‘The Social Message You Want to Put Forward’

by Reihan Salam

One of my best friends, Josh Levin, the executive editor of Slate, hosts a weekly sports podcast (“Hang Up and Listen“), and this week Josh and his co-hosts interviewed another friend, David Epstein, who covers the science of sports for Sports Illustrated. David is also the author of The Sports Gene, an engrossing new book on how our genetic inheritance influences our ability to excel at various sports. During the interview portion of the podcast, Stefan Fatsis asked David the following question:

Why do you think it’s so hard for people to just understand or acknowledge that there are genetic, biological traits in all of us that help determine whether we’re good at certain things? That does seem to me to be the takeaway, the major takeaway, of your book.

And David’s reply struck me as interesting and important:

I think one of the reasons it’s hard for people to acknowledge is that a large segment of scientists haven’t been helping. I mean, I would literally talk to sports psychologists who would say, “Yeah, okay, there are some differences, but you have to think about the social message you want to put forward.” And I’m not convinced that is the better social message. I think it would be best to help people — you know, because now what you get with the 10,000 hours rule is always an average of individual differences. It was never a rule. You have a high jumper who has almost zero hours of practice and another who has 20,000 hours, they both get to the world championships, and so they average 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. But one is zero and the other is 20,000. The range is what’s important. And I think it’s become really detrimental, because now there’s this early hyperspecialization in sports, and there are very few sports where the science shows that actually helps and others where it shows it’s detrimental. What the more recent science is suggesting is that you should have a sampling period, when you find what activity and training fits your genome best before you specialize in your mid-teen years. And so I really think we’re doing some athletes a disservice with that message, but some of the scientists, sports psychologists particularly, have felt like saying, “Well, you can achieve anything,” is the message you should put forward. Well, the converse of that is, if you didn’t get to the NBA, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. It’s a theme which maximizes the sort of “free will” message, and it’s self-helpy, which is why people enjoy it, even when most people in the back of their head realize that they have proclivities which make them better at one thing than another. 

The sports psychologists David references are not alone in trying to shelter the broader public from insights that they consider dangerous. Though I don’t want to associate David with my own views, I’m struck by the number of experts in other fields, including the social sciences, who seem to share the same impulse. Because this impulse speaks to a distrust of, if not a disdain for, the broader public, it shouldn’t be surprising that the broader public often rewards it with distrust and disdain in kind. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.