Tuesday, October 02, 2012

HOF selection and bicycle helmets

Whenever someone makes an argument, it's usually based on a reference to some broad principle. 

We should not discriminate against blacks, because -- broad principle -- all men are equal in rights and dignity.  We need to provide medical care for the poor because -- broad principle -- we should not let anyone die because of lack of money.  We should not put people in jail for burning the flag because -- broad principle -- freedom of speech must not be abridged.

We need those principles because, otherwise, we don't have a real debate.  I say, "we should not put people in jail for burning the flag because I say so," and you say, "we *should* put people in jail for burning the flag, because *I* say so."  That's not a rational argument.

But, if you use a principle for justification, you have to stick to it.  Some people, who don't believe in gay marriage, will say, "gay marriage shouldn't be allowed because marriage is designed only to recognize relationships with the potential for procreation."  But those same people don't think that sterile people should be prohibited from getting married, or women over menopausal age.  And so, they look like hypocritical idiots -- stating a principle, but having no intention of abiding by it.

(And they should look like idiots to you even if you also oppose gay marriage ... a bad argument is a bad argument.  However, people seem to have a tendency to defend people who share their views -- who are "on their side" -- even if they're saying dumb things.  This is regrettable, but not within the scope of this post.)

The point is, if someone invokes a principle, they should be held to it.  Otherwise, people will invoke a principle when it suits them, and pretend it doesn't exist when it doesn't suit them.  One of the most beautiful things about the US Bill of Rights is that it just states broad principles, and then the courts make sure that government lives by them.  If we say we believe in freedom of speech, and then Congress passes a law that violates the principle, the courts say, "You can't do that.  You're contradicting yourself.  If you really want your new law, amend your principle first."


Recently, Tom Tango and Joe Posnanski applied this argument to Baseball Hall of Fame voting.  They use the word "framework" instead of "principle," which I like, because it sounds less political and less confrontational.

To those who want Jack Morris in the Hall, they say, "well, by most reasonable frameworks, it appears that Rick Reuschel is more qualified than Jack Morris.  Do you also want Reuschel in the Hall?  If not, tell us what your framework is, that puts Morris in and keeps Reuschel out.  And, be prepared to live by that principle once you declare it."

Seems reasonable, right?  But, geez, the commenters didn't get it.  One commenter put together a framework, with lists of players.  Then, Tango pointed out that it ranked Pedro Martinez too low -- and the commenter got mad!

Another commenter said things are too complicated for a "facile" framework.  So?  Come up with a less "facile" one.  If things are too complicated for that commenter, that's fine -- but that doesn't mean he's allowed to dismiss the idea that you can just proceed arbitrarily.  Because, you *have* to have some kind of principle.  It's like saying, "you know, it's impossible to codify free speech principle perfectly -- you've got shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, how do you work that in? -- so let's just forget about free speech as a framework."

That won't do.  If it's too complicated, do the best you can, but that's not an excuse for *eliminating* principles.  Otherwise, as I said, you can't have a debate at all.

Other commentators came forth with frameworks, some of which indeed put Morris ahead of Reuschel, but didn't bother checking their framework to see if they were really willing to live with the results.  Again, that misses the point.  As Tango says, paraphrasing Bill James,

"The exercise here is to force you to be consistent and end the idea of starting with your opinion and then trying to justify it. That is, you should start with the evidence, and let that lead you to the conclusion, and not the other way around."

I find it amazing that people don't get that. 


So, I don't think anyone has answered the question yet.  I look forward to seeing some attempts.  The requirement, for answering the question honestly, is:

(a) state your framework
(b) show all the players in the HOF by your framework
(c) show all the players *not* in the HOF by your framework

Of course, no framework is perfect.  It's perfectly OK to say, "well, there are certain exceptions that I would invoke, but I haven't figured out how the principle by which I believe that, yet."  If you have, say, five or six exceptions, then, great.  If you have fifty, there's something wrong with your framework.  So, maybe add (d)

(d) explain where you and the framework disagree, and why you haven't changed the framework to make them agree.

That's what answering the question really entails.

I don't have a framework for the HOF question, personally ... the one I agree with the most, so far, is the Bill James HOF standards test.  It doesn't try to say who SHOULD be in the Hall, but, rather, who IS in the Hall.  Still, it's a pretty good framework, which, I guess, it has to be, since the reporters who do the voting are generally aligned with the fans, and so the "should" corresponds pretty well to the "is".

