Q&A: Alan Hirsch

Throughout much of sabermetric cyberspace, The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball, is being panned, its co-authors, Alan and Sheldon Hirsch, labeled as backwards-thinking ignoramuses [and worse]. Some of the criticism is merited — the book certainly has its flaws — but looking at its content objectively, it is also necessary to ask: Do the authors make some valid points? In this interview, Alan Hirsch defends, and clarifies, several of them.

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David Laurila: The first chapter of the book is, “Where Moneyball Went Wrong.” Why do you feel that Moneyball — most commonly defined as “identifying undervalued assets in baseball (often through the use of statistical analysis)” — is a failed approach?

Alan Hirsch: Note that in the title of the first chapter Moneyball is italicized. The chapter concerns where Michael Lewis and, to a lesser extent, Billy Beane go wrong. It’s not until subsequent chapters that we discuss sabermetrics more systematically. In the Moneyball chapter, we do not say that identifying undervalued assets through statistical analysis is inherently a failed approach.

The first part –“identifying undervalued assets in baseball” — is beyond reproach. That’s what everyone ought to do, whether your business is baseball or baseball cards. The second part — “the use of statistical analysis” — is the issue, because that’s Michael Lewis’s central claim: the A’s succeeded because of Billy Beane’s unique insights, relative to other GMs, rooted in sabermetrics. Any team that wins with a low payroll, say the Twins, has identified undervalued assets. Nobody has written a ballyhooed book about the Twins because they do not purport to have a new paradigm for identifying these assets. Thus, our analysis of Moneyball revolves around the insights attributed to Beane.

We go point by point to show that Lewis exaggerated — in some respects that’s a charitable characterization — the extent to which Beane benefited from insights rooted in sabermetrics. For now, two examples should suffice. First, there was his belief that statistics alone could identify top prospects. Jeremy Brown and Brant Colamarino are a good place to start if we’re talking about shortcomings in identifying undervalued assets through statistical analysis. A second example is Beane’s alleged use of Voros McCracken’s theory about how to evaluate pitchers.

DL: The crux of McCracken’s theory is that pitchers have no control over what happens once a ball is put into play — defense, park effects and random chance play a significant role in the outcome — thus strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed are better indicators of performance, especially future performance. What makes this a falsehood in your mind?

AH: What’s false is “no control” and, more importantly, the way Lewis milked it to advance his storyline: Beane’s ingenious use of sabermetrics to gain a competitive advantage. He suggested that McCracken’s theory enabled Beane to find undervalued pitchers, such as a journeyman relief pitcher, Chad Bradford, to whom Moneyball devoted 40 pages. We argue in Short Hops that all of this – the very idea that Beane won because of players like Bradford acquired thanks to sabermetric insight like McCracken’s – is dubious. That pitchers have some control over the outcome of batted balls is established if you look at pitchers’ career data, particularly comparing pairs of pitchers who spent most of their careers with the same team (thus controlling to a large degree for ballpark and defense). Pitchers are a complicated package. They succeed as a result of different combinations of skills reflected in walks, strikeouts, home runs, AND weaker-hit balls that generate easy outs.

DL: You mock Sam Hinke, the head of basketball analytics for the Houston Rockets, for saying, “I care a lot more about what ought to have happened than what actually happened.” Given his role — and the fact that Branch Rickey famously said that luck is the residue of design — should process not be his primary concern?

AH: You can try to use statistics to help your team without regarding sports as a social science laboratory. It’s not just Hinkie. In Moneyball, Michael Lewis describes Beane’s perspective as follows: “The game can be reduced to a social science. . . . It is simply a matter of figuring out the odds, and exploiting the laws of probability” because “baseball players follow strikingly predictable patterns.” According to Lewis, Beane hates watching the games. All general managers try to put their team in position to win, but they don’t all share the Beane/Hinkie attitude that all the good stuff happens before the game. For Beane and Hinkie, the game itself is agonizing (not thrilling or beautiful) because the best-laid plans may be thwarted. Other GMs (including some who utilize sabermetrics) love watching the game; they see themselves as fans as well, interested in the “actually happened” as well as the “ought to have happened.” Beane and Hinkie represent an extreme, but one senses things moving in that direction.

