motivation for working on a problem doesn't really make sense when you see the final paper,  we change our motivation. Our original proof is intuitive but ugly, so we change it to be polished but less clear where it came from. Historians often simplfiy to make sense of things. I am NOT complaining- merely asking, do we do it too much?

When I was in ninth grade and was told that you could solve a quadratic equation (I rederived the quadratic formula once a month to make sure I could), a cubic, a a quartic, but not quintic, I immediately said "I want to goto College to learn why you can't solve a quintic" That sparked my interest in math.

Is the above story true? I am sure that in ninth grade I did learn that the quintic was unsolvable and that was of great interest to me, and I really did rederive the quadratic equation once a month. And I was interested to learn that the quintic was not solvable. But  I really doubt the story is as clean as presented above.  Even so, the story is true in spirit. However, I would not want to push the point.

How about you? Do you tell stories about yourself or about others that are just a little too polished? Not so much false, and not even to put yourself in a better light, but just a little to clean to have really happened.


  1. I have a follow-up (perhaps more sinister) question: To what extent do people actually "re-memorize" a more polished version of their experience and actions, such that it completely replaces what should have been their original recollection?

  2. Never saw Rocky?

    1. Rocky I, yes he loses in th eend, and does better than expected, but
      is also a better person in the end. But YES that is a close counterexample

      And of course they made up for it in Rocky 2,3,4,5, and Rocky Balboa.
      And there is a movie called Creed, about Apollo Creed's Gradnson, who Rocky helps train as a Boxer.

    2. Movies where the title character loses/dies: Terminator, Predator, Gremlins, Alien... The list goes on and on... So sad.

  3. The Bad News Bears lose.

  4. One of the options I had above was `they lose but they are now better people or something'--- was that the case here?

  5. Recently I attended a "meeting for worship with attention to business" … which in effect, was an executive steering committee meeting for [name of community redacted].

    This community's values and traditions emphasize scrupulous regard for truth:

    "But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil."
       – Matthew 5.37

    Upon reviewing the minutes of the previous meeting, objections were raised regarding the passage:

    "a decision regarding [action redacted] was deferred for further consideration"

    The objection was to the word 'further':

    "There wasn't any 'further' consideration … there hasn't been any consideration at all … either last month or this month … we've been just plain late in paying any attention to this matter! We owe it both to ourselves and to future historians to be entirely candid upon this point and all similar points."

    There followed five minutes of worshipful silence. No vote was taken (no votes ever are taken) and yet the minutes were amended to assert "the decision was delayed", with no excuse proffered.

    Is it feasible for large academic institutions to exhibit a comparably scrupulous regard for truth AND communal integrity? The world wonders.

  6. IIRC (IOD), cognitive dissonance theory would predict that very few cases of the sort you ask for would occur in real life. If people suffer without adequate compensation of the expected sort then they tend to feel that it must have been for some good reason, for instance, becoming a better person on account of the experience.