But if you can do better, show us.


The HOF situation isn't the best example of failure to think things through, for a couple of reasons.  First, any actual HOF framework is going to be complicated, with so many measures of performance out there.  Second, even the fairest-minded HOF analyzers among us probably can't perfectly articulate what we're doing.  And, third, the failure to defer to the framework is obvious to the sabermetric community, since we've been dealing with the issue and the Keltner- and Morris-advocates for a long time.

So, let me give you a real life issue.

I live in Ottawa.  We have a lot of nice recreational bike paths here, that actually go to decent places, like Parliament Hill.  I ride them without a helmet.  Some of my friends are OK with that.  Some of my friends are horrified.  Some are concerned.  Some think I'm nuts.  Some think there should be a law forcing me to wear a helmet.

Are you one of those who thinks I should wear a helmet, or even that there should be a law forcing me to?

If you are, I don't agree with you.  But, try to convince me, by telling me your framework for protective-gear-wearing. 

Just like a HOF framework should explain why Jack Morris should be in and Rick Reuschel should be out, your helmet framework should be able to explain:

1.  Why cyclists should wear helmets, but not drivers or pedestrians
2.  Why cyclists should wear helmets, but not elbow pads or knee pads or stomach pads or body armor
3.  Why recreational ball players don't necessarily need protective gear in the outfield
4.  And so on.

Don't answer those questions directly: just state a principle (or set of principles) that you're willing to live by -- such that if I point out that your principle requires you to wear a bulletproof vest while jogging, you'd say either, "yeah, my principle is wrong," or "you're right, I should go buy a bulletproof vest."

This should be a lot easier than the HOF one.  It doesn't have to be perfect.  You can change your principle if need be: it's hard to get things right the first time.  Just do the best you can.

Personally, I do not believe that the public's advocacy for bicycle helmets is principles-based or framework-based at all.  Here's what I think, just so you see where I'm coming from:

I think a bit part of the reason (many) people advocate bicycle helmets is the "availability bias" -- it's easy to imagine horrific bicycle accidents that bash in the rider's head.  I think another part of the reason is that it's socially acceptable to wear helmets, but you get made fun of for wearing helmets for other activities that are just as risky.  I think people underestimate the diversity of human preferences, and think that if *they* don't mind wearing a helmet, other people shouldn't mind either, unless they're stupid.  I think people advocate helmets to show they're thoughtful people and not the kind of dumb rubes that don't know enough to keep their heads protected.  I think people who advocate helmets don't mind them for themselves, and therefore don't mind imposing them on other people, because it doesn't cost them anything.  And, I think people just have a strong intuitive feeling that helmets are appropriate for cyclists and not for drivers, and they don't question that feeling.  I think people are just trying to Jack Morris me into wearing a helmet.

You don't have to agree with me on those, and I don't want to debate you on those.  I'm just telling you what I think, so you understand my issue better, and why you're going to need a framework to convince me. 

Also, here's one framework I reject, that I saw on some blog a while ago: that protection should be required when it doesn't change the nature of the activity.  I'm going from memory here, but ... the idea is, that if you put on a helmet, it doesn't change the activity of cycling too much, so it should be required.  But, putting on a bulletproof vest DOES change the activity too much, so not required.

I reject that for these reasons, among others: (a) certain cyclists DO think it changes the activity, and that's why we don't want to wear a helmet.  You'd have to say, "if Joe Blow doesn't think it changes the activity," which is obviously arbitrary.  (b) wearing a helmet when driving would seem to be on the same order of magnitude in terms of changing the activity.  So, you need to add something to exempt drivers, if you believe they should be exempted.  (c) does wearing a condom change the nature of the activity?  I think it's roughly the same principle as a helmet, so you'd have to force that on people, too.


So: what's your framework for helmet wear?  Remember: I'm not looking for an argument to tell me why I should wear a helmet.  I'm looking for a framework to tell me -- and you, and everyone -- about activities and protective gear, in general.

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At Tuesday, October 02, 2012 3:01:00 PM, Blogger Brian Burke said...

I don't think wearing a condom changes the nature of cycling. So I agree--it should be required.

At Tuesday, October 02, 2012 3:03:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...


At Tuesday, October 02, 2012 3:22:00 PM, Anonymous mettle said...