DL: In the “Two Cheers for Sabermetrics” chapter, you laud the importance of on-base percentage but also suggest that walks are overrated.

AH: This has a number of components. The walk itself will only be overrated by anyone who believes in the mantra “a walk is as good as a hit.” Obviously that’s only true of singles, and even then only with no one on base. Virtually everyone realizes that, but they may overlook its relevance to the tradeoff between patience and aggressiveness. A team may be unhappy that Vlad Guerrerro or Adrian Beltre doesn’t walk a lot. You may prevail upon them to be more patient, though it may be that few batters can significantly change an entrenched approach. Even then, the overall result may well be negative. For Guerrero and Beltre, a free-swinging style has been effective, and increased patience could easily translate into lost power.

We also make a broader point that the emphasis on OBP has had a limited impact. We credit sabermetrics with emphasizing OBP and deemphasizing batting average. But even as that recognition has become universally accepted, walks and OBP have not increased. We discuss a number of reasons for that, which is really part of a larger phenomenon: the game’s essential continuity. Except when there’s a major new development (such as a livelier ball, smaller strike zone, steroid use), the game resists huge swings and even the impact of the major developments tends to diminish over time. For example, with only transient variation, the batting average across baseball has remained roughly .260 for 90 years.

DL: In the same chapter, you noted that Kevin Youkilis saw his home run totals steadily rise from 2006-2008 while his walks concurrently decreased. You inferred a direct correlation, citing increased aggressiveness. Given that Youkilis saw his home run rate continue to climb in 2009, while his walk rate returned to its earlier levels, does your example hold water? Can a direct correlation be substantiated?

AH: We can infer a likely correlation, because the two-way shift in numbers was so substantial, from 91 walks to 62 and 13 home runs to 29. The point there was the irony that Moneyball cites Youkilis as a quintessential Beane player — underrated because of his ability to draw walks — but he achieved stardom when he (apparently) sacrificed patience for aggressiveness, an approach that allegedly drives Beane crazy. In 2009, he put it all together.

DL: Much of your criticism seems to be centered on issues specific to Michael Lewis’s book, and your views on sabermetrics as a whole are nowhere near as negative. Is that accurate?

AH: It’s certainly accurate that we don’t confuse Moneyball with sabermetrics. At the end of the chapter on Moneyball we make a point of saying that Lewis’s and Beane’s errors need not indict sabermetrics more broadly. I think it’s also accurate to say that we’re more negative about Moneyball — it’s a great read, but as much fiction as non-fiction. As for sabermetrics, we acknowledge that it rescued baseball from a tradition of ignorance and has increased understanding in important areas. But we also offer a hard-hitting critique.

Let me give just one example. UZR and related sophisticated defensive measurements are increasingly used by major league teams. In Short Hops, we offered a detailed critique of UZR, arguing that its usefulness is quite limited at best. If we’re right, that’s obviously important.

DL : In the “What Makes Baseball” chapter, you go beyond Moneyball and sabermetrics and posit, among other things, that, “Baseball is simultaneously easier to follow and more complex than other sports.”

AH: Yes, that chapter was great fun to write. It takes as its starting point a debate between George Will and Donald Kagan, occasioned by Kagan’s review of Will’s Men at Work, about what makes baseball special. In a nutshell, Will sees baseball as a thinking man’s sport – it’s all about preparation and cogitation. His favorite manager is the cerebral Tony LaRussa and his favorite players are guys like Tony Gwynn who spend a million hours watching videotape in search of every little edge. Kagan scoffs. He says what makes baseball great is romantic heroism – Joe D hitting in 56 straight, Babe promising home runs to boys in hospitals and delivering, the stuff that inspires legend and song. And we say they’re both right and both wrong. They’ve each located something compelling about the game, something the other is wrong to dismiss. But neither has located anything unique about baseball: the virtues they describe are present in other sports as well.

