Since we're in the middle of devouring preseason polls, here's a valuable exercise in the importance of randomness from chic naysayer Nassim Nicholas Taleb in the London Times' Sunday business section, just ripe for inappropriate adoption by a football blog:
The important thing is this: the lost passport and the spilt tea were black swans, bad birds that are always lurking, just out of sight, to catch you unawares and wreck your plans. Sometimes, however, they are good birds. The recorders cost $20 less than the marked price owing to a labelling screw-up at Circuit City. Stuff happens. The world is random, intrinsically unknowable. “You will never,” he says, “be able to control randomness.”
To explain: black swans were discovered in Australia. Before that, any reasonable person could assume the all-swans-are-white theory was unassailable. But the sight of just one black swan detonated that theory. Every theory we have about the human world and about the future is vulnerable to the black swan, the unexpected event. We sail in fragile vessels across a raging sea of uncertainty. “The world we live in is vastly different from the world we think we live in.”
For the non-mathematician, probability is an indecipherably complex field. But Taleb makes it easy by proving all the mathematics wrong. Let me introduce you to Brooklyn-born Fat Tony and academically inclined Dr John, two of Taleb’s creations. You toss a coin 40 times and it comes up heads every time. What is the chance of it coming up heads the 41st time? Dr John gives the answer drummed into the heads of every statistic student: 50/50. Fat Tony shakes his head and says the chances are no more than 1%. "You are either full of crap," he says, "or a pure sucker to buy that 50% business. The coin gotta be loaded."
The chances of a coin coming up heads 41 times are so small as to be effectively impossible in this universe. It is far, far more likely that somebody is cheating. Fat Tony wins. Dr John is the sucker. And the one thing that drives Taleb more than anything else is the determination not to be a sucker. Dr John is the economist or banker who thinks he can manage risk through mathematics. Fat Tony relies only on what happens in the real world.
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(Via Arts & Letters Daily)
Football, like the market, is lousy with black swans – Appalachian State, Stanford, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, et al. Taleb (who apparently is credited – lucratively – with forecasting the sub-prime disaster by simply insisting that something unpredictable was bound to cause a problem, like always) thinks the market is far too volatile for any kinds of predictions to make sense, unless, naturally, they are predictions of unpredictability. If he ever turned his mind to such trivialities as football, he'd probably come to the same conclusion about preseason magazines and polls and the like.
West Virginia runs into the Black Wann. (Sorry.)
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He's right, of course, about that. Predictions are fun and probably necessary to some degree to any kind of sports media, yet ultimately worthless. But in a sport where rewards are administered to a large degree by opinion polls, the emphasis on accounting for occasional randomness is a good exercise for thinking about how we go about those rankings. One of the strengths of what I've always termed the "resumé" system of ranking teams is that it also is driven more than anything by the determination to not be a sucker. Which, if you think you can order teams according to some abstract assessment of inherent strength, a la "Who would win on a neutral field," you most certainly are. You might perceive Southern Cal to be an immovable force fortified with the marrow of a champion, until – black swan time – its billion-game home winning streak is detonated by Stanford. The Trojans are not smaller, weaker or slower, just as LSU isn't smaller, weaker or slower after losing to Arkansas or Kentucky, but they didn't earn the result you predicted. And if your ballot is based on that prediction – assuming the ranking matters, as it does for voters in the AP, Harris and Coach's polls in determining a mythical champion, and for members of the BlogPoll, in our own, self-centered way – its validity, like the white-swan-only theory, is detonated by the appearance of a big, black bird you never imagined.
The smart, fair ballot takes into account such eccentricities by treating the season like an extremely fluid game of merit-based musical chairs, with expectations of black swans aplenty: the teams left for the championship at the end aren't necessarily the biggest, fastest or most intimidating. They were just in the right place when the music stopped.