A pretty smart man, Justice Potter Stevens, offered an alternate viewpoint of categories in defining the limits of free-speech. With regards to pornography, he stated, "I'll know it when I see it," obviating a strict set of principles, or framework, for defining it.

This is true with a lot of things in our lives: art, beauty, etc. Philosophers have known for hundreds of years that the classical view of categories (e.g., HOFer is a category, as is "chair," "pretty things" etc) where things are defined by a list of attributes, is inadequate. Wittegenstein famously puzzled over a "framework" for defining what is and isn't a game.
Perhaps HOF voting should be conducted like a defining a "chair". But you may consider being open to the possibility that this is, indeed, too facile.
And you may also wish to consider a bit more precisely, how difficult even defining what a chair is in a non-circular way based on an object's intrinsic properties (e.g., versus a stool, a bench, what it's location is, etc.)

At Tuesday, October 02, 2012 3:22:00 PM, Blogger Todd Boss said...

This comment probably won't do justice to this post in length and thought. I don't have a "framework" to put in place nor the time to find one that proves whatever point I'd like to make. My quick "framework" answer probably is wins per decade, which shows that the wins leader in every decade is enshrined, and would mean that the 80s leader (Morris), 90s (Maddox) and 00's (Pettitte) would also be enshrined. Do we think Andy Pettitte is a hall of famer? No probably not; the #3 starter for a power house team probably doesn't merit inclusion, but then again baseball changed so drastically from the 80s to the 00s (in terms of revenue advantages for the Yankees, meaning that Pettitte got a ton of victories just by being on the staff of their great lineups) that exceptions to anyone's frameworks may be in order.

My one overriding opinion on the whole "hall of fame" worthiness argument is that the stat-inclined seem to be missing the whole point of the "hall of fame." It isn't defined as the "hall of the best statistically significant players above some arbitrary benchmark." If it were, then arguments comparing Morris to Reushel or Brad Radke (who has a higher career WAR than Morris) would be important.

No; its the Hall of FAME (emphasis mine). It should be the hall of the most FAMOUS people in the game's history. And inarguably Jack Morris is more famous than either Reushel or Radke. And since its baseball writers themselves that a) remember Morris as being better and more famous than he was according to specific career-measuring stats like WAR, and b) do the voting themselves, its likely that Morris may very well get into Cooperstown despite other people feeling that he's a lesser pitcher.

A lot of these arguments seem to be driven by a career WAR. People look at that one overriding stat and make their arguments. My biggest problem with career WAR is its "accumulator nature." It rewards a healthy, mediocre pitcher who makes a ton of starts and accumulates a ton of strikeouts and wins and innings pitched. Meanwhile a better pitcher with a higher peak who ends his career earlier won't "score" as high in career WAR.

The two pitchers in particular i'm looking at in the above paragraph are Bert Blyleven (career bWAR of 89.3) and Pedro Martinez (career bWAR of 80.5). There is not one person in their right mind that would say with a straight face that Blyleven was a "better" pitcher than Martinez.

Blyleven during his career, for those of us actually old enough to have seen him play, was considered a mediocre pitcher. Plain and simple. He was traded for relative nobodies a number of times in his career, and the prevailing press of the day referred to him as such. Only after he's retired, when we "discovered" statistics like ERA+ and FIP and realized he was better than his numbers at the time indicated did we make the push for him into the HoF.

But why can't the Hall recognize BOTH the likes of Blyleven (better than people realized at the time) and Morris (overrated statistically but still historically significant and thus "famous" enough for enshrinement)? Why do people devote so much time towards disparaging the guy?

At Tuesday, October 02, 2012 3:46:00 PM, Anonymous Alex said...

I agree with mettle in that what we know about categories says that people can be perfectly good at categorizing things while simultaneously being terrible at expressing why or under what rules they are categorizing.

In terms of a framework for why bicyclists should wear helmets, how about: as a person who chooses to live in a particular place, I agree to follow the rules/laws established for that place. If I disagree with a rule, I have three options: I can follow the rule while working to change it, I can break the rule and live with the consequences, or I can leave where I live for a place that has different rules.

Thus, if you don't like wearing a helmet but people think you should, you can tell them a) I don't have to, because there's no law against it (if that applies) and/or b) I'm willing to get a ticket if the police pull me over and to suffer potentially terrible injuries if I'm in an accident.

