Behind the Numbers: Why statistic-folks are sometimes assholes, justifiably

Every once-in-a-while I will rant on the concepts and ideas behind what numbers suggest in a series called Behind the Numbers, as a tip of the hat to the website that brought me into hockey analytics: Behind the Net.

It does not take long for Hockey Twitter to complete one full rotation on its typical life-cycle of subjects. The same debates come up on shot quality, grit and leadership, eye-test versus numbers, and how statistics should be used in player evaluation again and again.

These debates often come to an impasse. Sometimes they even deviate into ad hominem and red herrings. There are parties guilty on both sides, as one would (and should) expect there to be “assholes” in every demographic.

But why is the prerogative for being nice always on the “stats guys”? Why are the “analytics guys” the only ones needing to change their ways to make things better? Why is it that only one side is discussed to be less cordial than the other?

Why does this hypocrisy exist?

I have a theory on this.

Recently I saw a quote by a some guy named Chuck Klosterman (an author I had not heard of prior), saying “There is simply no prick like a math prick in a sports bar.”

I think Klosterman hit the nail on the head, but not for the reasons most people think he did.

Throughout my university years, I worked as a bartender at a sports bar. Over that time I heard nearly every possible sports debate imaginable, being argued from every side. A lot of it was re-spouting  of what was said only a few hours ago on TSN or SportsNet, but almost every sentence explicitly or implicitly contained one or both of two words: think and feel.

In a sports bar debate, two or more individuals discuss their opinions and the reasoning behind their opinion. This is a debate where the two will try and best support their argument with the things they believe to matter most, or agree to disagree.

Both sides are trying to do the same thing, from the same angle, using the same source of information: their own personal values and experience.

The statistical side is completely different.

Whether fan, analyst, or whatever. The statistical side of debate is one of the scientific method. One’s own opinion is simply a hypothesis. The hypothesis is then tested against the scrutiny of evidence and we ask how likely something is true or not.

The response to the testing is then what the stats person states, not their own opinion on the matter.

The answers to our questions are not what we feel, but what everything we know currently suggests. The answer is not always fixed. As more information is added, the best answer supported by evidence can change. Still, what is the best answer at the time given what we currently know and can test is still the best given those things.

So, when we have a statistical argument versus a bar argument, you have a disconnection.

It is not the statistical person’s opinion versus the bar person’s opinion. In fact, prior to testing, the two may have had the same opinion. The statistical person has simply done the testing to see what current information already says is the most likely answer.

However, the bar person may feel as if they were being told their opinion matters less than the statistical person simply because it is different each time.

That’s where I feel the disconnect is.

There is a legitimate claim that malicious people exist in both the statistical and non-statistical demographics. In addition, there was excessive aggression when a small, but quickly growing, minority was trying to prove its own legitimacy. It’s likely that reaction came because they felt they were being brushed unfairly aside.

That said, I think a large part of the disconnection between the two factions has more to do with a difference in settings.

The statistical person, though, is not viewing the non-statistical person’s opinion as less valid. They do not view themselves as the better person who has the answers. It’s not trust in themselves and their opinion over another’s.

Rather, it is a trust in the scientific method, something that really should be viewed as greater than any singular person’s opinion, statistically minded or otherwise.

There is room for all things. The bar room discussion still holds its place and importance. Qualitative and quantitative information is both imperative in making the most informed decision possible and furthering our understanding.

Just remember, when a person is arguing a point using statistics, they are just showing what the best known evidence supports. The discussion has moved past the typical bar chat.

Addendum:

I want to re-stress, as I thought it was mentioned enough above but maybe not explicitly enough, that there are those that talk down to others, like in all demographics. It is 100% wrong to do so. No one individual has the right to talk down to another. The point in this article is that the situations and perceptions of what is being discussed can cause one person to misinterpret the other party to be talking down, when they are not. This becomes amplified with the limitations of non-emotional text with social media.

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