We ask just what is distinctive about baseball — apart from the oft-mentioned absence of a clock. And the answer (perhaps I should say, AN answer) is what you allude to and what we call the game’s narrative richness. There’s more going on in baseball than you find in most sports. There’s the four bases (each with an umpire and player nearby), and sometimes you have action at two or even three on a single play. There are the unique ballparks that affect the game substantially. Even fans sometimes become involved in plays, and of course Mother Nature. Wind and sun often play a role. I could go on and on. And yet, with all the cool and bizarre things that happen as a result of the intersection of all these elements, the game is pretty easy to follow. It unfolds one play at a time and the action is spread out. In other sports there’s less variation in what actually happens, yet it’s largely fog of war.

DL: Not all of the feedback you’ve received has been positive. Has this come as a surprise to you, and what does the response to The Beauty of Short Hops tell us about baseball, and baseball fans, in today’s era?

AH: The issue isn’t so much positive or negative response (when you wade in to controversial waters you expect both and we’ve gotten both) but the harshness and incivility of the response in certain quarters. I’m not sure I’d generalize about baseball and baseball fans, but I think this reflects an unfortunate reality about the debate over sabermetrics. It’s evolved into Joe Morgan and a few allies on the one side and sabermetricians on the other, talking past each other or calling each other names. As you know, and as should be obvious to everyone from this interview, Short Hops is not a one-sided screed against sabermetrics. Yes, it’s a hard-hitting critique, but we use arguments and evidence, not invective. And we credit sabermetrics for rescuing baseball from a tradition of ignorance and advancing baseball understanding. But the response from some has been little different from that directed at Morgan.

If I found anything surprising, it’s how willing people are to condemn the book while admitting they haven’t read it. That’s a shame, because there’s ample room for a constructive dialogue about the issues we raise. Are we wrong about UZR? About Win Shares? I’ll bet that some sabermetricians end up agreeing with much of our critique.




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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.


39 Responses to “Q&A: Alan Hirsch”

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  1. Dave Cameron says:

    For a review of the book from someone who did read it, Mitchel Lichtman’s response at The Book blog is probably worth checking out.

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    • Chair says:

      Link?

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    • Kevin says:

      From that review: “Well, I for one, feel lucky to be able to heed the warnings about my sabermetric work from a doctor and a legal studies professor. I wonder if they can tell Stephen Hawking what’s wrong with his profession as well.”

      Isn’t that the EXACT same argument every sabermetrician mocked when baseball people said ‘What can these people who’ve never played baseball teach me?”

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      • Chair says:

        Highlighting that comment by MGL when he was in a moment of distaste hardly takes away from his overall rebuttal which was thorough, fair, and excellent.

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    • Cam says:

      That review is just contempt and mockery. Maybe Lichtman figures his readers are so statistically enlightened that he can just highlight passages from the book and let them find the flaws on their own, but he doesn’t actually refute a single point with solid evidence.

      He does do a decent job of picking apart the criticism of UZR (his stat), but it’s impossible to tell whether he attacked the whole argument or just cherry-picked one element of it. He implies that Hirsch writes several pages on UZR, but only gives us a paragraph and two stray sentences of quotes and doesn’t bother to summarize the rest of it.

      If you’re looking for “a review of the book from someone who did read it,” this is not it. Lichtman himself writes “I completely lost interest in this book after Chapter 1 or 2″ and “I stopped reading this book page for page long before the end.” He might be a brilliant baseball mind and he might be totally right, but he comes off as a pompous ass on the defensive.

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  2. Lewie Pollis says:

    Anyone care to point to Hirsch that Beane hates watching the games because it makes him so angry? It’s not that he doesn’t get TV reception in his mother’s basement like we FanGraphs readers. It’s the opposite—he gets too into the game.

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  3. Redsauce says:

    I would highly recommend reading the comments to The Book blog post, as one of the authors offers a brief rebuttal to the review (though not, in my opinion, a strong one).

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  4. JD says:

    Cool interview.

    Let’s face it, the saber world is full of anti-social a-holes, for the most part and present company mostly excluded.

    Other point of views are welcome.

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  5. Matt says:

    “f I found anything surprising, it’s how willing people are to condemn the book while admitting they haven’t read it.”

