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Jan 16 2013

Nate Silver on Sports and Politics

Nate Silver has made quite a career for himself by applying rigorous statistical and mathematical analysis, first of sports (especially baseball, which is obsessed with stats to begin with) and then to political polling. During a Reddit AMA, he was asked which he found more frustrating:

Q. Which do you find more frustrating to analyze, politics or sports?

A. Politics. I don’t think its close. Between the pundits and the partisans, you’re dealing with a lot of very delusional people. And sports provides for much more frequent reality checks. If you were touting how awesome Notre Dame was, for example*, you got very much slapped back into reality last night. In politics, you can go on being delusional for years at a time.

But I think this overstates the case. While it’s true that in sports you can always shut down such delusions, at least to some degree, by pointing to the scoreboard, there are still many types of illogical thinking at work in both fields and they work in much the same way. I often use the term “sports fan politics” to describe the inconsistency and tribalism that goes on in both fields.

Visit any sports message board and you will see these cognitive shortcuts in action. If a player or coach from one team is accused of doing something wrong, the fans of that team will demand nothing less than absolute proof before they’ll believe it; if a player or coach from their rival is accused of the same thing, the accusation itself is all the proof necessary to show their total corruption. If a referee’s call goes against their team, it is almost always seen as a terrible injustice; switch the uniforms and the outcome and you’ll change their reaction to it as well.

The same exact thing goes on in politics, of course. Our ability to think clearly, objectively and consistently is undermined by our partisan commitments. When a criticism is made of the party we support, we are all capable of demanding absolute logical rigor; when a criticism is made of those we oppose, no matter how weak the argument or tenuous the conclusion, it will only reinforce our pre-existing perceptions that our opponents are inherently evil.

The fact is that thinking critically, being consistent in applying the same standard of reasoning to all arguments whether we agree with the conclusions or not, takes real effort. It requires questioning ourselves on our motives and refusing to take easy shortcuts out of convenience. Our brains aren’t really built for rationality, they are built for rationalization, and that is not at all the same thing.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    wscott

    Our brains aren’t really built for rationality, they are built for rationalization

    Stealing this!

  2. 2
    Doug Little

    I think that the experts in sports tend to be way more non-partisan and as a result way more accurate in their commentary.

  3. 3
    Michael Heath

    Ed writes:

    The fact is that thinking critically, being consistent in applying the same standard of reasoning to all arguments whether we agree with the conclusions or not, takes real effort.

    I think it’s helpful to study how our brains work, in particular how we process information and why we process information the way we do. It helps make one more conscious on when they’re vulnerable to not thinking critically and if a person has integrity – override that tendency, and easier to observe when others aren’t thinking critically. It’s really amazing how blatantly obvious non-critical thinking is, along with how obvious the reaction is when the non-critical thinker delivers their triumphantly-asserted fallacy, either in the written word on the Internet (“carbonphobes”), or the expressions on people’s faces, when they’ve received their jolt of dopamine after successfully avoiding having to deal with an idea or an opponent, e.g., in response to a foreign policy position by George Soros, the reaction was, “But he’s an atheist!”, with a blissful smile following.

  4. 4
    d.c.wilson

    I have to agree with Silver here. If you win the Superbowl or the World Series, you’re the undisputed champion for the year. In politics, you can be completely wrong about everything and even contradict yourself and still be considered enough of an expert to get invited on the bobble head shows every Sunday.

    See: Kristol, William.

  5. 5
    slc1

    If you were touting how awesome Notre Dame was, for example*, you got very much slapped back into reality last night. In politics, you can go on being delusional for years at a time.

    Actually, the humiliation of Notre Dame generated an excuse for sports writers to bad mouth the BCS, a favorite pastime of theirs. Of course, it’s not clear that any of the other teams in the BCS stable would have done any better against Alabama.

