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The "I Dunno" Approach: What Historians And Educators Can Learn From A Baseball Statistician

March 17, 2008

For those of you who are not baseball fans, Bill James [right] is a famous statistician of the game. Although he grew up in Kansas and was (is?) a Kansas City Royals fan, he presently works for the Boston Red Sox.

Recently James completed a book called The Bill James Goldmine. Considering his connections to both Kansas City and the Red Sox, it doesn’t surprise me that media from both cities are covering the book’s release. Here’s an interview James did with Joe Posnanski, a Kansas City Star sports columnist and blogger of “curiously long posts.” Posnanski asks James questions far afield from baseball, so the post is fun.

But it was James’s interview with the The Boston Globe‘s Gordon Edes that caught my attention. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

– “The title of the first essay in James’s new book is ‘I Dunno.’ He agrees that is a reasonable way to describe his approach. ‘All research,’ he says, ‘begins with ignorance. The ability to focus on what it is that you do not know is critical to doing research. I’m absolutely convinced that none of us understands the world.’
– ” ‘I’m not a person that the world irritates, to quote Bill Buckley, but you turn on the radio and in any debate, you’ve got people who are convinced they know. Liberals, conservatives, Christians, Muslims, people who think Terry Francona is a genius, those that think he’s an idiot. They’re all convinced they’ve got this figured out.’
– ” ‘None of them has it figured out. We do not understand the world; the world is billions of times more complicated than our minds.’
– ” ‘You can make a useful contribution to a discussion if you can figure out specifically what it is you don’t understand and try to work on it. If you try to start from the other end – ‘I’ve got the world figured out and I’m going to explain it to everybody’ – maybe there are a lot of people who succeed in doing that, but it doesn’t work for me.’

Do historians and educators consistently begin their studies with the phrase “I Dunno”? Do we always acknowledge that “all research begins with ignorance”? Do we believe we have the world figured out already, and that our research should simply fit that view? Do we clearly know the areas where our understanding is lacking or weak? Do we sincerely believe that the world is “billions of times more complicated than our minds”?

In my experience researching the history of the great books idea, I saw too many historians and educators, in the secondary literature, approaching the topic with emotional baggage or ideological convictions. Their approach was consistently negative. It seemed to me that they found what they wanted and ignored archival evidence. Since I personally knew people who had positive great books experiences, that told me, from the start, that there might be something to re-viewing the record.

Analyzing with a James-ian open-minded approach would dampen some of the ideological accusations flung about on humanities research. Of course this doesn’t mean that one might not form a working hypothesis, or thesis, early on. But the point is to be open to what the primary documents, the data, might say.

I suspect that Bill James would be successful in any line of work. He clearly has the requisite humility and curiosity to be an academician. Many historians and educators, it seems to me, could learn a lot by mimicking James’s approach to research.

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