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First ‘Freakonomics,’ now ‘Scorecasting’? God save us from the economists.

January 31, 2011

Why don't we just toss a coin instead of playing the game?

Are you as tired of economists as I am? They can’t get anything right in their own “science” — how many economists foresaw the Recession? — but merrily assume they can explain everything from drug dealing to global warming to why the Cubs can’t get to the World Series.

First we had 2005’s Freakonomics, by Chicago University economist Steven Levitt and New York Times reporter Stephen J. Dubner. As so often happens, almost all you need to now about this book is revealed in its subtitle: “A Rogue Economist Explains the Hidden Side of Everything.”

Really? The hidden side of everything? Americans, and perhaps humans in general, have a profound weakness for charlatans who make such claims — hence the eternal popularity of conspiracy theories — so Freakonomics got some good press and sold a lot of books with its discussion of things like how a low-level drug dealer could make as much money working for MacDonalds.

But some perceptive critics weren’t taken in: Arnold King, writing at Ideas in Action, called the book “amateur sociology,” slamming the “rogue economist” for his “willingness to pass off speculative and tentative findings as though they were well-vetted, settled facts.”

The problem with economists is their complete disregard for psychology —  hilariously ironic, as they are often displaying classic human traits the likes of egotism, pride, hubris. “Rogue economist,” indeed!

Leavitt and Dubner, of course, not content to slink home, snickering at the rubes and marks who bought their book, penned a second: Superfreakonomics (I will give them points for clever titles).  Here they lost their bearings altogether, proposing for example that global warming can be defeated by adding sulphur dioxide to the atmosphere to create a “stratoshield.”

Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! That sounds more like Frankenomics to me.

And I’m not the only one. A deluge of criticism rained down on Leavitt and Dubner. Just one example, from Elizabeth Kolbert, a science writer that The New York Times: “[J]ust about everything they have to say on the topic [global warming] is, factually speaking, wrong.”

Now another University of Chicago economist, clearly knowing a good thing when he sees it, has taken the Freakonomics approach and applied it to sports. Tobias Moskowitz, with the help of Sports Illustrated writer L. John Wertheim, have produced something called  Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won.

According to a distressingly uncritical piece at NPR.com, Scorecasting questions cliches and conventional wisdom such as why football teams should not automatically punt on fourth down, or how calling a time out before a field goal attempt doesn’t help the kicker.

After “poring over data” (certainly sounds scientific, doesn’t it?!), the authors conclude that “randomness and luck” play a big role in sports.

I guess their next book will tell us that the sky is blue, life is short, and puppies are cute.

Muscowitz gloatingly tells NPR’s Scott Simon that streaks in sports  are actually the result of randomness. A team or a player having “momentum” or a “hot hand” are actually benefiting from forces as random as the results of a series of coin tosses.

To which I say: What does Muscowitz think a “streak” is? I hate to bust his bubble, but every sports fan knows a streak is a combination of luck and skill, but both elements are equally important. Hey, Muscowitz! There’s a reason Joe Dimaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games and you didn’t!

And everyone knows that teams peaking at the end of the season are more likely to fare well in the playoffs. Fans understand both what Muskowitz knows — momentum is luck — but also what he doesn’t: psychology matters. The players on a peaking team believe they can win. And that makes a difference.

If psychology didn’t matter in sports, then  we wouldn’t have to play the games. Economists could declare winners and losers by “poring over data.” Or perhaps tossing a coin. Consider the 2003 Florida Marlins, a team stitched together with a tiny payroll that peaked as the season ended, believed in itself and rolled to a World Series Championship. Luck, timing, skill — and psychology.

As C.S. Lewis once said of Sigmund Freud, an expert can be trusted so long as he speaks within the context of his discipline, but when he ventures opinions on outside issues he’s just another guy. Or Malcolm Gladwell.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2011 10:06 pm

    Spot on, Chauncey. Geez, how about if we write a bestseller, call it The Hidden Influences Behind How Fiction Writers Become Brand Names? You know what? I bet an agent would jump on it, and I bet it would sell. Brand Mabe-Duff. Catchy, ey?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 31, 2011 11:07 pm

      We’d have to call it Litonomics or something like that.

  2. February 4, 2011 1:21 am

    Haha, Chauncey why so angry? I read Scorecasting and it was fascinating. Half the book covers how human behavior influences the different sports scenarios. It’s not just based on statistics. The authors seemed to have taken as much into account as possible. I found their approach very reasonable and thorough. They don’t make any declarations that their findings are fact, but simply based off historical data and psychology – more like hypotheses. Let’s not take things so seriously. =)

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