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Difficult to Measure

Here’s a link that has nothing to do with chemistry: a profile of Bill James. Or does it? As many out there will know, James pioneered a data-driven, from-the-ground-up way of looking at baseball, and writing about it. Back in the 1980s, I bought his Baseball Abstract every year, and enjoyed them thoroughly, but not just as a baseball fan. I liked his approach to the subject: does some piece of received wisdom make sense? Can we find out if it does? If not, why did we all believe it for so long? And so on. As I wrote here, reading James probably changed my life to some extent. I was already inclined this way, but seeing the Jamesian worldview in action was inspiring. And I still have a lot of what he wrote, up in my head, well-used parts of my mental furniture.
A line from this new profile really stands out:

“I have to take my share of responsibility for promoting skepticism about things that I didn’t understand as well as I might have,” he says. “What I would say NOW is that skepticism should be directed at things that are actually untrue rather than things that are difficult to measure.”

And boy, do we ever have that problem in drug discovery. A lot of our most important concepts and processes fall into that category. And there are (as usual) opposite errors that we can make about them. We can decide that everything that’s said and done about them is crap, because they’re so difficult (and difficult to quantify). Or we can mess up in the other direction by embracing any quantitative approach that comes along, because it finally promises to give us some clarity. Steering between these two is not easy, not at all. But we have to try.

8 comments on “Difficult to Measure”

  1. Anonymous says:

    And of course you weren’t the only chemist interested in this. Dick Cramer, a med chemist at Smith-Kline at the time, went on to convert his stats knowledge to (3D)QSAR, Tripos etc…

  2. DrZZ says:

    I charted games for Project Scoresheet and worked with Tripos software at work and never connected the two until I met Dick at a QSAR Gordon conference.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The thing I’m most skeptical of, is what we take for granted.

  4. Anon says:

    I am very glad that I live in a culture that values skepticism. Imagine a culture where individuals are not skeptical of the promise of receiving virgins upon death for “heroic acts…” Oh, wait a minute….

  5. PorkPieHat says:

    In the article, it mentioned how upset Bill James used to get at out-of-context mentioning of a batter’s statistics in esoteric situations were. He thought they were meaningless “Bullshit”. Kind of reminds me of some good Christian men and women who quote Bible verses out of context willy-nilly to suit their own ends (Bullshit).

  6. What did Bill James had to say about you, the sinkerball and World Series champion for the Red Sox?

  7. samadamsthedog says:

    “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you; it’s what you do know that ain’t so.” -Will Rogers.

  8. Dave says:

    Good on someone for remembering Dick Cramer, a colleague of mine at the time, who talked about Bill James and SABRES and regaled me with tales of what performance stats really amounted to. Dick said they tried to interest the Phillies in their metrics year after year in the 70s, never to any effect.

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