Being a Scientist is like being a Yankees Fan

The Yankees will eventually win another World Series. Science will also eventually get things right.

Mariano_Rivera_allison_7_29_07
(c) http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/2310047057

Why, might you ask, would I root for the Yankees since a) I live in California, b) I grew up in Canada, c) I’ve never lived in New York for more than a few months at a time and d) on the whole, I seem to be a reasonably nice person. Well, it’s actually very simple: I fell in love with a Yankees fan and he led me down the garden path. The problem with becoming a fan of the Yankees is that once you’ve been sucked in by all the winning and the talent and the tradition, there’s just no going back.

I went to my first professional baseball game in the early ‘90s, when the Toronto Blue Jays were picking up championships and the Yankees were laughable. I liked sitting in the sun, hoping to catch a flyball, eating hotdogs and, once in a while, watching the ball soar into the stands during a homerun. But all that swinging and missing, not swinging but still missing and missing while pitching made me wonder if these professional athletes shouldn’t be just a bit more, um, professional. Once the Jays started losing, well, that was that.

So it wasn’t until I was playing the part of the perfect girlfriend that I finally began to understand the game. The star, on whose shoulders rests the fate of the team, is the pitcher. In the big leagues, he almost never misses: the ball lands exactly where he intended it to, because he is extraordinarily skilled. So the battle is one of wits: the pitcher and the batter try to predict what the other is thinking, and act accordingly. With this understanding, the baseball diamond has become a social psychology laboratory, complete with sophisticated statistical tools and unpredictable individual variability.

Over time, I began to love the navy blue colors of my husband’s favorite team. I learned all the names and backgrounds of the players, and got caught up in their soap operatic sagas. The vast resources of the Yankees franchise make it seem all but impossible for other teams to be as successful. Like science, the Yankees might lose a game here or there, but year after year, they almost always win more games than they lose. And with each win, they strengthen their fan base, rake in even more money which will only lead to more resources and the ability to build a better team. Sure, management doesn’t always make the right decisions, often spending too much money on a player who is past his prime (just like many scientific granting agencies do), but over the long-term, they get things right.

I’m sure, that by now, many of you are fuming, or perhaps you’ve stopped reading. My faith in the Yankees viscerally upsets you. Likewise, my faith that science will or can explain life’s most precious mysteries upsets many people. Closed-minded, they call me. Sometimes they shake their heads, pitying my soul or pointing out all of the beauty that seems to be inaccessible to me because I feel compelled to try to understand mysteries through the eyes of a scientist. I see the same distant look when I’m outed as a Yankees fan. But being a Yankees fan doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the scrappy playing of the Giants, or rooting for the underdog Cubbies, or appreciating the bullishness of the Red Sox.

There are many Yankees fans out there but there are far more people who are not Yankees fans. And being a Yankees fan among non-Yankees fans often puts me into a defensive position: I have to justify my belief that the Yankees are worth cheering on. In my defense, I point to the long history of great players who have donned the uniform, to the fact that the Yankees have won the World Series almost three times more often than their closest rival, that they play as a team, for the most part, rather than as individual stars, and that they pride themselves in their sportsmanship. Science is the force behind that vast majority of the great leaps that mankind has made, it is based on the collective efforts of many people rather than individuals, and the ultimate goal is to make the world a better place for all of us. When I watch Mariano Rivera throw his one magical pitch and retire batter after batter, my heart warms. I get the same feeling when I read about yet another leap that brings mankind closer to curing disease or improving our quality of life. The Yankees will eventually win another World Series. Science will also eventually get things right.