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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Inside (outside) football

Photo credit: AP/Gene J. Puskar
The insider-outsider problem in the study of religion entails that an insider in a religious tradition has an advantage of insight, while an outsider has an advantage of objectivity.

Which is to say, the insider can tell you what it feels like to participate in the religion, what's compelling about it, while the outsider can tell you about the less attractive and even harmful features of the religion.

The most recent episode of the Freakonomics podcast shows the insider/outsider problem in the study of brain damage caused by playing football.

John Urschel, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens and current PhD student of mathematics of MIT, retired from the Ravens after learning about the prevalence of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in career football players. He had observed his own reduction in thinking skills following a concussion, and concluded that the risk of getting CTE, while still largely an unknown, was enough of a threat to his ability to study mathematics to justify quitting the Ravens and football in general.

So John is absolutely a football insider. The neuroscience researchers and journalist interviewed on the podcast are insiders-- they describe, at every opportunity, their passionate and long-lasting love of football. They do this to emphasize how emotionally difficult it is to criticize the NFL for failing to acknowledge the incidences of CTE, and generally to point out a real problem with how the game they love is played.

And they also do this, no doubt, to soften the anticipated antagonism or skepticism of what they have to say as outsiders-- that football as it is played today is highly likely to cause brain damage to career players and possibly amateurs as well.

(See also: How Anita Sarkeesian has had to repeatedly emphasize how much she loves video games, even while pointing out sexist elements in those games.)

I have no use for football, so could more easily adopt the role of the objective outsider on CTE in football players, but as a result, you would see me advocating for much more strident changes to rules, and stronger condemnation of the NFL for being slow to respond to legitimate criticism.

And that's why it's called the insider-outsider problem-- is the outsider really so objective, if she has no sympathy to the value that others find in the practice she's criticizing? Is the insider really so insightful, if her love of the practice blinds her to the valid criticisms that can be made?

Of course the potential ability of the insider and outsider, respectively, to influence and persuade others of their point of view is also highly dependent on their status. Some football-lovers undoubtedly would not listen to stories about brain damage caused by football if the news comes from someone who doesn't establish their football-lover cred first. On the other hand, those with apathy or even antipathy to football, for one reason or another, might suspect the insider's criticism of being incomplete or not fully representative of the actual problem it describes.

So you might conclude-- okay, then we need both insiders and outsiders. Yes, we do. But insiders and outsiders are always going to exist, so more than that, we need to listen to both insiders and outsiders. And further, we need to be careful about demanding that someone genuflect sufficiently to demonstrate their status as an insider before listening to them, or even simply accept insider status as a prerequisite on its own for accepting what they have to say.

Obvious? Yes, when I state it like that. But nobody's immune to the bias of favoring the perspectives of insiders in their own groups. Crafty politicians play shamelessly to this bias by portraying themselves as insiders of whatever group they happen to be speaking to, to great effect. Tribalism is rampant in skepticism, in movement politics, even in casual hobby groups, and it comes from the implicit assumption that insiders know what they're talking about while outsiders don't....except, of course, when the outsider is you.

So this is just a friendly reminder to consider the perspectives of outsiders (other than yourself). Common ground can be found at a deeper level than group membership.  For example, maybe you love football and I couldn't care less, but (hopefully) we both care about avoiding brain damage.