When the annual Major League Baseball All-Star Game is played Tuesday night in New York, it will be a time to:
1) take a breath and celebrate America's dirt-and-grasseous pastime.
2) acknowledge that America has been invaded, infiltrated, overrun and is now overlorded by "statheads" — people who yearn to quantify everything.
Maybe it should be called the All-Stat Game.
For decades, statheads have kept track of RBI (runs batted in) and ERA (earned-run averages). In recent years, with the ascent of sabermetrics and its framer Bill James, statistics have become more esoteric. Some of the newer examples include the complex WAR (wins above replacement) that calculates a player's value when it comes to helping his team win games.
Meanwhile, the statheads have sailed out of computer labs — like the philosophers of Atlantis — into just about every aspect of contemporary life. In politics, Nate Silver — who cut his teeth as a baseball stat guy — shepherds the Five Thirty Eight blog for The New York Times. Using statistical data, Silver correctly predicted how all 50 states would vote in the 2012 election. Statistical analysts are also applying their methods to the judiciary, the Academy Awards, the world of advertising, and countless other aspects of life. (Sabermetricians might quibble with the word "countless.")
In my research, I discovered a 1992 San Diego Union-Tribune story about a teenager, Adil Karim, who kept game statistics for his high school football team. The headline: "Stat Nerds? No, call 'em unsung wizards of sports."
Even way back then, Karim was concocting his own stats for good plays ("pancake tackles") and bad plays ("boneheads"). Having a savvy statistician, the coach said, "is like having a great athlete. These guys don't come along but once in a lifetime."
Today that stat nerd, Adil Karim, is a project manager in advanced systems technology at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Baltimore. "I still use and love statistics," says Karim, who's now in his late 30s. "I took one statistics class in college at Caltech that was taught by Professor Gary Lorden, who ended up being an adviser for the television show Numb3rs."
Karim sees increased influence by statisticians. "I'm sure retailers, political consultants and casinos have done a great deal of work in this area already," he says. "How do you increase the share of the population that will be committed to your product? That starts with having good data, but ultimately involves some hard work in determining what shapes personal preferences."
He adds, "I hope that there will be some non-commercial applications as well that consider the public good. We're already seeing utilities and governments trying out new data-driven approaches to encourage energy conservation. This is an interesting combination of statistics and psychology — that I would expect to see more of in the future."
In sum, Karim says there is "a misconception that 'statheads' want to reduce results to numbers and ignore the underlying reasons for those results. I would argue that most good statisticians are keenly interested in why and how. They just take a quantitative approach to get there rather than relying on hunches or anecdotal evidence."