Category Archives: Sports

Winning at Rock-Paper-Scissors

Rock, Paper, Scissors is a simple game whose winner should be determined completely by luck. Yet here is a guide to winning at the game. (HT Andrew Sullivan.)

Against a rational player you should randomize and play Rock, Paper and Scissors each with 1/3 probability. If your opponent does this you can never come up with a strategy that will give you an advantage over him. But, as the guide says, “Humans, try as they might, are terrible at trying to be random, in fact often humans in trying to approximate randomness become quite predictable.” For example, according to the guide, an inexperienced player will never play the same thing three times in a row. Taking advantage of this, you can gain an edge over your opponent.

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Race Bias of NBA Refs

On Wednesday the New York TImes covered OB contributor Justin Wolfers’s paper showing:

White referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players.  … [There is] a corresponding bias in which black officials called fouls more frequently against white players, though that tendency was not as strong.

The NBA says its own study refutes this, though they won’t release their data to allow independent confirmation. 

Yes, Justin hasn’t actually posted here yet, but we continue to hope.  🙂

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Explain Your Wins

From yet another good article by Shankar Vedantam:

Winners discount information about lucky breaks and chalk up their right calls to superior judgment, whereas losers tend to emphasize the role of bad luck — rather than bad judgment — when their predictions go wrong.

Thomas Gilovich … said this is why a lot of water-cooler conversations among NCAA office-pool participants feature people explaining to others why their predictions went wrong. People don’t talk very much about predictions that went right, Gilovich said, because they automatically chalk up those results to brilliant insight. Wrong calls, however, are invariably seen to be caused by fluke events — which is why they need explaining. …

When psychologists once asked sports fans to visualize how a particular team might win a game, the volunteers became far more likely to later believe that the team would win — and to bet money on it. Essentially, psychologist Bryan Gibson of Central Michigan University said, focusing on some part of a conundrum makes it much more difficult for people to keep in mind how much they do not know about all the other variables involved. …

Gibson has also found that gambling is one domain in which it may be wiser to have a pessimistic personality rather than an optimistic personality. Gamblers tend to be optimists in that they inherently believe good things are likely to happen to them. When a pessimist wins a bet, he is likely to walk away with his winnings because he can’t believe that his lucky streak will continue. … optimists were far more likely to throw good money after bad because they believed that, sooner or later, things would break their way

To do better:  focus more on explaining why you won, than on why you lost. 

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Truth is stranger than fiction

Robin asks the following question here:

How does the distribution of truth compare to the distribution of opinion?  That is, consider some spectrum of possible answers, like the point difference in a game, or the sea level rise in the next century. On each such spectrum we could get a distribution of (point-estimate) opinions, and in the end a truth.  So in each such case we could ask for truth’s opinion-rank: what fraction of opinions were less than the truth?  For example, if 30% of estimates were below the truth (and 70% above), the opinion-rank of truth was 30%.

If we look at lots of cases in some topic area, we should be able to collect a distribution for truth’s opinion-rank, and so answer the interesting question: in this topic area, does the truth tend to be in the middle or the tails of the opinion distribution?  That is, if truth usually has an opinion rank between 40% and 60%, then in a sense the middle conformist people are usually right.  But if the opinion-rank of truth is usually below 10% or above 90%, then in a sense the extremists are usually right.

My response:

1.  As Robin notes, this is ultimately an empirical question which could be answered by collecting a lot of data on forecasts/estimates and true values.

2.  However, there is a simple theoretical argument that suggests that truth will be, generally, more extreme than point estimates, that the opinion-rank (as defined above) will have a distribution that is more concentrated at the extremes as compared to a uniform distribution.

The argument goes as follows:

Continue reading "Truth is stranger than fiction" »

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Against Admirable Activities

Christians often say, "Love the sinner but hate the sin."  I say, "Love the signaler but hate the signal."  We all want to be respected, by ourselves and others, or at least not despised or ignored.  So we fill our lives with activities that could get us more admired, such as pursuing our career, practicing our art or sport, tending our beauty, developing our style, being loyal to our friends and family, caring for the downtrodden, becoming more informed about current events, and so on.

These admirable activities help us to develop and show our admirable qualities.  But since admiration is in part relative, my looking more admirable comes in part at the expense of others looking less admirable.  So there is in part an arms race quality to admirable activities, which suggests we do too much of them from a global point of view.

Unfortunately, our minds were not built from a global point of view.  We are instead built to admire admirable activities, in addition to admiring the people who do them.  We admire drawing, singing, sporting, writing, joking, helping, and so on, and we support policies that encourage these activities.  We like our families, churches, clubs, companies, cities, and nations to subsidize such activities.  Parents push their kids toward more admirable activities, such as music over video games.  And nations subsidize science, sport, and arts that will impress other nations. 

This support urge can make evolutionary sense.   A group that coordinates to help its most noticed members look more admirable may be more admired as a group, to the benefit of all group members.  But at a global level we all suffer from admiring admirable activities, much like trees suffer by working to grow tall enough to see the sun past other trees. 

Yes, the optimal level of admirable activities may usually be above zero, and yes other considerations may suggest we do too little of some activities.  But we are too eager to believe such considerations exist.  For example, many will tell you that we should subsidize art because it promotes peace or innovation.  Overall, we try too hard at admirable activities, relative to just enjoying the less-admirable pleasures of life, and we are biased to neglect this problem.  For humanity’s sake, please, take five, and chill.

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The Onion on Bias: “Duh”

On a lighter note, here is The Onion in 2003 on "Media Criticized for Biased Hometown Sports Reporting":

ALBANY, NY—Members of the national media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting released a 255-page report Monday criticizing the American media for severely biased local sports coverage.

"In our extensive study of the nation’s sports sections and broadcasts, we documented countless examples of shamelessly one-sided reporting, obvious speculation, and bald editorializing masquerading as journalism," FAIR spokesman Scott Wilborough said. "Coverage was heavily, sometimes brazenly, weighted toward the teams from a media source’s own area. To look at the data, you would almost think that sports journalists aren’t held to the same standards as other reporters." ….

The point here is that everyone knows local sports reporting is biased – that is the way they want it.   If we are to overcome biases like this there is little hope of gaining wider support by exposing the problem – we’re pretty much on our own.

How many other biases are like this?   And I wonder if sports betting is illegal in part so people are not confronted with more objective evaluations of local sports.

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