Ownership of the Means of Adjudication

Back on Thursday when I was waiting to be annoyed by a speech, one of the ways I passed time was reading stuff on my phone, which included This Grantland piece about Charles Barkley and "advanced stats". In it, Bryan Curtis makes the argument that while Barkley's recent comments disparaging statistical tools seem at first like just the same old innumeracy, it's really a question of ownership.

But Barkley was firing a shot in a second war. Let’s call it Moneyball II. This clash doesn’t pit a blogger versus a newspaperman in a debate over the value of PER. It pits media versus athletes in a battle over who gets to tell the story of basketball. “I viewed Charles Barkley’s comments as being completely about media criticism, not about how a team is run,” said Craig Calcaterra, who blogs at HardballTalk. “If Barkley were still playing and a coach came to him and said, ‘Here’s something we discovered in our analytics department,’ I’m sure he’d be receptive to it. But he doesn’t want to hear someone in the media second-guessing his authority about basketball.”

This general theme is echoed through a lot of the sillier pseudo-controversies surrounding sports these days. Curtis briefly mentions Kevin Durant turning hostile, but doesn't specifically mention Marshawn Lynch (probably because he's framing the story in terms of the NBA, not the NFL). Lynch is probably the best example, though, because that lets you see that both sides can be really petty-- Curtis wrote about Lynch in the run-up to the Super Bowl, when he was getting blasted for refusing to talk to the media, and hits most of the high points. Lynch gets flack because reporters feel he's violating the unspoken agreement inherent in sports media: athletes smile and answer dumb questions, and reporters provide free advertising for the teams and the league.

But in another sense, this is just the same argument about ownership, seen from the other side. Ex-players like Barkley are trying to preserve their historical privilege as "expert" commentators based on having played the game, while statisticians are pushing the primacy of data. NFL reporters are demanding their traditional right to shape the narrative around the game, while Lynch and a handful of others refuse to play along. In both cases, the people whose traditional prerogatives are being threatened are getting bent out of shape over it.

I mention this in the context of Thursday's annoying speech, because the idea of a conflict over who gets to tell the story resonated in an odd way with a lot of my reactions to that speech. In particular, the contrast between the very traditional "high culture" stuff held up in the speech (and, for that matter, the fact that we always get classical music performances at these things) and the joking mention of particularly inane Kanye West lyrics seemed like a really stark example of drawing an arbitrary line between culture with enduring value, and culture that elites should point at and laugh.

It's not a perfect analogy, of course, because there are plenty of folks in the collection of disciplines dubbed "the humanities" who take pop culture as their area of study, and mine that for some useful insight. I wonder, though, if a lot of the anxiety about a "crisis in the humanities" isn't really this same kind of anxiety about who gets to tell the story. Or, rather, who gets to decide what stories are worth telling.

And, of course, there's an even more direct parallel with the ever-popular topic of Scientists vs. Journalists. That conflict is very directly and obviously about who gets to tell the story of science, with scientists in the Charles Barkley role of claiming special expertise in deciding what's worth talking about. You don't find a lot of Marshawn Lynches in this one, but there are more than a few Kevin Durants ready to declare publicly that writers "don't know shit" about their topics.

So, anyway, that's your Information Supercollider moment for the week, in which the odd mix of stuff I read via social media bounces around making weird connections. Not sure how well this holds up, but it's a thing I've been toying with, and might as well be a blog post...

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Great points about who gets to tell the story. That is certainly what irritates scientists when their work gets in the news.

Regarding music at your event:
They should consider playing popular music circa 1795 and/or the 1895 centenary for a change of pace. What were students at the college listening to then, or perhaps a century (1915) or two (1815) ago? Was it "classical" music that didn't survive to be part of the modern canon? What got played in upstate "places of entertainment" that students would visit or even play for themselves (measured by sheet music sales)? Could be interesting.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 01 Mar 2015 #permalink

Oh, it's no mystery why classical music would be featured at an event like this: potential alumni donors, who are the real audience for events like this, expect their alma mater to go the highbrow route. As Chad implied (and I agree with him) in the earlier post, Copland, as a 20th century composer, is on the edgy side for something like this.

It might be difficult to determine what music was considered popular in the US in 1795, as music was only just starting to be published in the late 18th century. That's why music by composers like Bach, and even Mozart, is customarily listed by catalog number, not opus number as became common in the 19th century. Some of that music has been truly lost: experts on the subject know that a piece existed, but no manuscript survives. OTOH, it should be straightforward to find popular music from 1895: if the music collection in Union's library is even halfway decent, they should have examples of sheet music from that era (that music was typically performed in private homes for friends and family).

To the original topic: I see an important distinction between Barkley and Lynch here. Barkley is reacting to things that anyone who puts in the effort might learn from statistics, so his position isn't as privileged as it seems. And the key point is that other people actually have put in that effort. Lynch, like practicing scientists, is up against a group of people who usually (though there are some exceptions) think they know more than they actually do, just because the latter work for the media.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 02 Mar 2015 #permalink

Well, in two more years the "popular song a century ago" is Over There (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Over_There). (Before that I think the ear-worm of the time was "Shine On, Harvest Moon").

Which, if somebody wanted to do a far more interesting talk on the humanities, would be a ripe song for getting into a lot of discussion topics, such as the role media has played in promoting or rejecting calls to war ("American Sniper" controversy, anyone?). But that would probably be too interesting.

Though if they really want to do some art-music of the 20th century, I personally think they should play some of The Residents' oeuvre.