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Sports, elections and the perversion of math

It's Election Day in America. That means one important thing: the political war on math can end (for now). In sports, we don't appreciate how lucky we've been.


The Moneyball-era battles between quantitative and qualitative analysis have always been massively overblown. Sure, what Billy Beane did at the turn of the millennium was different, and what Daryl Morey has done with the Houston Rockets is different. But the idea that Beane and his crew didn't watch baseball prospects in action, or the suggestion that Art Howe didn't rely on some statistics -- that's all malarkey. (In fairness, I don't think Michael Lewis -- who documented both Beane and Morey, the latter for New York Times Magazine -- ever suggested that. People who didn't read the book made that "battle" the issue.)

In all honesty, with the exception of some crotchety columnists and analysts (hi, Reggie Miller!), and excluding a few hardcore numbers true believers, everyone's in the middle here. The metric-inclined actually watch sports, and the observationists look at box scores. It's always hilarious when someone tells John Hollinger (an ESPN analyst and the inventor of PER, the most widely known advanced metric in basketball) he should watch a game ... considering his live tweets from games pretty regularly. It typically doesn't swing the other way -- there are only a few notable hardcore math devotees, and they tend to just plug their ears and cite their analysis without going in on those who believe something different.

I like to think that relative sanity from all sides has helped sports fans (particularly web-savvy sports fans) understand and embrace math to a solid degree. Like I said, there's some grousing. There are plenty of "watch the game!" comments. But it's nothing like on the political stage. The abuse Nate Silver has received this election cycle for having the temerity to average polls based on a previously successful regression model is astounding. This is pretty straightforward math. It's actually quite similar to Hollinger's Power Rankings. Hollinger takes efficiency differential (which is a more precise indication of team win-loss record) and adjusts for schedule strength (including home-road split) and emphasizes recent play. Silver's Five Thirty Eight model averages the polls, adjusting for house effects and timing. Like I said, basic math.

Hollinger hears it from math-denying fans, but no columnists, analysts or talking heads rip him openly. Silver is getting challenged by one of the highest-rated political commentators on television. And many others. It's all a bit crazy, especially when Silver plainly says his work produces probabilities of outcomes, not certainties. Are the anti-Silver commentators really that ... for lack of a better word, dumb? (Note: this isn't to say anything of those who seek to discredit the mechanics of Silver's model, with the arguments that he overemphasizes state polls or that his house effects adjustments are off. This is about the math deniers that have popped up as the math has told a story that doesn't agree with their partisan sensibilities.)

The unfortunate part is that math denial is contagious. You get a face like Joe Scarborough arguing that probability analysis is a waste of time, you get impressionable viewers nodding, posting on Facebook and maybe even telling their kids that probability analysis is a waste of time. It's a toss-up you idiot! Take your fancy calculator and go back to the ... uh, math lab. I think we can all agree it's a bad idea to renounce math, right?

This is where sports can help. I was (obviously) a huge sports mark as a kid. I wrapped myself in a silver and black Raiders blanket during the fall, wore a Kings T-shirt almost every day in the winter and put on a Giants hat all summer. I read a lot when I was young, but I read nothing more than I read the agate page. And I prayed Mitch Richmond would show up in the "Leading Scorers" column. (Nope.) In those pre- or early-Internet days, looking at the standings and figuring out how many games the Giants needed to win to hold off the Braves and comparing Jay Schroeder's completion percentage (oh God) to Joe Montana's ... that was fun. It was math, sorta, but it was interesting. It was about something I cared about. Many of us collected and pored over baseball, football or basketball cards. We felt comfortable with certain numbers. We became accustomed to math as a part of life. We didn't have anyone telling us that math was overrated -- quite the opposite. So I continued to enjoy math throughout my education, and I like to think I use it now and then in writing about sports.

Maybe that's why folks like Nate Silver in the sports world -- including Nate Silver, a Baseball Prospectus alum, himself -- aren't openly reviled. Numbers are constant in sports. In politics, numbers really only matter when the votes are getting counted. Polls can be shrugged off one way or another. That Silver and the polls have a record of success doesn't seem to matter to everyone. But something tells me that if that instead of polls we were getting actually results on a daily basis leading up to Election Day (like we do in the NBA regular season as we approach the Finals), people would be quicker to nod. And that's just talking about basic acceptance -- the "advanced" stuff works only because we already accept the basic stuff and, in many cases, are eager for refinement.

It's really amazing that common sports analysis is more enlightened than political analysis at this point. Amazing and troubling. But hey, let's count our lucky stars.


The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.