Sunday, August 21, 2011

Baseball and Linguistic Uncertainty

In my youth I played an inordinate amount of baseball, collected baseball cards, and idolized baseball players. I've outgrown all that but when I'm in the States during baseball season I do enjoy watching a few innings on the TV.

So I was watching a baseball game recently and the commentator was talking about the art of pitching. Throwing a baseball, he said, is like shooting a shotgun. You get a spray. As a pitcher, you have to know your spray. You learn to control it, but you know that it is there. The ball won't always go where you want it. And furthermore, where you want the ball depends on the batter's style and strategy, which vary from pitch to pitch for every batter.

That's baseball talk, but it stuck in my mind. Baseball pitchers must manage uncertainty! And it is not enough to reduce it and hope for the best. Suppose you want to throw a strike. It's not a good strategy to aim directly at, say, the lower outside corner of the strike zone, because of the spray of the ball's path and because the batter's stance can shift. Especially if the spray is skewed down and out, you'll want to move up and in a bit.

This is all very similar to the ambiguity of human speech when we pitch words at each other. Words don't have precise meanings; meanings spread out like the pitcher's spray. If we want to communicate precisely we need to be aware of this uncertainty, and manage it, taking account of the listener's propensities.

Take the word "liberal" as it is used in political discussion.

For many decades, "liberals" have tended to support high taxes to provide generous welfare, public medical insurance, and low-cost housing. They advocate liberal (meaning magnanimous or abundant) government involvement for the citizens' benefit.

A "liberal" might also be someone who is open-minded and tolerant, who is not strict in applying rules to other people, or even to him or herself. Such a person might be called "liberal" (meaning advocating individual rights) for opposing extensive government involvement in private decisions. For instance, liberals (in this second sense) might oppose high taxes since they reduce individuals' ability to make independent choices. As another example, John Stuart Mill opposed laws which restricted the rights of women to work (at night, for instance), even though these laws were intended to promote the welfare of women. Women, insisted Mill, are intelligent adults and can judge for themselves what is good for them.

Returning to the first meaning of "liberal" mentioned above, people of that strain may support restrictions of trade to countries which ignore the health and safety of workers. The other type of "liberal" might tend to support unrestricted trade.

Sending out words and pitching baseballs are both like shooting a shotgun: meanings (and baseballs) spray out. You must know what meaning you wish to convey, and what other meanings the word can have. The choice of the word, and the crafting of its context, must manage the uncertainty of where the word will land in the listener's mind.

Let's go back to baseball again.

If there were no uncertainty in the pitcher's pitch and the batter's swing, then baseball would be a dreadfully boring game. If the batter knows exactly where and when the ball will arrive, and can completely control the bat, then every swing will be a homer. Or conversely, if the pitcher always knows exactly how the batter will swing, and if each throw is perfectly controlled, then every batter will strike out. But which is it? Whose certainty dominates? The batter's or the pitcher's? It can't be both. There is some deep philosophical problem here. Clearly there cannot be complete certainty in a world which has some element of free will, or surprise, or discovery. This is not just a tautology, a necessary result of what we mean by "uncertainty" and "surprise". It is an implication of limited human knowledge. Uncertainty - which makes baseball and life interesting - is inevitable in the human world.

How does this carry over to human speech?

It is said of the Wright brothers that they thought so synergistically that one brother could finish an idea or sentence begun by the other. If there is no uncertainty in what I am going to say, then you will be bored with my conversation, or at least, you won't learn anything from me. It is because you don't know what I mean by, for instance, "robustness", that my speech on this topic is enlightening (and maybe interesting). And it is because you disagree with me about what robustness means (and you tell me so), that I can perhaps extend my own understanding.

So, uncertainty is inevitable in a world that is rich enough to have surprise or free will. Furthermore, this uncertainty leads to a process - through speech - of discovery and new understanding. Uncertainty, and the use of language, leads to discovery.

Isn't baseball an interesting game?

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