Sam Harris on Statistical Concepts

Author, philosopher, and neuroscientist (what a combo!) Sam Harris appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience yesterday for a few hours of discussion. Towards the end, Harris and Rogan discussed some statistical concepts such as sampling bias, the hot hand fallacy, and probability. As this blog makes heavy use of Sabermetrics and statistical concepts in general, I felt that part of the discussion was quite enlightening.

You can watch the discussion below, or click the link for the transcript. Be warned that there is some strong language (not much), and a very brief discussion of religion, so use your discretion if you are easily offended.


Those points apply to baseball as well. There is a lot of sampling bias involved in justifying belief in clutch hitting, for example. The ninth-inning walk-off will always register more strongly in your memory than a ninth-inning ground out that sent the game into extra innings. When people justify calling a player clutch, they rattle off all of his clutch hits, but don’t put it within the context of total chances nor do they consider other factors that may have been at play.

The hot hand fallacy gets some play in baseball, especially when players go on hitting streaks. Jimmy Rollins went 1-for-6 in the first game of what would become a 38-game-hitting streak in 2005-06. If you had asked anyone within the first 13 games if Rollins was dialed in, they most likely would have affirmed. However, Rollins actually put up a lackluster .254/.318/.356 line. Rollins wasn’t any more likely to get a hit then than he was in any other situation at that time.

Rare events certainly drive baseball narratives. The Red Sox slipped out of post-season contention at the end of the regular season last year, and it was blamed post-hoc on the team’s consumption of beer and fried chicken in the clubhouse. Other teams have thrown away their post-season hopes in worse ways than the Red Sox, and it had nothing to do with beer and fried chicken. They went 7-20 (.259) in September, which is bad. But if you swapped their September with June (16-9, .640), the beer-and-chicken narrative goes away. It’s certainly not impossible for a .557 team to lose 20 of 27 games in a given stretch. Some of them happen early, some of them happen late, but it’s only when it happens late do we really pay attention and assign meaning to the occurrence.

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  1. David D.

    March 09, 2012 11:14 AM

    The hot hand fallacy seems to describe a situation where no individual events conclusion has an effect on a seperate repeatable event, but to me this doesnt seem to fully describe reality. I know talking about fallacies that quibble can be knocked around but there it is.

    That repeated success has no effect on future events seems to me to presepose that the factors dont change in regard to it ie: shift on Howard occurs only after success on grounders through gap.

  2. Phillie697

    March 09, 2012 11:43 AM

    That Rogan guy just proved why people don’t have a good understanding of probability. How many people in a room do you need to have two people with the same birthday? The guy just told you, 23 to cross the 50% threshold. Then he comments, well if you use your own birthday it has to be thousands. Ahm, no. Each person you add has a 1/365 chance of having the same birthday as you (assuming that birthdays across the population is a truly random distribution). You cross the 50% threshold at the 253th person. Not thousands. Good article Bill.

    @David D.,

    I fully understand your point. To ask a point that Harris for some reason didn’t make… How do you know it’s NOT luck? You can’t prove that either right? So why do you insist on someone who calls it luck to prove that it’s luck? You can’t have it both ways. If the factors that make it “happen,” even if it’s not luck at all, are so complicated and so numerous as to be beyond human perception and control, then what’s the difference between that and luck?

    I for one find the occurrence of rare events all that much more fascinating BECAUSE the actors had no control and was at the mercy of Lady Luck. If there is in fact an explanation for everything, then how boring would life be?

  3. Fatalotti

    March 09, 2012 12:52 PM

    Sam Harris is my favorite author on the subject of religious philosophy and statistical rational/thinking, so to see a video of his on a Sabermetrics website (since statistically analzying baseball is one of my favorite pasttimes); well, that’s just awesome!!

  4. awh

    March 09, 2012 06:23 PM

    “Some of them happen early, some of them happen late, but it’s only when it happens late do we really pay attention and assign meaning to the occurrence.”

    Bill, this is totally true.

    2007 is the example I like to use. The Mets are widely regarded as “chokers”, and the Phillies regarded as “money” and “clutch” players because they went 11-4 in their last 15 games (.733).

    But people choose to forget that the Phillies were “chokers” in April when they opened up the season by going 4-11 (.267).

    I always ask people: Don’t the games in April count as much as the ones in September?

  5. LTG

    March 09, 2012 08:06 PM


    Please don’t call Sam Harris a philosopher. He’s a good scientist, and that is a great achievement. That he writes about religion and faith only hinders the debate, since his arguments are sophomoric. Philosophy is a very rigorous discipline. The poor inferences he draws about faith from the constrained methods of physical science would be laughed out of any philosophy department. Mark Johnston, a well-trained philosopher, has convincingly shown that faith need not be committed to supernaturalism and, further, that the ban on idolatry just is a ban on belief in the supernatural. All of Harris’s arguments assume faith requires the supernatural, and, even then, his arguments are not sensitive to considerations as old as Kant’s which show the compatibility of faith in the supernatural with a thorough-going commitment to naturalism. One only need distinguish between the normative and the natural realms to get such a possibility live.

    Please, reserve “philosopher” for those who actually have training in that discipline. Sam Harris, on those subjects in which he doesn’t have training, is a sophist.

  6. jauer

    March 09, 2012 11:30 PM


    how did you come up with the 253 number?

  7. Phillie697

    March 12, 2012 09:36 AM


    Chance of at least one person in a group of X people being a hit = 1 – (chance that NOBODY in the group being a hit). In this case, the chance of nobody being a hit is 364/365 ^ X. That chance becomes less than 50% when X hits 253, which is the point the chance of at least one person being a hit becomes greater 50%.

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