    It’s a shame that after all the people gave Morgan for bashing Moneyball without ever reading it, the same group of people would be responsible for doing the same thing.

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    • Anon says:

      The authors have/had a website summarizing their thoughts on sabermetrics/moneyball. That didn’t help their case with “our” side (for lack of a better phrase. It’s not a war.).

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    • Detroit Michael says:

      They issued a press release that included:
      “Moneyball celebrated and accelerated the statistics-obsessed revolution in understanding baseball started by Bill James. Today, major league front offices are increasingly dominated by people who believe in this approach (often referred to as “sabermetrics”).”

      Many of us see that as a distortion and don’t feel the need to read the full book (and to buy it) to have an opinion.

      A more even-handed marketing campaign might elicit a more even-handed response.

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      • AK says:

        This is a truly bizarre basis of justification. You’re validated in condemning the book without having read it, because you don’t subscribe to the summary provided in its marketing materials? For one, authors don’t compose their own marketing materials. Most probably aren’t even aware of what they say. But even if Hirsch had written that summary, the conversation on the legitimacy of his book has now begun. If you’re uninterested in partaking in it, that’s one thing. But to wade in, but simply regard his argument as self-evident bullshit without having read it, is pretty ignorant. In fact, it’s the definition of ignorance.

        This is precisely the sort of proud anti-intellectualism that represents the basis of knee-jerk aversion to sabermetrics.

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  6. Dan says:

    To me, the basis of SABER is saying, “Hey, there may be a better way to understand this game.” Guys into advanced stats often criticize “old school” fans for not thinking outside the box and being willing to consider there may be another, better way to interpret the game.

    Thus, it is ironic that these guys are essentially doing the same thing (trying to figure out how to better interpret the game) while decrying what has become the gold standard for advanced stats (to an extent), and are roundly criticized for it.

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    • Anon says:

      If they had offered compelling evidence for their claims, they would not be getting criticized. Their criticisms are old and have been refuted countless times.

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      • Bill says:

        Yes, but if people criticize a book before they have read it, then they have no idea if the writer has compelling arguments. To criticize this, or any, book without reading it basically saying, “I know I’m right and no argument will convince me otherwise.” This is ignorant.

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    • chuckb says:

      It’s not that they’re being criticized (at least, not from what I’ve seen) for considering another way to interpret the game. They’re being criticized for making judgments based on what appears to be little factual evidence whatsoever.

      As an example, when the author was asked about Youkilis’ increasing power and decreasing walk rate, he said “we can infer a likely correlation.” Really? Why? Is this ever tested? Measured? Has any other explanation been controlled for? Moreover, are we even sure that Youkilis was “more aggressive” as the author asserts? Could it be that he displayed more power b/c his patience led to more favorable hitting counts? It was a judgment about the source of Youkilis’ power w/o any factual evidence supporting it and he seemed to imply that it was true of aggressiveness vs. patience overall.

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      • AK says:

        But would it be reasonable to assume that perhaps he offers more evidence for his conclusion on Youkilis’ aggressiveness in the full chapter he wrote on the subject, than he offered in a two paragraph answer to a question? You’ve assumed he made a baseless assumption.

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  7. mike wants wins says:

    I thought this was a great interview. I agree that the name calling and other anger brought to this type of discusson disappointe me. That said, I loved the FJM site, so I must be some kind of hypocrite or something.

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  8. Mike H says:

    The most frustrating thing about this entire subject is the erroneous notion that sabermetrics is about claiming that ‘everything can be predicted with statistics.’ I’ll never understand why people so badly want to polarize every issue.

    Sabermetrics is about the quest to better evaluate and predict performance. Cherry picking instances where this type of prediction was wrong is pointless; not a single ‘sabermetrician’ will try to convince you that UZR is flawless or that prospects with good DIPS numbers will never bust. It’s simply a matter at looking at things objectively and trying to find patterns that can help put a GM or manager in the best position to succeed. It’s about identifying signs that lead to success more often than not. The entire premise of citing things like ad hops and weather to criticize the usefulness of sabermetrics is ridiculous — it’s precisely these elements of chance that we’re trying to measure.

