Birnbaum: On explaining things well and sabermetrics

From SABR member Phil Birnbaum at Sabermetric Research on December 12, 2013, with mention of fellow SABR member Bill James:

When I was a kid, the adult science writer I read the most was Isaac Asimov.  He wasn’t the most expert in any of the fields he wrote about (except, perhaps, biochemistry, which was his Ph.D.), but he was easy to read and understand.  

Some call that kind of writing “accessible,” which, I guess, means that you don’t need a lot of background to follow what the author is saying.  But I don’t think that really captures it. It’s been a while since I read any Asimov, but I bet that even in subjects where I have a fair bit of background — math, say — Asimov would still be a cleaner read than other authors.  I think Asimov’s real skill is: he’s just really, really good at explaining things.  In fact, he’s been nicknamed “The Great Explainer.”

Explaining is one of those important skills that, in my view, gets no respect at all.  Ask what makes a good teacher, and what do people say?  Motivating the students, and understanding every pupil’s strengths and weaknesses, and being able to gauge the mood of the classroom, and being an interesting and varied speaker, and using multimedia and experiments, and knowing the subject, and stuff like that. But to me, the biggest thing is: finding explanations that students will actually understand.


There are many reasons I admire Bill James.  One of the biggest is his ability to explain the things he’s discovered.  His explanations are … well, I think they’re nearly perfect.   He explains what happens, and why, and how his method works, and it all comes together so well that you can read it once, at normal human reading speed, and … you just get it.  His explanations just penetrate your brain effortlessly.

A lot of that is that he’s such a good writer, but that’s not enough.  William Shakespeare was a good writer, but I wouldn’t bet on him being able to explain Runs Created.  A good writer will say things well, but a good explainer will also choose the right things to say.

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Originally published: December 12, 2013. Last Updated: December 12, 2013.