Besides being a great read about Shane Battier and success in professional basketball, The No-Stats All-Star article by Michael Lewis in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine carries a larger lesson about how our understanding of the world is shifting. One of its main points is that we are becoming increasingly statistics driven, with sports at the leading edge of this transformation. We can spend lots of money on stars, like the New York Yankees, or we look more closely at what actually leads to success and how we can achieve that with less money. Shane Battier epitomizes this change because his individual stats are rather mediocre, his physical skills rather normal for an NBA player. But he makes his team win.
The key question becomes, how does he do this? That is where Michael Lewis mixes qualitative research (interviews) and ethnographic insight (coming from Battier’s own experience) with an examination of new ways of measuring everything that might count about a basketball game. It’s a powerful mix.
For me it illustrates two important points about how we can develop better measures, ones that are closer to what actually determine outcomes and that don’t fall into so easily into measuring our own beliefs about the world. And yes, by “our own” I mean the researchers who come up with the measures. Here’s a relevant section describing Daryl Morey, the man behind the Houston Rockets new approach to figuring out what works:
What [Morey] will say, however, is that the big challenge on any basketball court is to measure the right things. The five players on any basketball team are far more than the sum of their parts; the Rockets devote a lot of energy to untangling subtle interactions among the team’s elements. To get at this they need something that basketball hasn’t historically supplied: meaningful statistics. For most of its history basketball has measured not so much what is important as what is easy to measure — points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots — and these measurements have warped perceptions of the game. (“Someone created the box score,” Morey says, “and he should be shot.”) How many points a player scores, for example, is no true indication of how much he has helped his team.
Here is how it makes a difference. Battier doesn’t get great traditional stats – points scored, shots blocked, and so forth. But he does things that, on aggregate, make a bigger difference.
The reason the Rockets insist that Battier guard Bryant is his gift for encouraging him into his zones of lowest efficiency. The effect of doing this is astonishing: Bryant doesn’t merely help his team less when Battier guards him than when someone else does. When Bryant is in the game and Battier is on him, the Lakers’ offense is worse than if the N.B.A.’s best player had taken the night off. “The Lakers’ offense should obviously be better with Kobe in,” Morey says. “But if Shane is on him, it isn’t.” A player whom Morey describes as “a marginal N.B.A. athlete” not only guards one of the greatest — and smartest — offensive threats ever to play the game. He renders him a detriment to his team.
And if you knew none of this, you would never guess any of it from watching the game. Bryant was quicker than Battier, so the latter spent much of his time chasing around after him, Keystone Cops-like. Bryant shot early and often, but he looked pretty good from everywhere.
How did Battier himself achieve this? The Times gives us a photographic summary, amd this photo is just a great shot of the Bryant-Battier battle. But overall, Baitter has done it by being rather like the ideal participant observer.
Losing himself in the game meant fitting into the game, and fitting into the game meant meshing so well that he became hard to see. In high school he was almost always the best player on the court, but even then he didn’t embrace the starring role. “He had a tendency to defer,” Keener says. “He had this incredible ability to make everyone around him better”… Even when he was clearly the best player and could have shot the ball at will, he was more interested in his role in the larger unit.
When Daryl Morey spoke of basketball intelligence, a phrase slipped out: “the I.Q. of where to be.” Fitting in on a basketball court, in the way Battier fits in, requires the I.Q. of where to be. Bang: Alston hit Battier with a long pass. Bang: Battier shot the 3, guiltlessly. Nothing but net.
Much of this comes down to a simple fact about how both our brains and our modern world work – inter-related systems built on complex interactions defined more by the processes involved rather than through any specific “cause” or “great man of history.” Battier illustrates this perfectly: “Battier can pursue an inherently uncertain strategy with total certainty. He can devote himself to a process and disregard the outcome of any given encounter.”
So what does this have to do with measurement and neuroanthropology? Let me take stress as an example. Most measurements of stress reveal more about our cultural approaches to the mind than they do about stress itself. For example, stress measurements generally focus on “psychosocial stress” or get at physical stressors, thus recreating our old mind/body problem. From there, our cultural notions of self and our evolutionary view of stress dictate a great deal of how we think about and thus measure stress. In the evolutionary view, it’s “flight-or-fight” (which I’ve critiqued here with Sapolsky and more importantly here with Blakey). On the cultural side, we can look more specifically at one example. The 4-item perceived stress scale uses the formula, “how often have you felt…”
Here self is identified with a perceiving, feeling individual in this approach, for example, “how often have you felt confident about your ability to handle your personal problems.” It’s about the box-score approach to our pick-up game of life. It’s not about the processes where self and stress intersect. It’s about someone trying to match up to Kobe Bryant, the supreme ball player – capable, in control, supremely confident. It’s not about zones of efficiency, meshing with the game, and a total commitment to the process. We need a Shane Battier of stress.
How would he or she play the game? Like Shane Battier, mixing some ethnographic street ball with some polished lab play, or more broadly moving between different worlds of academic success and meshing them together into something unique. I know my own moves best (not that I’ve schooled anyone… yet), so here’s how I covered a neuroanthropological approach to measuring craving and compulsive involvement, with a subsequent post that details how I meshed neurological processes, subjective experiences and specific problems into a reliable scale. I believe the same approach can be developed for a wide range of psychosocial or neuroanthropological processes. For a broader view on this problem, see my post on the subjective brain or how Greg came to understand balance as a neuroanthropological process.
But there is another way to approach this same problem – and that is of relevance. Relevance pushes people to measure things that matter. Oftentimes that gets at process. Mind Hacks recently pointed us to a great video interview series with the neuropsychologist Elizabeth Warrington. Here’s the most important one forwhat I am discussing here. Getting at real-world problems in ways that are useful for clinical or applied practice, that forces us away from our own box-score approach and towards what really matters to living life.