US History Education: Not Smart Enough to be Biased

Bald Eagle

Photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region

Originally published March 6, 2014

A poster on reddit wanted to know if schools still taught US History from a nationalistic, great-man view of history. Looking back, I found this difficult to answer, because I can neither say “yes, their teaching had a clear institutional bias” nor “no, they did a great job teaching about the nuance of history”.

My high school history curriculum consisted solely of “what videos can we get from ISD,” so it’s hard to point to a specific bias there, apart from a bias in favor of Ken Burns style documentaries (i.e. really long ones).

To be fair, some of my teachers actually tried to teach, but for all their efforts, their results were not much better. It would be difficult to pinpoint any particular bias, that much is true, but mostly because the overall teachings represented little more than some form of flawed or outdated scholarship filtered through a massive game of telephone.

Typical history lessons from my K-12 educational career include such fine pieces of scholarship as:

  • Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, was an African-American.
  • All conflicts between Christians and Muslims, or Jews and Muslims, are part of one long conflict that started with Isaac and Ishmael (no, this wasn’t a Christian school). The major example of the time was the Balkans conflict.
  • The United States won the Revolutionary War by using guerrilla tactics while the dumb British stood in lines and wore red. Once we became a country, we forgot how to guerrilla, and that’s why the Vietnam War was lost.
  • The Civil War was about taxes. Also something called a cotton gin, which may or may not be a cocktail.

The Moneyball Election — How Statistics are Important (And how they aren’t)

I originally published this on November 9, 2012 at fireflythegreat.livejournal.com.

Much has been made of 2012 as the moneyball election. It has been an election where statistics, data mining and algorithms all take on a new and increased importance—not only for “armchair political scientists” who follow Nate Silver, but also for the candidates themselves, and Obama and his team proved far better at moneyball than Romney and the GOP. Many GOP pundits were impressively, spectacularly wrong this year, as anyone who witnessed Rove’s near-meltdown on Fox News can attest. Now, Karl Rove is a smart guy, and he employed some shrewd strategies back in 2004, but he didn’t seem to see this one coming at all.

Karl Rove and a protestor with handcuffs

I told you, AFTER the broadcast…

I’ve been following “moneyball” and sabermetrics for the past year, not in relation to politics, but in relation to the Chicago Cubs, whose new owners fired general manager Jim Hendry after a trio of disappointing seasons in 2009-2011 (which had followed, in turn, on the heels of 2007 and 2008′s back-to-back division titles). They hired a new general manager, Theo Epstein, who had applied the moneyball strategy originated in Oakland to the larger payroll of the Boston Red Sox and broke an 86-year World Series drought for that franchise.

One of the initial hallmarks of sabermetrics that is emphasized in the book and film Moneyball is the importance of getting on base. While baseball’s marginally autistic fans have always loved to recount any given player’s batting average, sabermetricians emphasize that a walk is as good as a hit in getting men on base. Since the ability to draw walks was undervalued by most teams, Oakland was able to get some good deals on guys who got on base more often than their batting average indicates.

Now, that’s great news for the 2002 A’s. But what a lot of people who watch Moneyball might not realize is that, from where we sit ten years later, everybody and their brother is looking at on-base percentage. In 2012, you can’t just pick up some guys who takes walks, pat yourself on the back and say LOOK MA, I’M DOING SABERMETRICS.

Baseball board game
There are numbers and everything!

OK. Back to Karl Rove a moment. In 2004, Karl Rove was a master of demographics. He focused on exurbs—upper-class, outer-ring suburbs like Rochester, MI or Loudoun County, VA—as the keys to constructing Bush’s 2004 victory.

In 2012, Fox News Channel literally zooms in, again and again, on Loudoun County, VA as a key to that state and the nation.

LOOK MA, I’M DOING DEMOGRAPHICS.

The ideas aren’t bad—they really did work, in the past. But they fail to account for current conditions.

Cats at a sliding door
One of these times, this door will lead into summer.

It’s not that one side is using statistics and the other isn’t. Sure, Peggy Noonan might not be quoting you the latest poll numbers—because she’s a speechwriter. But everyone has stats guys—including the GOP.

But, look, RBI is a stat. wRAA is a stat. They both measure a player’s offensive output. They’re both imperfect stats. But one of them is better than the other.

In the end, though, moneyball isn’t about any particular stat, or set of stats, or algorithm, or anything you can put your finger on. It’s about staying three steps ahead of the competition, information-wise, and even more importantly about maintaining an organization that can turn on a dime and put that information to use.