What Baseball Can Teach Us About the Climate Change Debate

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What Baseball Can Teach Us About the Climate Change Debate

As Donald Trump removes America from the Paris Climate Agreement, the issue of climate change has moved to the forefront of our discourse yet again. Roughly half of Americans don’t believe that climate change is man-made, and the reasons surrounding this mass rejection of experts have been fiercely debated since it became a mainstream issue. Watching baseball over the weekend, I listened to a multitude of discussions that unearthed a connection to the climate change debate—with the commonality between the two being an aversion to new statistics and metrics that help us better understand the world around us.

If you talk to any old school baseball guy (and I have, as I played baseball for 14 years while growing up, plus, my father is one), they will tell you that all pitching philosophies are concentrated around producing three results:

1. Limiting walks
2. Maximizing strikeouts
3. Avoiding home runs

The reason why is that those three outcomes are the only events on a baseball field that the pitcher has 100% control over. If the batter makes contact, then one of the eight fielders or the pitcher will have to go retrieve the ball. Simply put, once the ball is in play, there are a multitude of variables that the pitcher cannot control. However, when you express this philosophy through statistics, those same old school baseball folks tend to check out of the conversation.

Earned Run Average (ERA) is the traditional catchall statistic to contextualize how well a pitcher is pitching. The formula for it is (earned runs given up / innings) x 9. On its face, it seems like a good snapshot of a pitcher, but a deeper look reveals its inadequacy. After all, when a ball is put into play, any number of things can happen, almost all out of the pitcher’s control. What ERA really measures is the pitcher plus their defense, which makes it nearly impossible to compare pitchers using this metric, since everyone has different defenses playing behind them.

The “Moneyball Era” arrived in baseball partially due to the inadequacy of these traditional statistics (Moneyball was a book that Michael Lewis wrote about the Oakland A’s exploiting inefficiencies in the market, and it was later adapted into a movie starring Brad Pitt). Because baseball is essentially a series of individual efforts combined to produce a team-based outcome, it creates plenty of excellent opportunities to measure individual output, and that has produced a new wave of statistics that old school baseball folks tend to decry as “ruining the game” (It’s the baseball version of “get off my lawn!”). However, many of these new stats are based in old school thinking.

Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) was devised as an improvement over ERA, and its calculation is a bit more complex. Per Baseball Prospectus:

The formula is (13*HR+3*BB-2*K)/IP, plus a constant (usually around 3.2) to put it on the same scale as earned run average.

Note the variables used: home runs, walks and strikeouts—the only three outcomes a pitcher has complete control over. This statistic espouses the exact same outcome that an old school pitching coach will preach to their students over and over again while working in the bullpen on a hot summer day. However, the moment that philosophy gets injected into something resembling complex statistics, the very same people who tell you that limiting home runs and walks while maximizing strikeouts is the secret to good pitching will argue that measuring pitchers by how many home runs, walks and strikeouts they produce is ruining the game.

Which gets to a fundamental flaw in human nature. You can’t throw evidence at us to prove a point. Study after study shows us that providing people with evidence which contradicts their beliefs will not change their mind. Stories are superior to facts and figures—which is the central issue with climate change. At least with baseball, there is a way to tell an engaging tale about how FIP, wOBA, WAR and all these new stats are still ingrained in tradition. With climate change, the central story is the demolition of humanity and the only home that we have ever known. That alone loses most people at the door because it’s an unpleasant fact to consider.

Take this tale from an Idaho classroom. A straight-A student refused to believe the facts of climate change presented by her teacher, decrying that “it’s like you can’t disagree with a scientist or you’re ‘denying science.’” Her mother and uncle are both Trump supporters, so she no doubt received a steady drumbeat of “fake news” soliloquies at home. Political narratives are so powerful that they can alter a young mind predisposed to accept expert opinion. No matter what James Sutter did in the classroom to try to change his pupils mind, she refused to budge. The story of climate change being a hoax held more sway in her view than the facts and figures proving it was real.

However, Sutter did not retreat from this challenge, and fought fire with fire, bringing the students outside in order to tell his own story behind the facts of climate change. Per The New York Times:

In woods behind the school, where Mr. Sutter had his students scout out a nature trail, he showed them the preponderance of emerald ash borers, an invasive insect that, because of the warm weather, had not experienced the usual die-off that winter. There was flooding, too: Once, more than 5.5 inches of rain fell in 48 hours. The field trip to a local stream where the water runs neon orange also made an impression. Mr. Sutter had the class collect water samples: The pH levels were as acidic as “the white vinegar you buy at a grocery store,” he told them. And the drainage, they could see, was from the mine.

The result? Sutter’s stubborn straight-A student backed down, telling her friend: “O.K., I’m not going to lie. I did a 180. This is happening, and we have to fix it.”

Those of us that accept climate change as fact must do a better job of convincing the 52% of Americans who do not believe that climate change is caused by humans. Hurling facts and figures at them does not work—as I have learned in my time evangelizing advanced baseball statistics to the older members of my family who like the “good ‘ol days” when stats were simple, even if they were completely non-descriptive. Don’t tell climate change deniers that “studies say” things—show them those things. Climate change is not some distant concern—it’s happening as we speak. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of evidence proving the eminent demise of Earth as we know it, and we should use it to try to rally people to the cause before it becomes catastrophically undeniable.


Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.

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