The Bill James Effect, Or How Nature Conspires To Make Us Irresponsible

Quiz: What do Gen.Lee and Bill James have in common?

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

Facts: Deadspin

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


8 thoughts on “The Bill James Effect, Or How Nature Conspires To Make Us Irresponsible

  1. From the article you linked to, Bill James was discussing Paterno’s reaction to the 1998 investigation, not the shower incident in 2001 that was witnessed by Mike McQueary.

    Remember that the 1998 investigation resulted in zero criminal charges against Sandusky. There was no misconduct by any University officials regarding that investigation.

    • Two of your sources claimed that Paterno could have stopped the abuse in 1998. But if a full, fair, unobstructed investigation then led to no criminal charges, what was Paterno supposed to do about it between 1998 and 2001?

      I can not credit those sources’ criticisms of Bill James if they start from such a false premise.

      And Bill James is hardly the only critics. As William A. Levinson, a blogger whom I respect and whose articles I have read, both on blogs and on Usenet, for over a decade, pointed out ,

      Has President Erickson actually seen the multiple deficiencies in the Freeh Report, including incomplete research (failure to interview McQueary, whose name Freeh didn’t even get right, and failure to determine what legal advice Wendell Courtney gave Gary Schultz)?

      Note also that the report blames Paterno for not stopping Sandusky from bringing children onto campus, even though it stipulates that he objected to the presence of any 2nd Mile children on campus due to general liability concerns. It contains contradictory statements as to whether Penn State should have alerted Sandusky about the 2001 shower incident by confronting him.

      Even more importantly, the report gives a complete pass to the 2nd Mile for the 2001 incident, which 2nd Mile dismissed as a “non-incident,” and also to Tom Corbett whose inaction as Attorney General may have allowed Sandusky to abuse more children.

  2. Jack– I have to disagree, on a technicality, with your reasoning, although not necessarily with your conclusion.

    Robt E. Lee was doing what he had been trained to do at West Point and had been doing for years: directing military operations. Mr. James had distinguished himself as a “nut” for baseball statistics and distinguished himself by collating his collected stats and developing outside-the-box theories from them. [Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball” addresses a lot of James’ work]. James is not recognized for his knowledge of human behavior, ethics, or anything related to either. His work with baseball statistics was in no way predictable of how he would, or should, judge Paterno. Lee on the other hand, made his blunder in his chosen field of endeavor… Lee certainly had reason to see the folly of that decision.

    Paterno is still wrong, no matter what James says.

    • You’re selling Bill short on the ethics front. He has written eloquently and well on that topic, and his ethical instincts and analysis skills are usually impeccable. For many people, ethical thinking come naturally, because being ethical makes sense. James abhors rationalizations, so it would figure that his ethical visions is pure, and until now, it had always been so.

      • Jack– I yield to your knowledge of Mr. James’ ethical credentials. My comment was aimed at the idea, superficial as it turns out, that by offering an opinion outside his “known” area of expertise his error was not of the same caliber as Lee’s.

        I admire James for his doggedness in pursuing some practical use of baseball statistics. I especially like it because Billy Bean got the message, and as he says the “real season” (second half) has begun– and the A’s are 9-1 for the last 10 including a 4-game sweep of the Yankees (I knew you would like that).

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