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The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World
Author:Michael Lewis

The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World

Michael Lewis

For Dacher Keltner

My Chief Jungle Guide

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.




Back in 2003 I published a book, called Moneyball, about the Oakland Athletics’ quest to find new and better ways to value baseball players and evaluate baseball strategies. The team had less money to spend on players than other teams, and so its management, out of necessity, set about rethinking the game. In both new and old baseball data—and in the work of people outside the game who had analyzed that data—the Oakland front office discovered what amounted to new baseball knowledge. That knowledge allowed them to run circles around the managements of other baseball teams. They found value in players who had been discarded or overlooked, and folly in much of what passed for baseball wisdom. When the book appeared, some baseball experts—entrenched management, talent scouts, journalists—were upset and dismissive, but a lot of readers found the story as interesting as I had. A lot of people saw in Oakland’s approach to building a baseball team a more general lesson: If the highly paid, publicly scrutinized employees of a business that had existed since the 1860s could be misunderstood by their market, who couldn’t be? If the market for baseball players was inefficient, what market couldn’t be? If a fresh analytical approach had led to the discovery of new knowledge in baseball, was there any sphere of human activity in which it might not do the same?

In the past decade or so, a lot of people have taken the Oakland A’s as their role model and set out to use better data, and better analysis of that data, to find market inefficiencies. I’ve read articles about Moneyball for Education, Moneyball for Movie Studios, Moneyball for Medicare, Moneyball for Golf, Moneyball for Farming, Moneyball for Book Publishing(!), Moneyball for Presidential Campaigns, Moneyball for Government, Moneyball for Bankers, and so on. “All of a sudden we’re ‘Moneyballing’ offensive linemen?” an offensive line coach for the New York Jets complained in 2012. After seeing the diabolically clever data-based approach taken by the North Carolina legislature in writing laws to make it more difficult for African Americans to vote, the comedian John Oliver congratulated the legislators for having “Moneyballed racism.”

But the enthusiasm for replacing old-school expertise with new-school data analysis was often shallow. When the data-driven approach to high-stakes decision making did not lead to immediate success—and, occasionally, even when it did—it was open to attack in a way that the old approach to decision making was not. In 2004, after aping Oakland’s approach to baseball decision making, the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in nearly a century. Using the same methods, they won it again in 2007 and 2013. But in 2016, after three disappointing seasons, they announced that they were moving away from the data-based approach and back to one where they relied upon the judgment of baseball experts. (“We have perhaps overly relied on numbers . . . ,” said owner John Henry.) The writer Nate Silver for several years enjoyed breathtaking success predicting U.S. presidential election outcomes for the New York Times, using an approach to statistics he learned writing about baseball. For the first time in memory, a newspaper seemed to have an edge in calling elections. But then Silver left the Times, and failed to predict the rise of Donald Trump—and his data-driven approach to predicting elections was called into question . . . by the New York Times! “Nothing exceeds the value of shoe-leather reporting, given that politics is an essentially human endeavor and therefore can defy prediction and reason,” wrote a Times columnist, late in the spring of 2016. (Never mind that few shoe-leather reporters saw Trump coming, either, or that Silver later admitted that, because Trump seemed sui generis, he’d allowed an unusual amount of subjectivity to creep into his forecasts.)

I’m sure some of the criticism of people who claim to be using data to find knowledge, and to exploit inefficiencies in their industries, has some truth to it. But whatever it is in the human psyche that the Oakland A’s exploited for profit—this hunger for an expert who knows things with certainty, even when certainty is not possible—has a talent for hanging around. It’s like a movie monster that’s meant to have been killed but is somehow always alive for the final act.

And so, once the dust had settled on the responses to my book, one of them remained more alive and relevant than the others: a review by a pair of academics, then both at the University of Chicago—an economist named Richard Thaler and a law professor named Cass Sunstein. Thaler and Sunstein’s piece, which appeared on August 31, 2003, in the New Republic, managed to be at once both generous and damning. The reviewers agreed that it was interesting that any market for professional athletes might be so screwed-up that a poor team like the Oakland A’s could beat most rich teams simply by exploiting the inefficiencies. But—they went on to say—the author of Moneyball did not seem to realize the deeper reason for the inefficiencies in the market for baseball players: They sprang directly from the inner workings of the human mind. The ways in which some baseball expert might misjudge baseball players—the ways in which any expert’s judgments might be warped by the expert’s own mind—had been described, years ago, by a pair of Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. My book wasn’t original. It was simply an illustration of ideas that had been floating around for decades and had yet to be fully appreciated by, among others, me.