The Art and Science of Science

The new movie Moneyball raises the spectre of science vs. art in filmic detail. My guess is that folks will take from the baseball movie confirmation of the views they had when they entered the theatre.

If you are a believer in equations, you’ll be pleased. If you believe in the non-tangible predictors of success, you’ll have your feelings confirmed, too.

But if, like me, you’re in the netherworld between science and art, you may have to be content with Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s crisp dialog, and just hang on while the movie unfurls. And it’s a riveting ride.

Lenka’s song “The Show,” which runs like a ribbon through the film, encourages us to “Just enjoy the show.”

One moment in the film hustled me back to graduate school days, when we were encouraged to create maps of variables intersecting with one another to predict a grand outcome. In the film, the geeky economist weights a whole boatload of variables to create an equation that predicts a successful outcome: a winning team.

But the team’s general manager and scouts foment at the prospect of creating a team based on mere variables. The numbers game overlooks the human element: the “feel” you get for a game based on real-life experience.

I recently spoke to someone who’s father has been a long-time baseball scout, and said that lots of folks detest Billy Beane, the locus of Moneyball. He pissed off a lot of people.

Problem is that film doesn’t examine the netherworld between stats and heart, science and art, brain and gut. How we interpret science needs to be tempered with our notions of culture. The film shows that some folks quit Bill Beane’s team because the human dimensions are ignored in favor of the balance sheet.

Same thing happens when scientists try to convince communities their ways are superior, and helps explain why some parents avoid (for example) vaccinating their children against childhood diseases.

I agree with the science but I don’t agree with the approach that parents—or baseball scouts–are stupid. Rather, we need to better understand the cultural mores that inform such decisions, and working within the cultural milieu when we’re attempting social change.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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