Then you can explain your framework for deciding when to place comfort/personal expression over safety or money.

(As a side note, I almost never wear a helmet while biking although I own one. It's only been an issue once, and I got off my bike and walked it the rest of the way.)

At Tuesday, October 02, 2012 4:20:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Alex: Your comments are about whether I should observe the law if it exists. My question is more like, by what framework should we decide if there *should* be a law or not?

In HOF terms, I'm asking, "what's the framework for deciding if Jack Morris should be in the HOF?" You're answering, "what should you do if the HOF elects Jack Morris and you don't agree with it?"

At Wednesday, October 03, 2012 10:32:00 AM, Anonymous studes said...

My framework is entirely personal. A bicycle helmet once saved me from a very serious injury. Therefore, I think everyone should wear bicycle helmets.

On the other hand, Jack Morris never saved me from anything.

At Wednesday, October 03, 2012 4:05:00 PM, Anonymous Alex said...

I thought you asked for a helmet framework, but I had also meant for my answer to be a bit more obviously democratic. The highest-level framework, I suppose, would be something like "there will be a law if enough people want there to be a law". You'd have to make some allowances for lobbyists and whatnot, but I think that framework works well enough over long time periods. If enough people want you to wear a bike helmet, then you move to the framework I described before.

That might be a bit unsatisfying, because the HOF equivalent becomes "if enough people want someone in the Hall, he gets in the Hall". Which is true, but I know you want a more concrete description. I don't know baseball well enough to give that kind of a description.

A second helmet framework might be: people who use streets for more than minimal transportation must have some kind of head protection. Car drivers have seat belts and air bags. Motorcycle and bicycle riders would need to wear a helmet. Pedestrians only travel by street when they're crossing one, so they would be exempted. Following the framework would, however, require buses and other public transport to have seat belts and perhaps air bags, and pedestrians who walk long distances in the street (like where there's no sidewalk) would need a helmet or could be ticketed.

At Wednesday, October 03, 2012 5:53:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Studes: OK, I'll bite. :)

First, I'm curious: if you had NOT been wearing a helmet, and you had had a serious head injury, would your framework be the same except for flipping that sentence around?

At Wednesday, October 03, 2012 5:54:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Alex: I'm not asking about democracy. I'm asking YOUR framework, as if you were dictator. Or, as if you had to create a "Hall of Has To Wear a Helmet" and decide if the activity should be in or out.

At Wednesday, October 03, 2012 9:19:00 PM, Anonymous Alex said...

I'd have to think more about an always-applicable "who has to wear a helmet" rule. But a more transportation-specific one would be the last paragraph of my last comment.

At Thursday, October 04, 2012 10:45:00 AM, Anonymous David said...

Helmet framework principle:

People should be free to do what they want unless it imposes an unreasonable cost on society.

For helmets, the main cost to society will come through public funding of healthcare. Since you live in Canada, this is definitely important (also important in the US but less direct). To actually make a decision, though, I would need to know how likely you are to get in an accident, how much the cost to the taxpayer would be paying for that, etc. Then I would need to set a bar for "unreasonable cost."

I don't know the evidence well enough to make a decision, but I suspect that the evidence agrees with you.

Even so, I wear a helmet because the cost to me of getting into an accident that harms my brain is way too high. I think people who ride without helmets are reckless, but people do lots of reckless things...

At Thursday, October 04, 2012 5:49:00 PM, Anonymous mettle said...

The difference between helmet laws and the HOF is that the helmet law is a law that has to be enforced in court, so it has to be unambiguous, even if it sacrifices reasonableness for clarity.
Conversely, for the HOF, and similarly MVP etc, it doesn't make sense to have a "law" or an algorithmic framework. Imagine having an algorithmic framework for deciding what art goes into the Louvre. Or deciding who you're going to marry. Or even what movies you're going to watch. I've seen people that do that - there was a leaked banker's spreadsheet for selecting mates that made its way around the web - but they are general mocked.

Baseball is somewhere between helmet laws and Louvre-inclusion. To argue that it should all be helmet laws kills a big part of baseball's appeal, even if it drives people who don't like ambiguity crazy.

At Saturday, October 06, 2012 2:59:00 AM, Blogger Casey said...

It is only the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of the best players.

