October 10, 2004


Skewed views of 'Bush doctrine': As any historian will tell you, it's far too early to write off the war or the 'Bush doctrine.' (Robert Kagan, 10/06/04, CS Monitor)

We all make a common logical error that cognitive psychologists call the "availability heuristic." It means making judgments about the future based not on a broad body of historical evidence but on recent, vivid events that skew our perceptions. My favorite recent example, for reasons that will be apparent, concerns this baseball season and the era's finest sportswriter, The Washington Post's Thomas Boswell.

In May Mr. Boswell wrote about the misfortunes of the New York Yankees, particularly Derek Jeter, then in a horrendous slump. Sure, Mr. Jeter might come out of it, Boswell admitted, but maybe after eight great seasons the league had found a fatal flaw; namely, Jeter's tendency to swing at too many bad pitches. "Can a hitter completely reverse a characteristic so basic? And once pitchers have recognized it, will they forget?"

Boswell also ruminated on other Yankee problems. Gary Sheffield had "a tiny three homers in 43 games," a paucity Boswell attributed not to a bad streak but to Yankee Stadium's capacious left field. These and other observations led Boswell to contemplate a year when the Yankees, with the biggest payroll in history, might yet miss the playoffs - and that, he added, would be "delicious."

Four months and 75 wins later, the Yankees have taken their division for the seventh straight year. Jeter finished the season batting .292, below his lifetime average, to be sure, but with a career-high 44 doubles, 23 home runs, and 111 runs scored in what will go down in the record books as a fine season indeed. Sheffield, with 36 home runs and 121 RBI, is far and away the Yanks' most valuable player.

Boswell, being human, fell prey to the availability heuristic, partly because of something I'll call its "rooting interest" corollary. Boswell hates the Yankees. Or rather, he hates George Steinbrenner's fat wallet (and who doesn't, other than me and a few million other Yankee fans?) He was rooting for the Yankees to fall flat on their big, overpaid faces. This affected his normally perfect judgment and led him to imagine that the bad news of spring could be extrapolated through the end of the season. But the key Yankees hit close to their lifetime averages, which is sort of the point about lifetime averages, and the team took its $180 million payroll to the playoffs for the 10th straight year.

Now if Thomas Boswell can make this kind of mistake, imagine the mistakes the mortals who write about foreign policy can make. Few possess the historical knowledge of their subject that Boswell has of baseball. And during an election season, they can't help succumbing to the rooting-interest corollary to the availability heuristic.

More dangerous than the "availability heuristic" is simple misperception. The Yankees' real problem was inadequate starting pitching, not their offense, and it remains so. Similarly, Iraq has been going rather well all along, despite spectacular but ineffective violence by extremists and some unsurprising missteps in the transition from occupation to democracy. Most significantly, there's never been a moment in the Iraq War where if you project events forward in a straight line it doesn't end up with Iraqis controlling their own destiny, thereby vindicating the Bush doctrine.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 10, 2004 9:51 AM

Read any Mike Lupica column from the New York Daily News -- like today's for instance -- and you can see where dispassionate analysis of a topic tends to get smothered by blind hatred for a subject, in this case being the two Georges, Steinbrenner and W. Bush.

Lupica is right that Shilling vs. Mussina definitely tilts towards the Red Sox, but the glee he's anticipating in watching George's Yankees go down makes him say history will be immaterial to the ALCS this time around, which is shaky ground tred upon. I suspect he's also going to be very grumpy in his first few November columns for non sports-related reasons, though we'll see if he can keep that from showing up on his Sunday morning ESPN appearance.

Posted by: John at October 10, 2004 10:38 AM

I dunno, Orrin.

I'd say that a straight line from right this minute leads -- at the most optimistic conceivable outcome -- to an Iraq split up and most of it controlled by Iran.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 10, 2004 3:58 PM

Most of it controlled by Shi'ites, not by Iran. That would be an excellent conclusion, though it seems more likely that the Sunni entity would not endure long term.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2004 4:05 PM