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October 10, 2013
The Semmelweis Reflex
Why Resist Sabermetrics?
A data analyst is hired to analyze a problem a baseball team is having. He studies and studies the problem from as many angles as possible but still can’t solve the issue. Finally, he comes upon some data that offers strong, tangible evidence of how to fix the problem and comes back to the team with his findings. The manager institutes the analyst’s recommendations and the team’s on-field performance improves. But then the general manager finds out about the change and orders the manager to go back to the old way of doing things. The analyst’s recommendations fly in the face of conventional wisdom, so despite the proof offered, the team rejects the analyst’s findings. Worse yet, not only is the analyst’s advice rejected in this specific instance, but he is discredited in the industry for presenting such a controversial theory as fact. He never gets a job in baseball again, and dies alone, penniless and forgotten.
This story sounds terrible, and I don’t mean that from the perspective of the unfortunate analyst who is now living on the mean and gritty streets of Hypotheticalville. It comes across as apocryphal nonsense that couldn’t have possibly happened in the real world and was devised by a numbers-oriented writer to pedantically prove a point.
The story, though, is based on real-life events. The only thing untrue about it is that it isn’t a baseball story.
In 1846, Ignaz Semmelweis was an assistant (resident) at the First Obstetrical Clinic in the Vienna General Hospital. At the time of his appointment, the mortality rates for women admitted to the First Clinic due to puerperal fever was 1-in-10. Vienna General’s Second Obstetrical Clinic had a 1-in-25 morality rate. The First Clinic’s reputation was so bad that some women refused to be taken to the clinic until after their babies were born.
It took the accidental death of a professor to lead to the solution to this horrible problem. This professor was accidentally poked with a student’s scalpel and died of symptoms similar to the puerperal fever that was killing women at the First Clinic. Semmelweis had already been studying this problem, but now he was able to conclude that there was a connection between contact with cadavers and the death rates in the maternity ward. Indeed, physicians in the First Clinic were going straight from handling cadavers in the morgue to delivering babies in the maternity ward. In the Second Clinic—where only midwives were delivering babies—there was no prior contact with cadavers.
Semmelweis immediately instituted a hand-disinfecting policy and within a year the death rate in the clinic plummeted to near zero. If only the story had ended on this happy note. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Despite the success of the disinfection procedure, the medical establishment rejected Semmelweis’ findings. While his theories seem ho hum in the W21st century, germ theory hadn’t been established yet and few were willing to give his conclusions any merit. Within a few years, Semmelweis had been dismissed from the hospital, his procedures were abandoned, and the clinic’s mortality rate shot right back up to where it had been before Semmelweis had instituted his procedures. After years of trying in vain to convince the medical community that his theories were valid, Semmelweis’ mental health deteriorated. He was institutionalized in 1865 and died days later from a wound caused due to a beating administered by the institution’s guards.
So what does any of this have to do with baseball?
The parallel between the authority in medicine that stood up against Semmelweis and baseball’s so-called old guard that has been resistant to accept sabermetrics is that both parties stood up in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. In Semmelweis’ case, he did a poor job of compiling data to prove his point before he instituted his changes. Nevertheless, it was a true tragedy that the authority figures of his day weren’t at least interested in the positive results of his conclusions and weren’t willing to allow his disinfection procedures to continue while further research was conducted.
I came across this story years ago in a college class I have long forgotten, but didn’t realize until I started researching this article that there is a name for this phenomenon: the Semmelweis Reflex. The phenomenon is defined as behavior that thoughtlessly rejects new knowledge because it contradicts established belief systems.
Baseball is always cited as a game that is slow to change because it is steeped in tradition, making it unlike other walks of life. The logical progression of this explanation is that baseball is unique in its resistance to accept change. In reality, this phenomenon is common in nearly every walk of life, even in areas where it would seem that science and logic should always take a front seat.
Near the end of Semmelweis’ life, Louis Pasteur performed formal experiments that discovered the origins of puerperal fever. These experiments are seen today as the origin of germ theory that we all accept today as commonplace. Eventually, disinfection became the custom in medicine and Semmelweis’ impact was posthumously recognized.
Baseball is in the “post-germ-theory” era. Many of the experiments have been conducted and the theories are being enacted—both on the field and in front offices throughout the professional ranks. The idea of an entrenched establishment that refuses to acknowledge sabermetrics is more of a mythology now than the idea that sabermetrics is roundly rejected by the lords of the sport.
To be certain, there are stubborn holdouts that continue to cling to the idea that the intangibles outweigh the math. But the ranks of the disbelievers have diminished, and continue to dwindle as time passes. The debates within the game have already changed, and mostly for the better. Whether it is a broadcaster discussing BABIP or swinging strike percentages, or a writer considering WAR in casting his MVP or Cy Young Award vote, we are already inhabiting a brave new world. Baseball’s Semmelweis Reflex remains, but it is weakened. The belief that there is no value to be gained in baseball through analytics is held by fewer and fewer with ties to the game every year. The old-school guard that insists that intangibles outweigh facts sound like they are telling us that the sun revolves around a flat Earth that is at the center of the universe. The “there is no value in analytics” crowd might never completely disappear, but there will come a time when they will sound as absurd as someone suggesting that poisonous vapors are making you sick.