How Are Rules Made?


As long-time readers know, on Fridays — like, you know, today — I do a week-in-review type of thing. Today, I’m mixing it up. First, the week-in-review is directly below. Second, I’m dropping the long reads for this week; I’ve had a crazy-long week and haven’t had a chance to read any long-reads, so I don’t have any to share. 

And then, we’ll get to the question “How Are Rules Made?” And I’ll warn you: the answer is “I don’t know and that’s annoying me.”

The Now I Know Week in Review

Monday: Happy Belated Birthday, Australian Horses!: And New Zealand and probably many South American and African ones, too. 

Tuesday: The Staircase With the Traffic Light: The pictures I shared do not clearly show the staircase (oops) but it’s there. Click through the links and you’ll see it. 

Wednesday: Bad-Minton: An Olympic scandal. My friend Latif, who covered the story for Radiolab years ago (and who has told one of the best stories in years … now with an actual resolution as of last month!) wrote to me to share a fun fact about this: Greysia Polii, one of the disqualified 2012 badminton players, just won gold a few days ago.

Thursday: The Village That Went Dark and Was Proud of It. This story is for the birds.

Okay, about the Rules thing…

I want to talk about a simple thing that institutions can do to make life better: they can share their reasoning more broadly. (Even though they won’t.)

That needs explaining. And a back story!

I’m a very curious person, and I think that’s what makes Now I Know work. In April of last year, I said that “I have a well-honed sense of curiosity and radar for the interesting. Once I find something worth investigating further, it’s a Google search, maybe a dive into Wikipedia, and then I just kind of follow the path laid out before me.” And earlier this year, I said that when I write these newsletters, “I’m trying to satiate your — and my! — sense of wonder and curiosity.” When I see something that doesn’t make sense, I almost immediately ask “Why?”

I’m also a baseball fan. That has nothing to do with Now I Know and I try not to write too much about baseball. But I do watch a lot of baseballs and this is a special year (although rapidly becoming a not-so-special year for my beloved Mets) for baseball: there’s extra baseball, courtesy of the Olympics. At noon tomorrow in Tokyo, the Dominican Republic will be facing South Korea, with the winner taking home the bronze; seven hours later, the United States will face Japan to determine gold and silver. The US/Japan matchup is a rematch; Japan beat the US a few days ago. And I had the opportunity to watch the end of that game.

I won’t belabor what happened, except to point out the one important detail. The game was tied after nine innings (the regulation length of a baseball game) and, per the standard rules of baseball, the teams played an extra inning. Had that also ended up in a tie, they would have continued with another extra inning, etc. etc. until the tie is broken or the world comes to an end. That’s a bad result — the world-ending option, I mean — so the Olympic organizers decided to add baserunners in extra innings. (If this doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry, it won’t matter so much. Just keep reading.) In the 10th inning and after, the offense starts with runners on both first and second base.

I saw this and immediately tried to figure out why they decided on that specific solution. Because it turns out that Major League Baseball also has a special “free runners in extra-innings” rule — and it’s different. Before the 2020 season, in order to shorten games to account for Covid-related roster crunches, MLB decided that, in extra innings, the offense gets to start with a runner on second base. But not an additional one on first base.

One sport. One problem. Two organizing bodies. Two slightly different rules. 

My guess is that both the Olympics and MLB thought through a lot of different options in devising their rule. They may have even consulted one another, who knows. There may even be some data. But: we don’t get to see any of it. So here I am, wondering why the Olympics have a runner on first but MLB doesn’t. And there’s no answer to be found. 

I’m sure this wasn’t intended to be some big secret, either; it’s just that when institutions make decisions, they don’t really think about the importance of sharing their reasoning or showing their work. There’s a lot of knowledge being generated and by not sharing, we’re losing it. Sure, this one is trivial, but my guess is that there’s a lot of non-trivial stuff being lost simply because it’s no one’s job to share it.

Have a great weekend!