Another selective gee whiz moment from Malcolm Gladwell


Gladwell from The New Yorker, Sep. 9, 2013:
“It is hard to think about (Alex) Rodriguez, however, and not think about Tommy John, who, in 1974, was the first player to trade in his ulnar collateral ligament for an improved version. John used modern medicine to recover from injury and extend his career. He won a hundred and sixty-four games after his transformation, far more than he did before science intervened. He had one of the longest careers in baseball history, retiring at the age of forty-six. His bionic arm enabled him to win at least twenty games a season, the benchmark of pitching excellence. People loved Tommy John. Maybe Alex Rodriguez looks at Tommy John—and at the fact that at least a third of current major-league pitchers have had the same surgery—and is genuinely baffled about why baseball has drawn a bright moral line between the performance-enhancing products of modern endocrinology and those offered by orthopedics.”

Seriously? Is Gladwell really arguing that Tommy John surgery and PEDs are equivalent? He sure seems to be. But if so, he’s being pretty selective and sneaky with his facts and language. (I’ve bitched about this before.) Let’s parse, shall we?

Sentence 1: “trade in his ulnar collateral ligament for an improved version.”

Between the words “his” and “ulnar collateral ligament” Gladwell leaves out the words “utterly useless.” Without that surgery, John’s career would have been over, kaput, finito. His new ligament was “improved” mainly in the sense that it actually worked, whereas his old one left him unable to pitch. At all.

Sentence 2: “John used modern medicine to recover from injury and extend his career.”

Yes, one could say he extended his career, but a more accurate way of saying it was that he preserved or salvaged his career. Again, no surgery, no career. But that doesn’t help get Gladwell’s point across. Now, let’s skip to…

Sentence 5: “His bionic arm enabled him to win at least twenty games a season, the benchmark of pitching excellence.”

This sentence is so full of it, I have to address it in two parts:

A) My dictionary defines bionic thusly: “Having artificial body parts or the superhuman powers resulting from these.” John’s transplanted ligament was fashioned from a tendon in his non-pitching arm. True, sometimes ligaments are replaced with tissue from cadavers, but that still isn’t artificial, nor does the treatment render the recipient “superhuman.” I’ve never before heard anyone assert that Tommy John surgery renders a pitcher better than he was before. For most, recovery is a struggle to get back to where they were, if they make it back at all. If Tommy John surgery is such a huge advantage, can Gladwell name a single pitcher who has replaced a functioning, non-injured ulnar collateral ligament with a “new and improved” one? No, because it doesn’t happen.

B) “… enabled him to win at least twenty games a season…”: So, during the course of “one of the longest careers in baseball history,” John averaged above 20 wins a season, right? No. He had three 20-win seasons in his career, all within the first five years of his comeback from surgery. He pitched 13 seasons after his last 20-win campaign, never getting above 14 wins after that. Now, make no mistake, just having three 20-win seasons at all is outstanding. A single 20-win season is increasingly rare. But implying that 20 wins was John’s season average really reinforces the whole bionic idea. Gladwell is either trying to put one over on his readers, or being incredibly lazy. And where is his editor? 

Sentence 7: “…a bright moral line between the performance-enhancing products of modern endocrinology and those offered by orthopedics.”

Here Gladwell is playing fast and loose with the idea of performance enhancement. By his lights, I suppose someone in cardiac arrest whose heart is shocked back into life by a defibrilator undergoes a “performance-enhancing procedure.”