Sunday, March 16, 2008

Even Gedolim Fall Prey To The Availability Heuristic

The Availability Heuristic is psychological phenomenon in which people base their opinions on certain events that are fresh in their minds, while ignoring other events that offer contradictory evidence against their beliefs. For example, many baseball fans believe that certain players are clutch hitters, guys who come up big when it counts. In reality, such players are non-existent.

A good example is Mark Lemke. Anyone who grew up watching baseball in the mid-90s knows exactly who I am talking about. Lemke was the second baseman on the Braves dynasty teams that won pretty much all the NL East division titles in the 90s. Lemke's career numbers were well below average, according to conventional and advanced metrics. His career OPS+ was 71 and his EQA was .230. His career batting average and OPS were .246 and .641 respectively.

But Lemke was known as a clutch postseason player. Even Hall of Fame greats are drinking the koolaid:

"Chicago Cubs right-hander Greg Maddux says Lemke is the best clutch hitter he's seen, and Giants outfielder Barry Bonds says Lemke turned into Babe Ruth during October."

Babe Ruth? That's high praise coming from a guy who actually hit like Babe Ruth in one postseason. I'd expect Lemke's post-season numbers to be substantially better than his career stats.

But they aren't. While Lemke's postseason OPS was .688 (a solid 47 points higher than his career OPS) the real Babe Ruth's playoff SLG was .744 almost 60 points higher than Lemke's OPS. Even the greatest choker in the history of the world has a playoff OPS of .844, which is more than 150 points higher than Lemke. Something tells me there were tougher outs in the postseason than Mark Lemke.

So why does everyone think Lemke was so great in the postseason? Because he had a number of big games:

"[I]t's the 1991 World Series against the Twins that's stamped in everyone's mind.
Lemke's RBI single won Game 3 for the Braves, and he scored the game-winning run in Game 4. Then he hit two triples in Game 5 and finished with a .417 average, even though he started the series 1-for-7."

Lemke had a big series and suddenly everyone think he was a dominant postseason force. They remember the series when he hit .417, but not the two series when he batted .167. They can recall his dominant 1996 NLCS in which he slugged .630, but not his awful 1995 NLCS when he slugged only .167. It's human nature to have certain events stand out and to forget the other less memorable events.

This cognitive flaw manifests itself in a number of other instances. For example, a lot of parents asked their children not to take buses while spending their year in Yeshiva or Seminary in Israel. These parents were influenced by the endless news reports of suicide bombings in Israel during the Intifada. Surely suicide bombings created a real risk, but the risk was greatly overexaggerated. Buses made literally dozens of runs a day and hundreds a week. What were the odds that a person's child would be on the specific bus that was targeted? There was probably a greater risk taking a cab and being killed in a car accident.

It seems even the Gedolim are not immune from these heuristics. Rav Chaim Kanievsky, one the biggest Gedolim in Israel, recently prohibited using Arab labor in Yeshivos. His argument is that we are at war with them and employing them poses a grave risk to Jewish life (he also argued that jobs should be categorically given to Jews over non-Jews if financial feasible).

But does that risk really exist? Surely there is a greater risk in hiring Arabs over Jews in almost all situations, but there is also a greater risk in driving than walking. There is a cost-benefit analysis that must be undertaken here. Is there a serious risk in hiring Arabs, one that is not offset by the benefits?

Israeli Arabs, even the ones in East Jerusalem, have been relatively benign since the start of the Intifada. Sure, there were the riots when the Intifada broke out and there was a terrorist attack carried out by an Israeli-Arab, but overall they have been on the sidelines since the 2000. The Merkaz massacre was committed by an Arab from East Jerusalem, and there have been other instances of terror from his village (and see this article about the favorable response to the murders in his village). But when hiring an Arab living in Israel, the odds are strongly against the employee being a terrorist. There are thousands of Arabs working in Yeshivos and universities who have never been implicated in a terrorist attack (or the planning of such attack), which is the overwhelming majority. Again, it wouldn't shock me if I found out that the students had a better chance of being killed when going on tiyulim.

Decisions need to be made after doing proper research. It doesn't seem like that was done here.

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