    What is so offensive about that? How does that threaten the ‘beauty of the game’? Of course the best plan can be thwarted — in the end everything comes down to execution, and that’s why we actually play the games out. But why wouldn’t you try to find an objective way to give yourself the best chance to win?

    I haven’t read the book, so I could be misunderstanding the argument, but I don’t see the point in making the argument in the first place.

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    • My echo and bunnymen says:

      This.
      Essentially when I participate in stats, both for fantasy baseball and overall enjoyment of the game, I’m a wannabe GM.

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    • AK says:

      From the little I gleaned from Hirsch in this interview, I’m not sure it’s clear that he’d disagree with anything you said. He seems quite clear that the sabermetric community made a substantial difference in the way baseball fans (and professionals) understand the game.

      I’ve just ordered a copy of the book, and what I sort of expect is the same healthy inspection of sabermetrics in order to increase understanding that you’ve accurately described as the basis and motivation of sabermetrics in the first place.

      If it’s a baseless polemic looking to say “toldja!” to the sabermetric community, than yeah, that’s a pretty needless undertaking. But if it’s merely a piece of introspection? That’s simply the next step in the process of understanding that you described.

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    • Fair point, but here’s why you make the argument. Kant said (I’m told) that when you shine a light on the problem, you put half of it in shadow. The problem is building a baseball operation, the light is sabremetrics, and in the shadow is the rich diversity of the problem.

      In short, these guys’ book (haven’t read it) maybe draws a line so that you, dear baseball fan, see where sabremetrics becomes conventional and ineffective. That makes you curious and you buy Jonah Keri’s Extra 2%, which covers draft strategy, financing, human resources, etc.; you ask why all Twin pitchers hate BBs, does Longoria’s contract derive from Hollywood talent contracts, did the Nats lobbying efforts for a new stadium cross the line from distasteful to illegal?

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  9. BTS says:

    People who themselves can’t do math should not argue against it. They invariably look inept in the end.

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  10. Tommy says:

    “There’s more going on in baseball than you find in most sports. There’s the four bases (each with an umpire and player nearby), and sometimes you have action at two or even three on a single play.”

    There’s a lot to love about baseball when comparing it to rival sports, but this is pretty silly.

    “A lot going on” is not true at all when compared to teams of 5 or 11 in basketball and baseball that are working together (theoretically) on each play, both on and away from the ball.

    With baseball, each play is mainly the pitcher and batter, with a couple defenders and sometimes a baserunner occasionally contributing something smaller to the outcome as well.

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    • Tommy says:

      Actually, the fact that there is much less going on at one time in baseball plays a huge role in why statistics are much more effective as evaluation tools in baseball v. basketball/football.

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  11. Evan says:

    Opposition to sabermetrics comes from the same anti-intellectual undercurrent that plagues all discourse in America. People don’t like being told their easy, biased, fuzzy thinking is actually wrong. They cling to so-called conventional wisdom with a death grip, and woe be to any who suggest another way.

    It’s Keats’ charge to Newton about “unweaving the rainbow” all over again.

    They want their “big-game pitchers”, their gritty gamers, their hero-worship. They don’t want dispassionate, systematic empiricism.

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    • AK says:

      Couldn’t your post apply specifically to the reception this book has received only by altering a few names and terms?

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      • AKevin says:

        I get what you’re trying to do on this thread…and for the most part it’s appreciated.

        At the same time…A guy who attacks UZR (a stat you rarely see mentioned without a ‘for what it’s worth’ caveat) is cherry picking. I don’t need to read his explanation of the UZR stat to know that the overarching argument is a bad one.
        A guy who talks about OBP being over-rated and uses two of the exceptions (Vlad and Beltre) to a pretty sound rule to make his point…well, I’m not sure I need to read his book to know that cherry-picked examples based on strawmen arguments aren’t going to convince me. And since he uses those two tactics pretty liberally in this interview, I’m not sure I want to delve into the book. Am I to assume he uses entirely different argument structures in his book?

        It really seems he has conclusions he wants to justify, which is pretty much the exact opposite of a scientific approach. I mean isn’t it odd that the guys who think sabermetrics doesn’t work crunch some numbers and miraculously discover, sabermetrics doesn’t work.

