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November 16, 2003

Story telling

You can go to this page and you get the latest NFL scores today. On the other hand, you can read columns like this, interesting & fact-filled, but in my opinion low on predictive value-where exactly do columns like these fit in the "grand scheme" of the footall gods? When I was in high school I would get up at 8:30 AM on Sunday mornings to watch The Sports Reporters. I would listen to Mike Lupica assert that "Danny Manning is the best basketball player in the NBA" (circa 1991). Or that Notre Dame quarterback Ron Powlus was going to be the "greatest quarterback ever" (he was undrafted and didn't really play any downs in the NFL).

A few years ago, I would watch the peregrinations of the stock market and read analysis about the direction of the economy. I read that 1) we were entering the Great Depression II & 2) the Long Boom will continue in perpetuity. Who was right? Does it matter[1]?

My conclusion? Obviously I was being told a story. An interesting narrative cobbled together from a few facts that were easily had. In the case of sports or the economy, I rarely got any information that I couldn't have obtained without the "insider", and most of the "analysis" was obviously a shot in the dark. These are the shamans of our age, telling us what we want to hear, gate-keepers to timeless rituals and mysterious movements who keep a straight face as they "explain" to us how things really are, and all the while we pretend not to notice the farcicality of it all....

There are many "professions" like this. In my opinion talk psychotherapists, financial analysts, diversity consultants,literary critics, etc. are all highly paid shamans, they exist to assuage our discomfort at the capriciousness of our universe. They exist to tell us "it's going to be OK, I know better." But they don't.

Update: Sports columnist admits he was wrong last year. The specific is irrelevant (parity in the NFL, pro or con?), the point, say X or Y, or Z or A, doesn't matter, it'll all sell copy. Don't be logical, concise, factual or analytic, be interesting (or the case of Bill Walton, boorish enough so that even your broadcasting peers can't hold back their contempt for you).

fn1. The reputations of economists can be made by correct predictions. Look at Milton Friedman and the natural rate hypothesis and Paul Krugman's relationship to the Asian flu.

Posted by razib at 06:40 PM