The Thought Refuse

A Virtual Repository for the Mind

The Unpredictability of Sports

with 2 comments

As with all systems that aren’t manufactured, for instance casinos, sports is a highly unpredictable arena.  But littered with experts from former players to journalists eager to give you their arrogant self-predictions for future seasons.

Every season for every sport, these experts publish their predictions in newspapers, magazines, and television shows(the latter particularly prone to bombastic proclamations of arrogance).  The experts put on record every year(and every week) their elevated knowledge in the sports domain.  Take a quick look at just how much these so-called professionals really know, and you’ll find that sports is as unpredictable as most everything in life.  That guy on ESPN whose studied football for twenty years is probably no better at predicting the final NFL standings then you or me.

Take a look at ESPN’s preseason power ranking for the NFL.  The error rate is astounding.  Of the 16 bottom ranked teams, 5 of them made the playoffs this season.  Two of the supposed three worst teams ended up with records 11-5 records(Atlanta and Miami).  The Titans were ranked 16th and ended up with the best record in the league.  The Jaguars, Saints, and Seahawks were all ranked in the top ten, but not one ended with a winning record.

Aside from the horrendous error rate of these experts, there’s something more interesting in these predictions.  What qualifies as knowledgable predictions is an historical iteration.  Put simply, the good teams from the last year or two will be placed at the top, while the bad teams from the same period of time are positioned near the bottom.  This is emblematic of how we predict – by anchoring on what we know(historical data).  However, the crux of the problem of prediction is that we don’t know what we do not know.  This is what makes forecasting such a wildly erroneous pursuit.

It would be better to say for these ESPN experts to say, “I don’t know” when asked for their preseason predictions.  That would make for poor entertainment though.  Instead, we continue to predict despite our obvious inability to forecast the improbable, ergo Miami, Atlanta, Seattle, Jacksonville, et cetera.

There is nothing wrong with making predictions that will turn out to be dead wrong in the final outcome – at least in sports.  It can be much more dangerous in other socioeconomic systems such as corporate CEO’s and governments.  We will continue to make predictions in all facets of our existence.  Just be aware that what the experts are telling you have a disastrous error rate.  Know that they don’t know.

If only our experts knew that they didn’t know what they don’t know.  Sadly, they will hide behind the arrogance and hubris of their professional knowledge.  If you are to ask the ESPN expert what went wrong with his predictions, he’ll tell you that he could not forecast a series of injuries, that a team’s schedule would be as difficult or easy as it turned out to be, or a particular player would turn out to be as dominating as he did.  It’s a convenient professional defense mechanism spinning a plausible narrative to you, but all they are telling you is that they could not predict what they did not know.

While sounding all quite simplistic(we cannot know what we do not know), experts and non-experts unfailing put faith into what forecasts lay out.  “We are better informed then ever before,” we might tell ourselves.  Our predilection for relying on the ever expanding mass of historicism, ultimately, only hampers our ability to predict.  The more sports seasons that pass, the more we believe we are better to identify trends.  This team has been good for many years, so it should continue to be good and vice versa for bad teams.

Next fall when NFL preseason predictions are released, take a handful of teams at the bottom at random and a few from the top then reverse their rankings.  I’m willing to bet at the end of the year, your error rate will be no worse(maybe better) then these so-called experts.  Remember, we are terrible forecasters of any system that is not isolated and tightly controlled, and that lies outside the influence of human beings.  And don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

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Written by huxbux

January 5, 2009 at 7:05 pm

Posted in History, Philosophy, Sports

Tagged with , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. You’re right that sports are unpredictable, but you ought to acknowledge that some are more so than others. Take baseball; the best baseball team in the Major League might finish the season winning 63% of their games, while the worst wins about 35%, whereas the best basketball team in the NBA generally wins nearly 80% of their games and the worst won around 20%. The MLB compensates for more randomness by having more games in a season–162 I believe–and more during each playoff series–best of 5 for the first round and best of 7 for the final two rounds.

    David Lamb

    January 14, 2009 at 10:19 pm

  2. Undoubtedly baseball sees a greater averaging out. It’s typical Gaussian statistics – the larger the sample, the smaller the impact of the surprise.

    I was focusing more on how we seem to be awful at predicting surprises in sports. Experts take previous year data and more or less plug it in to their predictions. I can’t recall one baseball analyst telling me the Rays were going to be one of the best teams in baseball this past season. But your right, you’ll see less deviation in baseball then football.

    huxbux

    January 16, 2009 at 1:17 am


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