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Tuesday Morning Quarterback: Byes, Lies, and Statistics

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Plus: Start-of-the-season factoids, amateur hour in college, and a Super Bowl pick.

11:30 AM, Sep 05, 2017 | By Gregg Easterbrook

The Weekly Standard

With the NFL about to start, predictions are everywhere. TMQ’s Super Bowl picks come at the end of this column—along with the disclaimer, All Predictions Wrong or Your Money Back.

Of course most sports predictions are off. Woe onto the New England Patriots, whom Sports Illustrated just picked to win the Super Bowl. SI’s two previous season-eve Super Bowl picks, Ravens in 2015 and Cardinals in 2016, failed to make the playoffs.

The NFL’s own website just ran 14 sets of dueling Super Bowl forecasts—will any of them prove correct? The Miami Herald just predicted the final score of every Dolphins contest. Will even one of these 16 predictions hit the mark? Probably not Dolphins 21, Broncos 18 on December 3, as 21-18 is a rare final score.


Trying to envisage exact outcomes, generally a fool’s errand, veers further into the margins as American society has gone gaga for predictions grounded in data analytics. This field can be useful, but is oversold. If an estimate is precise—especially if it has decimal points!—it is presumed scientific. Yet many decimal-point analytics in sports, politics, finance, and other subjects convert guesses, whether educated or wild, into fuzzy pseudo-information with little value beyond amusement.




Last August, as the presidential race went full throttle, Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight declared Donald Trump had “a 13 percent chance of winning the election.” Not a long-shot possibility, a “13 percent chance.” Sounds reassuringly scientific, doesn’t it? Soon Five Thirty Eight would be pretending to possess scientific accuracy about the presidential contest down to the tenths of a percent. Months after the calamity of the Trump election, Hillary Clinton would declare, referring to the James Comey letter of October 27, "Nate Silver, who [is] considered to be very reliable, has concluded that if the election had been on October 27, I'd be your president."

Let’s set aside whether a Clinton victory would have been good for the nation: Her candidacy was heavy with negatives. Let’s set aside whether Silver and his staff, who have been right on many occasions and wrong on many others—they said Clinton had a “greater than 99 percent chance” of taking the Michigan primary, which she lost—should be viewed as “very reliable.” Coin tosses are reliable half the time. Let’s stick to the issue of whether claims such as “4.3 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl” or “13 percent chance” of winning the presidency have any meaning at all, or simply are entertainment, dressed up to appear to be science.

Here’s a fast-forward version of Five Thirty Eight predictions about the 2016 presidential vote. In June 2016, Silver said Hillary had an “80.2 percent” likelihood of winning—not 80 percent, 80.2 percent. By July 24, Silver had Clinton down to a “58.3 percent” chance. Two days later on July 26, she was down to “53.3 percent.” A week later Clinton had zoomed to “79.9 percent” likelihood—quite a rapid rise, perhaps owing to one of Five Thirty Eight’s infamous “adjustments.” By late August, Silver had Clinton at “87.7 percent” likely to win, by mid-September at “66.8 percent,” and by mid-October at “82.2 percent.” The day before the vote, the website said Clinton had a “68.5 percent” win probability; the morning of the election, it was “71.4 percent.”

This is a gloss, but you get the idea. Five Thirty Eight had Clinton’s odds rising and falling on a nearly daily basis, as if the election were the NASDAQ—though it is extremely difficult to believe there were bona-fide alterations in voter sentiment of the speed and magnitude claimed, as this would have required tens of millions of people changing their minds again and again and again. What Silver was reporting was daily small fluctuations in guesses.

He wasn’t alone. The New York Times, cable news channels, the Huffington Post, and other organizations offered an almost day-by-day series of presidential election speculations dressed up in graphics that made them seem to be the scientific discoveries of great researchers, rather than what they were: guesses, however educated. In mid-July, the Times had Clinton with a 76 percent chance of victory. In six days she fell to 69 percent. A month later she was at 87 percent in the morning, rising to 88 percent that afternoon. (Millions of voters must have said at lunch, “This burrito is good, so now I’m voting Hillary.”) By mid-September, the Times had Clinton down to 79 percent, then down to 74 percent in mid-October. For the final week before the vote, the newspaper put Clinton at 84 percent.




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