        Every concession to made to the stats-community is rhetorical. They say little that anyone alive disagrees, while make him seem reasonable. But do you really deserve recognition for being reasonable for saying getting a hit with people on-base is better than getting a walk (without acknowledging that swinging at bad pitches trying to get that hit can be worse than a walk).

        I’m rambling here. But while I’m on board with your attempts at civility…Lichtman gives us a lot to work with, even in this interview, that we can disagree with the owrk he’s doing…even without reading every word.

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  12. stefangfg says:

    I just read the Lichtman review and the debate that ensued in the comments section. That’s the extent of my familiarity with the DIPS issue, so my question may be easily answered. I guess the DIPs theory grew out of the discovery that a pitchers BABIP will likely deviate if he switches teams. Is there a high correlation between the BABIPs for pitchers on the same team in a given year? Is anyone creating baselines and probability scales out of such data?

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  13. Gricomet says:

    Does the book offer an alternative to evaluate players other than saber metrics or the old scouting for “tools” approach? Moneyball didn’t suggest every player Beane identified was going to be good player, rather just those players had the greater likelihood. The fail rate of prospects is huge, using a selection record that decreases the failure rate of chosen prospects by 1 or 2 % even is a significant advantage and can translate to millions of dollars for a team in player production.

    It also seems like a weird time to “debunk” Moneyball with saber metrics a significant part of the evaluation system for quite a number of mlb clubs.

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  14. The fist chapter focuses on Moneyball-as-actually-written, not Moneyball-the-legend. It asks did “the A’s succeed because of Billy Beane’s unique insights, relative to other GMs, rooted in sabermetrics?” Lewis spent exactly one day with Beane and the As brain trust, so Lewis doesn’t actually know or tell what their insights were. Instead of the As insights, Lewis wrote from his own inferences to build a compelling, controversial and saleable narrative. His word smithing skill makes the reader forget that the bits on Hatteberg and Bradford reveal more more about what Lewis thinks Beane thinks than what Beane actually thinks. Beane’s conventional insights probably had as much to do with success as unique insights.

    Ron Shandler argues (forcefully and with evidence) in the last Baseball Forecaster that Lewis is wrong that “baseball players follow strikingly predictable patterns”. If they don’t, sabremetric arbitrage opportunities are more limited than this crowd wants to believe.

    Non-Sabremetric arbitrage can produce success equal to or greater than Moneyball’s overwrought thesis. The Hirsches’ mention the Twins, Keri noted the Rays medical and development innovations, Baltimore opened a cash cow with Camden, Cleveland’s pre-arbitration contracts gave them early-adopter advantages, and my favorite baseball book was “Earl Weaver on Strategy” which combined numbers and human resource management.

    Finally, I like this site’s serious studies, but Carson Cistulli, Vin Scully, Torii Hunter, Ichiro! all contribute as much to the “game’s narrative richness”.

    Let’s not give the Hirsch’s the reception that Beane, Lewis and Moneyball got. Criticism based on what others (including marketing material) said about the book, criticism aimed at inferences 3 steps and 3 writers from the book itself, etc.

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  15. Padman Jones says:

    In re: Youkilis …

    Yes, his walks decreased and his HR total increased from 06-08. But he also had fewer PA in 07 and 08, so, forget counting stats. His walk rate did decrease about three percentage points, but his HR/FB also increased eight percentage points from 06-08. The authors say it’s easy to correlate his power spike with a minor decrease in walk rate; I say it’s as likely, if not moreso, that he hit his physical prime and simply was strong enough to put more balls out of the park.

    Which then leads to the other issue: cherry picking. It’s been mentioned in this thread already, but when trying to make broad claims about something, relying on hyper specific examples just won’t do you much good. Beltre … Vlad … Youk … they are not the foundation upon which you construct a book critical of an entire field of study.

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  16. Ousy says:

    I believe in freedom of speech. However, when a person has some views that he cannot fully explain and he’s willing to defend them in an authoritative and condescending manner, I believe removing his rights is just.

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