  6. 6
    slc1

    Re d.c. wilson @ #4

    Not necessarily: consider the playoff game between Seattle and Washington. Several sportswriters are demanding that Deadskin coach Shanahan be fired for not benching his injured quaterback in the second half. These are the same writers who were calling for his ouster after a 3 and 6 start and then were calling him a genius for winning 7 in a row to even get to the playoffs. The poor guy went from bum to genius to bum over the course of 8 weeks! Sportswriters are amongst the dumbest of writers for the media (Mike Lupica anyone).

  7. 7
    uno1

    I disagree with Nate’s answer, by his own record. Sports are much less predictable than politics, the night before an election, Nate has the answers with a high degree of confidence, an hour before a football match, its known to a low degree of confidence. Big upsets in sports games happen with regularity.

  8. 8
    Lou Doench

    @uno1, Having followed Nate’s career for a long time (my Baseball Prospectus membership is almost old enough to drive) I think his response would be that a single game is the definition of a small sample size. The outcome of one game has way to many variables. On the other hand, the outcome of an election can be viewed, on the night before, through the lens of months of polling data that provide a broad sample size to make predictions from. At BP Nate was the guy behind the PECOTA projection system that looked at a players career and tried to predict in general terms what their next season (or the rest of their career). He could do this with pretty good accuracy because of the large sample sizes provided.

  9. 9
    Area Man

    Visit any sports message board and you will see these cognitive shortcuts in action. If a player or coach from one team is accused of doing something wrong, the fans of that team will demand nothing less than absolute proof before they’ll believe it; if a player or coach from their rival is accused of the same thing, the accusation itself is all the proof necessary to show their total corruption.

    It’s true that a lot of people do this, but definitely not me. For example, the South Carolina Gamecocks are absolute shits, objectively speaking, and are irredeemable cheaters, thieves, and liars. I do not arrive at this conclusion by anything other than passionless analysis of the facts, and of course the minor issue that they beat Clemson 4 years in a row, which cannot be explained by anything other than cheating.

    If a referee’s call goes against their team, it is almost always seen as a terrible injustice; switch the uniforms and the outcome and you’ll change their reaction to it as well.

    Again, this is a flaw inherent in many people other than me. It is very clear that the refs were awful during last week’s playoff game in Denver, not that the Broncos didn’t do everything in their power to beat themselves, but the refs totally blew that game. I’m sure all Ravens fans agree. And if they don’t they are clearly biased.

  10. 10
    slc1

    There’s another problem with trying to predict sports before the season starts, namely injuries. As a former Boston and later Washington area call in radio show host once pontificated, in sports, injuries determine all. Can’t predict injuries.

    We see this with the Washington Wizards this season. There best player, John Wall ,has been out all season until recently. Without him, the Wizards are completely pathetic. Since he rejoined the team, they suddenly look almost semi-respectable.

  11. 11
    Suido

    @Uno #7:

    Nate wasn’t saying which was easier to analyse, he was saying which was more frustrating to analyse. Big difference.

  12. 12
    martinc

    slc1 @ 10: The politics equivalent of an ‘injury’ is people like Todd Akin slipping on a verbal banana peel and breaking every bone in his body.

  13. 13
    Gretchen

    I often use the term “sports fan politics” to describe the inconsistency and tribalism that goes on in both fields.

    It’s wrong to treat politics like sports, and equally wrong to treat sports like politics.

    The former because it matters too much, and the latter too little.

  14. 14
    slc1

    Re martinc @ #12

    That’s a fair analogy. The Rethuglicans in 2010 and 2012 lost 4 winnable senate races due to the political equivalent of a sports injury when their candidates shot themselves in the foot.

  15. 15
    Michael Heath

    Gretchen writes:

    It’s wrong to treat politics like sports, and equally wrong to treat sports like politics.

    The former because it matters too much, and the latter too little.
    [Emphasis mine - MH]

    I agree with your premise which I italicize above, but not your conclusion when it comes to adults. I disagree with your conclusion because I think sports provides a bountiful reservoir of analogies to illustrate a point made about politics.

  16. 16
    Gretchen

    True, Michael. By “treat” I was referring to the seriousness with which the two pursuits, especially one’s allegiances therein, are taken.

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