At Thursday, October 11, 2012 1:51:00 AM, Anonymous Braulio Ramirez:-) said...

What can I say? All of you are right but hey my issue is that I choose to live in this place because we are suppose to be living a freedom where the government it is not controlling everything the people is doing like in a Socialism. There is not an issue on how many reasons are to or why I should use a helmet. But in the basis on which this nation was created I am entitle to decide for my own if I want to use a helmet or not. I will while choose not to use it because on my 38 years of riding BMX without mayor accidents my experience said I don’t need it. I respect all that decide to use them because they are thinking they are falling from a bike and more likely they will fall from it since they are already predestine to fall in their mines. Cheap argument but hey liberty of speech; what one can do? Stop promoting nonsense legislation and laws to restrict our freedom. If there is a good reason, people will get convince of using the helmets. I think, I should be entitled to decide if I use it or not. It is my life, our life and some decided to go to the ARMY (WAR) to lose it and I can’t decide not to use a helmet. Let’s keep going crazy here: principles are principles based on what the majority believed at the time when they were defined.
Remember we are supposed to be living in a democracy based on a founding document that limits the government’s power to protect the freedom of the people. There is a tendency of we the people to become more socialist during the last decade and I am against this. Freedom Freedom. We live in a great nation don’t wasted.

At Wednesday, October 31, 2012 10:46:00 PM, Blogger Don Coffin said...

My framework is a little complicated (and I apologize for getting to this a month after it was posted, but that's life). And my framework says, Whether we should have a law requiring cyclists to wear helmets depends."

What it depends on is fairly simple:

What are the benefits to society of requiring cyclists to wear helmets? Here, I'm not terribly concerned with what costs borne by the individual cyclist, but with costs borne by *the rest of society.* The key cost here would be medical (and related) costs not paid for by cyclists following injuries that are a consequence of not wearing helmets. This measures the benefit to society from the helmet law, because these costs are avoided if we require helmets.

What are the costs of requiring helmets? Hasically, that's the cost of having people buy helment.

Can we measure these benefits and costs? Well, here's a source for (specifically) head injuries to cyclists: http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1100.html. This says about 2,200 head injuries to cyclists in 2002. But helmet laws already existed in 2002, so we don't know how many injuries there would have been, absent helmet laws. We would then have to determine how much of the medical costs are borne by society. I can't find anything useful about that, but head injuries are not cheap to treat,

And what about the costs of helments? This source (http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/8/1/42.full) says helmet sales are about 8 million to 11 million annually, but the question is what sales would be if helmets were universally required. Let's guess double the current level of sales, of 20 million. I'm getting an average price of about $55 (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_much_does_the_average_bicycle_helmet_cost).

So the annual costs would be about 20 million times $55, which I make about $1.1 billion.

I would argue that if the costs to society of treating injuries tonon-helmet-wearng cyclists is greater than $1.1 billion, then we are better off to require helmets. If not, not.

And I would apply the same framework to seat belts and airbags, by the way...

At Tuesday, March 08, 2016 6:13:00 PM, Anonymous Daniel B said...

"What it depends on is fairly simple:

What are the benefits to society of requiring cyclists to wear helmets? "

This is only simple if you believe the ONLY factor as to whether something should be mandated or not is whether it saves an aggregate of money or not. I don't believe that. I don't think most other people do, either.

"I reject that for these reasons, among others: (a) certain cyclists DO think it changes the activity, and that's why we don't want to wear a helmet. "

It doesn't change the activity, but thankfully, that's 100% irrelevant. Your reasons for wanting to wear a helmet do not need any justification. The choice should be yours. Anyone saying "Government should make you justify your choice" is already on the wrong side because 1) their framework now makes government the arbiter of whether of my choices are wrong 2) their framework says that if government doesn't agree with my justification of my behavior, they have the right to compel me to change it. So if if 51% of people disagree with your choices *for yourself*, they can override you.

There are really only two political philosophies. One philosophy thinks governmental power can be used to compel people to behave the way those in power happen to prefer. The other philosophy believes this is unethical. The first philosophy has many more who adhere to it - even when it's adherents aren't in power (and then get compelled to do what they don't want), they don't question the philosophy, they just want to become the ones in power so they can turn the tables and compel their opponents to behave as they want. The first philosophy inherently breeds corruption, even among those who are decent human beings and may even otherwise have good intentions.


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