Science Sunday: Baseball Careers, Global Warring, and Environmental Racism

There’s Not Enough Mustard to Cover That Hot Dog

A major league baseball player’s career lasts an average of 5.6 years, and 20 percent of the position players — that is, non-pitchers — will have a single-year career, according to a new study by the University of Colorado-Boulder Institute of Behavioral Science.

Baseball has been inundated with statistics in recent years. Most of the time, they are useless trivia that tells you little about the game. What does it mean if a player has a 14-game hitting streak on games played on Tuesday? The trivialization of data is especially prevalent during television broadcasts, when the announcers seem to be casting around for something to say, the more useless, the better. “Holy cow, Buzz! Ruffko’s hitting .317 when his mother’s in the ballpark!”The main use of these statistics seems to be to construct a category that your player can win: most doubles with a man on third; lowest earned average in the rain.

But this study, conducted by former CU grad student William Witnauer, CU Prof. Richard Rogers and doctoral student Jarron Saint Onge, actually says something meaningful about baseball. It shows how competitive the game is.

From the paper’s abstract:

Between 1902 and 1993, 5,989 position players started their careers and played 33,272 person years of major league baseball. A rookie position player can expect to play 5.6 years; one in five position players will have only a single-year career, and at every point of a player’s career, the chance of exiting is at least 11 percent. Position players who start younger and begin their careers in more recent decades all have longer and more stable careers; nevertheless, baseball careers are not compressed versions of normal careers, but are substantially skewed toward early exit.

If you told a petroleum engineer or a U.S. Senator that she only had a little over 5-and-a-half years for a career, the mid-life crisis might set in earlier.

The CU report says a few things that every participant in fantasy baseball already knows: players peak at around age 27; star players peak earlier and perform better, longer.

But they also find a few things that fantasy leaguers don’t know, though we might have guessed. Fewer than half of the rookies are around five years later. Only one percent have careers of 20 years or more. Only two players in the 20th century — Eddie Collins and Rickey Henderson — made it to career year 25.

The paper appears in the recent issue of the Population Policy Research Review.

Cold Warriors

In our continuing effort to understand the world in all of its costumery, we sometimes run across something that maybe we don’t want to think too deeply about. A group of Chinese researchers have found that warfare in China appears to be correlated with climate change.

The colder it gets, the more they fight.

The researchers, David Zhang of the University of Hong Kong and colleagues, looked at the frequency of warfare in eastern China over the last thousand years, comparing it with paleoclimate data. There were 899 wars in eastern China between the years 1000 and 1911, which seems like a lot to me, but they always said those Chinese were inscrutable.

Anyway, they found that warfare was significantly correlated with temperature oscillations. “Almost all peaks of warfare and dynastic changes coincided with cold phases,” the report found. Probably what happened, the authors say, is that cold weather stressed crop production. Populations that had expanded during from the previous warm phase could not then be sustained. Famine and uprising followed.

Our methodological framework reveals a near perfect match between high war frequencies and the cold phases, doubled war ratios in cold phases, and significant correlation between frequency of occurrences of warfare and temperature variation in phase, decadal and annual scales in the last millennium.

These are unlikely to be fortuitous. This study also finds that during cold phases, reduced critical resources could not support the size of population achieved during the previous warm period. People of different social groupings (class, tribe, state) in agrarian society had to compete for shrinking resources (land and food in particular) during cold phases, and consequently, war-peace cycles closely followed temperature variations during the past millennium.

So warmer temperatures mean less warfare? Finally we understand the Bush administration’s intellectually coherent plan of opposition to climate change mitigation and peace in Iraq.

Purple Haze

Sunset haze over California’s San Bernadino Valley

Most of the haze that forms in urban and rural areas around the world is made up of invisible reactive gases, not direct emissions of particulates, according to a new study by CU researchers.

The research runs counter to the long-held belief that soot and other small particles make up organic haze.

According to a CU release on the study:

“The scientists believe the extended source of particle pollution is reactive, colorless gases called Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, the same gases that form smog. Jimenez said he believes VOCs emitted in urban and regional areas immediately begin undergoing a chemical transformation that causes them to stick to particles and increase such pollution.”

The study was led by Qi Zhang, a former CIRES scientist and CIRES researcher Jose-Luis Jimenez. It came out in the July 7 online issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

“One question is whether we could improve air quality if we directly targeted VOC emissions and not just particle emissions,” said Zhang. “Until we understand the breakdown between human-caused and natural VOC emissions, and between different human sources, we won’t have an answer to that question.”

In a study of 61 cities, University of Colorado professor Liam Downey found that in some cities,  Hispanics live in the most polluted neighborhoods; in some cities, blacks; and some cities whites.

In other words, it’s hard to lay your pollution situation on the racial doorstep. Your water might not be dirty because of racism — it might just be bad luck.

Using a measure of air pollutant concentration and toxicity developed by the Environmental Protection Agency to calculate the air pollution “burden” of each neighborhood in each metropolitan area, Downey compared levels of inequality between blacks and whites, Hispanics and whites, and Hispanics and blacks. He then examined whether metropolitan areas with high levels of residential segregation and racial income inequality also had high levels of environmental racial inequality.

Overall, he found that racial inequality provided little explanation for areas that are polluted. For instance, you’d expect the strongest correlation between living in a polluted area in cities in which racial housing segregation was most pronounced: Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Memphis, for instance.

But in fact he found “black/white environmental inequality levels were highest in Orlando, Fla., Norfolk, Va., Louisville, Ky., and Portland, Ore.”

“Taken as a whole, this study shows that environmental racial inequality exists in most large metropolitan areas,” Downey said, “but it’s not universal and the explanation for it is more complex than many people think.”

Downey’s work was published in the May issue of Urban Studies.