Batman is a scientist.

Ahoy all, it’s your resident worst writer on the site back again to confound and befuddle you with more meaningless drivel. Now anyone with a lick of pop culture in their bodies recognizes the title of this tome as a line from The Simpsons season 4 classic “Marge vs. the Monorail”. To set the scene – Springfield has been swindled out of a windfall by a Harold Hill-type promising wonderment and jobs with a monorail. At the end, monorail conductor Homer is trapped in the cockpit of a packed, hurtling-to-its-doom train built with substandard parts. Marge arrives and calls Homer on the radio:

M: There’s a man here who thinks he can save you.
H: Is it Batman?
M: No, he’s a scientist.
H: Batman is a scientist.
M: It’s not Batman.

Which really has nothing to do with anything other than the fact I was cracking up thinking about it at work today. That is until I came across an interesting little fluff piece about some mathematician who has created a model to predict the outcome of the upcoming (yawn) baseball season down to the number of games each team will win. Mathematician would be considered a scientist, right, at least depending on what they actually do and level of degree. Someone’s got a PhD in math and you think, whoa, far out, check out Professor Brainiac. Someone’s got a PhD in English and you think, didn’t I ask for my secret sauce on the side and extra cheese?

Anyway, he’s probably a pretty sharp cat.

Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols and baseball’s other greats have barely begun spring training, but a mathematician from New Jersey already knows what kind of season they’ll have.

Bukiet bases his predictions on a mathematical model he developed in 2000, one that computes the probability of a team winning a game against another team with given hitters, bench, starting pitcher, relievers and home field advantage. For this season, Bukiet has refined his algorithm slightly, incorporating a more realistic runner advancement model. Whatever that is.

The professor claims to have beaten the odds in six of the eight years he’s been using the model.
He’s given himself a rather broadly subjective definition of success – “beaten the odds”. Six out of eight years ain’t too shabby, but before we go all Winston Wolf it would be interesting to know exactly how he defines beating the odds. Significantly better than a prediction generated randomly? Better than the line in Vegas?

Bukiet also applies his mathematical modeling to gambling, in particular for understanding baseball and cricket. He posts his analysis online at www.egrandslam.com.

“I publish these numbers to promote the power and relevance of math,” he says. “We’ve long had a problem convincing U.S. youngsters to embrace mathematics in school. Studying how math applies to baseball demonstrates not only that math can be fun, but how it is really a part of things people care about.”

Heh, cricket. It’s like baseball only less boring.

I hope he makes a tidy little profit doing it too. The quintessential American dream of earning a living doing something you love. While baseball itself is a game, there is science behind the game and its statistics are ripe for analysis. Fundamentally, pretty much any activity can be broken down and analyzed scientifically. Taylor remade the modern workplace with science. Walk through a grocery store and marvel at the scientific miracle that is product placement.

One thing his model couldn’t possibly predict is the effect of unexpected situations such as injuries. Math, regardless of how sound, can’t predict the random, chaotic events endemic to life on Earth. Beyond the unforeseen, any mathematical model is only as good as the data from which it generates its output. Baseball statistics are well documented and recorded consistently by MLB, so it would be easy to go back 100 years to create a data set that would choke the most powerful super computers.

So here we’ve got a scientist who has taken meticulously documented data publicly available to anyone with an Internet connection and devised a simulation of an entire baseball season and posted his predictions. Given that, how many of you would be willing to wager your next three months’ pay on his predictions? Or better yet, one month’s pay per year based on the results of this year’s prediction for the rest of your life and your children’s lives and their children’s lives?

No takers? Funny. The IPCC, Obama, most of the Democrats, McCain, Graham, and a handful of other addlepated Republicans want to wager $800 billion in the short term and $ trillions in economic growth over the next 90 years based on computer simulations of a similarly chaotic, uncoupled, non-linear combination of factors known as climate. Only no one can see the data. That data is gathered from diverse, dissimilar sources and “adjusted” to a “standard” measurement criteria defined by the modelers. And unlike Professor Bukiet’s model, climate models fail to accurately recreate the climate history we know from the data sets they’re fed without further “adjustment”.

That, my friends, is what the folks in Vegas call a sucker bet.

Sucker bets do come in sometimes. Someone will hit an exacta at the Derby. But building our energy future on farcical, expensive, sporadically operable solar panels/windmills based on what is essentially a random probability is heads we lose, tails we lose. Cheap and abundant energy is the only winning future and we’ve already set ourselves back 20 years from where we need to be in electricity generating capacity.

Batman is a scientist and he isn’t eradicating Gotham City’s arch-villains driving a plug-in hybrid Batmobile or piloting a solar Batwing. Taking our cues from Bruce Wayne makes about as much sense as wagering our energy future on silly computer games.

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