Feb 5, 2013
On the Sunday when the Patriots were due to play the Ravens in their conference championship game, I picked up the Sunday Globe and saw this story about Ray Lewis. When I read the following paragraph—
But in the years since, Lewis has been a tale of personal redemption and a case study for image rehabilitation. He has become an ambassador for the game, a mentor both in and outside of his locker room, and a motivational speaker with far-reaching appeal beyond his sport.
—I knew the Ravens were going to win that game.
The funny thing was that, going into it, I had taken for granted that the Pats would win. I don’t follow sports, so this was little more than gut-level regionalism.
But when I read about Ray Lewis’ path from infamy to the brink of glory, in this his final year in the game, I realized that the NFL wanted to push a redemption story and that this narrative would be more compelling than anything the Patriots could muster (except perhaps the chance for the rest of the country to indulge in some Schadenfreude and once more exult in their defeat).
Of course, the Ravens won.
I told people about my “compelling narrative” theory and they didn’t buy it, mainly because they didn’t want to believe that the sport was rigged or even could be rigged. And, truth be told, even I harbor a naive belief in the basic “realness” of professional football (as opposed to the theatricalism of pro wrestling, for example).
Yet, when it Super Bowl Sunday rolled around, I posted this to my Facebook page:
I still believe that the Ravens will win because the NFL loves the Ray Lewis Redemption Narrative and a win would tie it all up in a bow. If I’m wrong, it’s only because Nate Silver was right.
To clarify, Nate Silver favored the 49ers to win, based on the idea that the team with the best defense generally had the advantage in the Super Bowl and that, relative to the Ravens, the 49ers had both a better defense AND a better offense.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I will say at this juncture that I believe in math and science (I list “Physicist” under my “Religious Views” on Facebook). Therefore, I tended to believe that Nate Silver would be proven correct, and I incorrect.
Nevertheless, as everyone now knows, I was correct.
Number and Human Volition
To be fair, Nate Silver was, after all, only discussing probabilities. Given the entropic randomness to which the universe is inclined, “anything” could have happened—it was just that, looking at how similar physical systems had behaved in the past, some outcomes were more likely than others.
However, it is one thing to predict possible outcomes of physical experiments and another to predict the outcome of a human endeavor. In this latter instance, you must take into account the slightly less predictable influence of human will. If you assume, for example, that football players, when playing, strive simply to do their best and, with skill and determination, defeat the other team, then you will use one predictive model.
If, on the other hand, you believe that players and officials do, at times, conspire to ensure a certain outcome of the contest, then you must use a different predictive model.
Stories are one such predictive model, and one that self-consciously relies on human intention as a distinct, explanatory force. When we describe what has happened or will happen in narrative form, we not only describe what people did, but also try to convey or capture why they did it.
I would love to say that my great triumph over Nate Silver demonstrates that story—narrative, myth, epic—is more powerful than numbers. That numbers, for all that they have given us (space flight, bridges, Gaussian blurs, etc.), remain mute markers dependent on narrative, ultimately, to divulge their meaning, make them speak.
Still, I didn’t spend my youth studying the dialectic for nought. Thus it is in this dialectical spirit that I submit the following: Much of our world and even our experience can be mathematically modeled and statistically predicted. At the same time, we need narrative structures to define the world to be modeled and to describe how the mathematical models relate and may be applied to their physical (or even conceptual) counterparts.
When reality deviates from its statistical rendering, we ask why that might be and tell a story about this reality that might explain the deviation.
And not to put too fine a point on it in this case: NATE SILVER WAS WRONG BECAUSE THE FIX WAS IN!
At least that would make for an interesting story, right?