You see, our strengths do us in, sooner or later. The greater the strength, the more successful it has made us, the more dangerous it is.
In the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee was the smartest general on the field…so smart that he broke iron-clad rules of battle strategy again and again, and prevailed every time. When everyone told him how it was usually done, always done, Lee knew that he could get an edge by doing something else. You never divide your forces, his aides, subordinates and the military books told him. So Lee did, at Chancellorsville, and won an incredible victory.
Then came July 3, 1863: the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and Pickett’s Charge. Everyone told Lee that a massed Napoleonic assault, over an open field, into enemy artillery and a fortified line, was suicidal. But when conventional wisdom dictated a course of action, that was when Lee had always succeeded by ignoring it. So he ordered Pickett’s Charge. This time, conventional wisdom was right. The same qualities of creativity, courage, certitude, and willingness to resist the power of convention that had caused Lee’s men to trust him unconditionally had resulted in the massacre of thousands. Pickett’s Charge wasn’t bold or ingenious. It was irresponsible. Lee, because of a lifetime of success challenging what others thought was obvious, was no longer able to tell the difference.
I thought about Robert E. Lee and Pickett’s Charge this week, when one of my heroes, baseball writer, philosopher and sabermetrician Bill James, thoroughly disgraced himself doing what he does best. James changed the way baseball is played, managed, written about and appreciated by applying the honed instincts of a contrarian, the methods of a scientist and the reasoning of a lawyer to conventional wisdom about the sport. Along the way, he developed a distrust of consensus and experts, and displayed an uncanny ability to analyze controversies, dilemmas and problems with a truly open mind. This made him famous, powerful (within his field), and presumably wealthy; it also got him a job I would kill for, as consultant to the Boston Red Sox.
This week Bill James weighed in on the Penn State scandal, and opined that the Freeh report did not show that Joe Paterno did anything wrong, contrary to how the internal Penn State report had been interpreted by everyone else not named “Paterno.” No, said James: the coach had never been aware that Sandusky had committed a crime, and had no duty to do anything more than what he did. After all, Joe Pa didn’t run the university. All he knew was that his former coach showered with boys, and that’s not necessarily sinister.
I’m not going to rehash the Paterno mess and the Freeh report to show how wrong James is; plenty of people have done that very well, and frankly, his ridiculous comments aren’t worth the time. His voluntary excursions into the dark territory of Paterno apologists, however, have damaged James’ reputation among serious baseball fans–his “base,” in political terms—and even the Red Sox ordered him to shut up, because his comments reflected badly on the organization. James is not stupid; in many ways, he’s brilliant. Nor is he unethical, or ethically ignorant: I have found his commentary on ethics topics like cheating and drug use perceptive and useful. James developed the concept of “signature significance,” which I have employed here on Ethics Alarms many times. How could this happen?
It happened because Bill James, like Robert E. Lee, had found success and fame by refusing to accept as true what everyone else believed was settled. At some point, this inevitably becomes a bias, where the very fact that “everyone” has agreed on something makes an individual like James inclined to disbelieve it. When that happens, the gift that James possessed—an open mind—was tainted, corrupted. Now it was no longer open; now he was inclined to interpret facts and data to prove everyone else wrong, and, as usual, to prove that he was the only one with clear vision. He still had the guts to challenge the majority, but now it was employed in the pursuit of contrariness for its own sake, in a matter where his conclusion would be irresponsible.
The Bill James incident makes me despair. Human beings are wired so that even being right is a trap, and success paves the way for future failure. Biases sneak up on the best and brightest of us, and suddenly, without realizing it, we are using our influence and reputation to rationalize unethical conduct. Two weeks ago, I would have told you that Bill James was among the five or six most intelligent, unbiased, trustworthy and responsible minds in the United States. This week, he argued that there is no obligation for someone to take the steps necessary to stop a child rapist.
If it can happen to Bill James, it can happen to anyone.
Pointer: Craig Calcaterra
Source: NBC Sports
Graphic: Rebel Yell
Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at firstname.lastname@example.org.