Sowell's Latest Book

Monday, December 12, 2011

Via the following quote, Arts and Letters Daily led me to a piece in Commentary that reminded me of what an enjoyable writer Thomas Sowell is:

If a mad scientist were to repair to his laboratory to design a machine that would make white liberals uncomfortable, that machine would be Thomas Sowell...
True, and quite amusing, but the article put me off a little bit by accounting for this discomfort by painting Sowell as a consummate "nerd". I suppose, but despite the sympathetic use of the term, its shallowness tends to distract (and detract) from the very things I find most engaging about Sowell's body of work: the honesty and first-handedness with which he approaches the issues he writes about, and the broadness of his interests. These are both virtues, and not mere personality quirks.

Fortunately, the article succeeds in giving the reader a taste of both. The above quote continues:
... whose input is data and whose output is socioeconomic criticism in several grades, ranging from bemused observation to thorough debunking to high-test scorn -- all of which are represented in The Thomas Sowell Reader (Basic Books, 404 pages).
Starting off by noting Sowell's rare -- for a modern intellectual -- plain-spoken-ness, the article continues by looking at some of the writing he has done about his other interests:
[U]nder the heading of “Social Issues” in the Reader, ... the essay is "'Dead Ball' Versus 'Lively Ball'." Baseballologists will be familiar with the debate: Relatively few home runs were hit before 1920, after which the number grew very quickly. Legend has it that the Powers That Be in MLB introduced a so-called lively ball in 1920, hoping to produce a crop of exciting new home-run hitters to distract the public from the recent scandal of the Chicago "Black Sox," who had fixed the 1919 World Series. "Denials by baseball officials that the ball had been changed have been dismissed out of hand," Sowell writes, "in view of the dramatic and apparently otherwise inexplicable changes in the number of home runs hit in the 1920s and thereafter."

Sowell, as is his habit, does not accept the orthodoxy, in baseball or in politics. He goes to the data: How did specific hitters perform before and after the putative introduction of the lively ball? Did Ty Cobb and Joe Jackson start hitting more home runs? What do the statistics say? ...

Sowell's answer is that in baseball, as in economics, culture matters. In this case, the culture of baseball seems to have been changed by the phenomenon of Babe Ruth, whose home-run-hitting prowess made him a baseball demigod. Batting styles changed. "Gross numbers may suggest a change in the ball," Sowell writes, "but a finer breakdown of the statistics indicates a change in the batters." [links dropped]
I remember this wide-ranging exploration from my readings of several of Sowell's other books, most recently Black Rednecks and White Liberals a few years ago. Although I do not follow baseball closely, I have read about this controversy and like Sowell's approach to the question.

Having recently settled on an ebook reader, I'm sure, after this review, that this is one book that will land on it. Incidentally, Sowell himself makes some other intriguing reading suggestions in a recent column.

-- CAV

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