Baseball, Bayes, Fisher and the problem of the well-trained mind

One of the neat things about the people in the baseball research community is how willing many of them are to continually question the status quo. Maybe it’s because sabermetrics is itself a relatively new field, and so there’s a humility there. Assumptions always, always need to be questioned.

Case in point: a great post by Ken Arneson entitled “10 things I believe about baseball without evidence.” He uses the latest failure of the Oakland A’s in the recent MLB playoffs to highlight areas of baseball we still don’t understand, and for which we may not even be asking the right questions. Why, for example, haven’t the A’s advanced to the World Series for decades despite fielding good and often great teams? Yes there’s luck and randomness, but at some point the weight of the evidence encourages you to take a second look. Otherwise, you become as dogmatic as those who still point to RBIs as the measure of the quality of a baseball batter. Which they are not.

One of the thought-provoking things Arneson brings up is the question of whether the tools we use shape the way we study phenomena–really, the way we think–and therefore unconsciously limit the kinds of questions we choose to ask. His example is the use of SQL in creating queries and the inherent assumptions of that datatype that objects within a SQL database are individual events with no precedence or dependence upon others. And yet, as he points out, the act of hitting a baseball is an ongoing dialog between pitcher and batter. Prior events, we believe, have a strong influence on the outcome. Arneson draws an analogy to linguistic relativity, the hypothesis that the language a person speaks influences aspects of her cognition.

So let me examine this concept in the context of another area of inquiry–biological research–and ask whether something similar might be affecting (and limiting) the kinds of experiments we do and the questions we ask.

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More developments in autism prediction

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk

A recent publication about efforts to find early indicators for autism recently came out in the journal Brain and reports an intriguing observation about brain size.  The researchers sought to identify whether Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the brains of infants and very young children could help to predict which children would go on to develop autism.  Like many pilot studies of this sort, the experiment was done simply by looking.  The researchers identified a cohort of newborn siblings of autistic children and also a control cohort without that risk factor and began taking MRI images of their brains at the age of between 6-9 months, and again at 12-15 months and 18-24 months.  Prior research has shown that having a sibling with autism greatly increases the probability that a child will also develop autism, so in this situation the expectation was that some of the sibling group would develop autism and researchers would retrospectively be able to look at the data collected during the study and identify MRI features that correlated with development of disease, should any exist.

The impetus behind this is that previous research has not shown any definitive behavioral clues in infants (6 months or younger) that predict the development of autism.  However, the earlier a child is diagnosed, the earlier behavioral interventions can be applied to help that child and his or her family cope with future challenges. Continue reading