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Lessons Learned
2005-06-06 11:25
by Ken Arneson

New York Times columnist Matt Miller asks, Is Persuasion Dead?

Is it possible in America today to convince anyone of anything he doesn't already believe? If so, are there enough places where this mingling of minds occurs to sustain a democracy?

The signs are not good. Ninety percent of political conversation amounts to dueling "talking points." Best-selling books reinforce what folks thought when they bought them. Talk radio and opinion journals preach to the converted. Let's face it: the purpose of most political speech is not to persuade but to win, be it power, ratings, celebrity or even cash.

If the traditional form of persuasion is dead, it's not because of some bug in our culture, it's because of a feature of our brains. Certain types of brain damage have revealed that the human brain's decision-making mechanism is separate from the brain's logic mechanism. As I wrote on Saturday in my rant about education:

Analysis and decision-making happen in two separate parts of the brain. Analysis is a rational process, but decision-making requires emotions to work.

...if you want to improve your decision-making skills, you need to experience the emotional consequences of your decisions, good or bad, to retain the memories of your decisions.

A mastery of facts and logic alone does not make you a good decision maker. That's not how the human brain works. To become a good decision maker, a kid needs to practice making decisions.

You can write the world's most logical argument and still not convince anyone, because your logic was working on the wrong part of the brain. To make someone decide in your favor, you have to convince the part of the brain that makes decisions, and that system is heavily dependent on emotions and subconscious patterns and memories. Given the architecture of the human brain, logic alone is simply not an effective way to make someone decide something.

Moneyball presents the idea that Billy Beane's success depends largely on logical processes. The counter-argument has been that Billy Beane's success has depended largely on Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. I would argue that the decision to draft those three were largely the result of learning from earlier decisions that failed.

  • In 1990, the A's drafted "The Four Aces", four highly-touted pitching prospects including Todd Van Poppel, all of whom ended up flopping. It was a continuation of a trend: the only pitcher the A's had drafted and developed in over a decade who had any sort of decent career at all was Curt Young.

    Beane wanted to understand why they failed. A few years later he looked back and compared Van Poppel, who had the size and velocity that scouts drool over, to Steve Karsay from the same draft, who was short, but much more athletic, and more successful. As a result, the A's began looking to draft pitchers who could not only throw hard, but were also good overall athletes. A few years after that they selected a short but athletic pitcher named Tim Hudson in the sixth round. And when they selected Mark Mulder, whose size and physique is similar to Van Poppel's, with the second overall pick in the draft a year later, they could be more confident that he wouldn't flop like Van Poppel, because Mulder is not only big, but a great athlete, too.

  • In 1995, the A's were thoroughly prepared to draft Todd Helton with the fifth overall pick in the draft. Suddenly, though, Cuban pitcher Ariel Prieto defected, and became eligible for the draft. The A's decided to pick him instead. Obviously, that was a huge mistake; one that bothers Beane to this day.

    A few years later, a similar scenario occurred. They were targeting Barry Zito with the ninth overall pick, when to their surprise a player they had rated higher than Zito (Ben Sheets? I've never heard them say who) was available at that pick. Because of the Prieto failure, they stuck with Zito.

Notice that most of those failures in decision-making paid off about five years down the line, after you could fully experience the nature of your failure. That's why I think that even if none of the players from the Moneyball draft become superstars, the draft may not be a failure if the experience improves Billy Beane's decision-making in the long run. The Moneyball draft may fail, but the value is in failing a different way, a way that you can learn new lessons from.

I think the A's 2004 draft may turn out to be a great one, and if it is, we can probably thank the lessons learned from the Moneyball draft. I'm not sure what those lessons are; perhaps it was as simple as looking for a certain combination of stats and athleticism. Obviously, the A's won't be telling us. But it will be interesting to see if we can discern any more lessons learned after we see who the A's select in tomorrow's draft. I'll be watching closely.

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