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The best, the brightest, and the bullshit detector

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Robert McNamara, United States Secretary of Defense
Robert McNamara, United States Secretary of Defense
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If you are running an organization of any kind, baseball or otherwise, it is better to have smart people working for you than dumb people. That said, smart people are human beings with foibles and weaknesses and blind spots. And like all of us, smart, analytical, highly-intelligent people have an unfortunate tendency to believe their own bullshit.

The recent Brady Aiken draft debacle with the Houston Astros got me thinking about this. Some commentators believe that the Astros essentially out-thought themselves here. I've heard people say that this looks like a game-theory exercise gone wrong, and that the Astros were trying to manipulate the system and it backfired when Aiken didn't react to their tactics the way they predicted.

The best speculative article I read on the topic is this one, written by Nick J. Faleris at Baseball Prospectus. Faleris lays out how the failure to sign Aiken reflects a failure of proper contingency planning on the part of a front office that is well-known for intensive use of analytics and planning.

Maybe Faleris' scenario is exactly what happened; I don't know. I'm not privy to the discussions in the Houston front office, and anyone who is directly privy is not going to be posting comments on the internet. We may never know exactly what happened here, though Faleris' scenario seems like a plausible interpretation of what we do know.

Be that as it may, mentions of "game theory" and planning failures by really smart people got me thinking about a broader point.

One of my favorite books is The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam, which describes how the group of extremely intelligent, analytical and accomplished men who ran the foreign policy of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations blundered their way into Vietnam. People like Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Clark Clifford, Dean Rusk, all men of high intelligence and competence, put in place a series of "brilliant policies that defied common sense" as Halberstam wrote, resulting in a bloody war, a foreign policy disaster, and the deaths of millions of people.

Now, obviously baseball teams aren't playing for those kinds of stakes. But the same principles hold: bright, hard-working people can make horrible mistakes when they are unable to perceive a reality that is not matching up with theory.

Of course, you don't want dumb people working for you: smart is better than dumb. But even a group of the smartest decision-makers needs what I like to call a Bullshit Detector on staff.

If I were running a baseball team (or any other organization for that matter), I would hire someone whose only job was to study what the other people in the organization were doing and give me advice on whether it seems like bullshit from a "common sense" perspective.

The person in this position would need to be isolated from internal organizational politics as much as possible, and their job security should not be dependent on whether they are keeping me (or anyone else) happy. Maybe they would be a consultant with a long-term guaranteed contract that extends beyond my own job security, so that they would be less likely to fall into a "tell the boss what he wants to hear" mindset. Perhaps the other members of the staff don't need to know that this person is on the payroll.

This person's job would be to look at something going on in the organization, perhaps a complicated negotiation plan with a free agent for example, and think through how other people outside the organization may react.

If you have a plan that relies on someone reacting logically or predictably, the Bullshit Detector's job would be to remind you that people do not always respond in a logical way, that sometimes people react with emotion, not reason.

Anyway, it's a thought. I don't know if such a person would have helped the Astros sign Aiken since I don't really know what happened there. But I think we all sometimes need advice from someone who can step back from a situation, see the forest, point out the potential bullshit, and remind us that over-thinking can be just as dangerous as under-thinking.