Art Carden  

Why Do Incorrect Stories Stick?

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I want to give up on college sports. I can't.

While it doesn't carry national championship implications for LSU, today's Alabama-LSU game is still a pretty big deal. In 2011, they met in the "Game of the Century" that was won by LSU, 9-6, and then again in a rematch in the BCS Championship Game. Alabama won that one 21-0, and LSU never crossed the 50-yard line.

On the basis of these two scores, a lot of people seem to have picked up the "SEC is all defense, no offense" story. Indeed, today's story on the game at ESPN.com says that today's game "carries more offensive glamour than recent meetings." That's probably true, but I'm a bit mystified by the "SEC is all defense, no offense" story that emerged in 2011.

Why? Because it's not true. I just looked at the numbers and found that Alabama and LSU each averaged about 35 points per game in 2011. The correct interpretation of the 9-6 "Game of the Century" and the 21-0 National Championship Game, I think, was not that the offenses were bad but that the defenses were that good.

I think Simon and Garfunkel got this right: "a man he hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest." In this case, low-scoring, ultra-high-profile games comfort those who wanted to believe that SEC football doesn't involve a lot of offense and provided very vivid examples for the agnostic.

We do this in politics and day-to-day life, as well. Vivid stories stick even when they run counter to the evidence. It's probably a good idea to be extra-skeptical when we find an idea superficially appealing.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Ari writes:

Looks like Robin Hanson's influence is taking effect.

It's good, you'll progress as a thinker.

Art Carden writes:

Indeed. Reading Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan on things like this has taught me a lot.

Yancey Ward writes:

Carden is seeing it right. The SEC is superior on both defense and offense (the athletes are just better overall), but one often doesn't notice this offensive advantage because the defenses are so good when they play each other. However, when you watch them play the powers of the other conferences, they aren't usually defensive struggles, but are, often, massacres.

Art Carden writes:

@Yancey: I think you're right. The elite teams in the SEC are the elite teams in the country, but once you get to the middle of the conference you have a lot more parity with the other conferences. My Dad made this point last weekend: Texas A&M and Mizzou have stepped into the conference and made a lot of noise with Mizzou set to win the SEC East in their second year in the conference. Neither was an "elite" team in the Big 12 when they joined the SEC.

I also wonder if what we're seeing is something of a statistical oddity, like the string of NFC over AFC blowouts in the Super Bowl in the 80s and 90s.

I was thinking about this while driving yesterday. While it has been commendable that Alabama has played home-and-homes with Penn State and Duke, opened a few seasons with Big Time Opponents on neutral fields (Clemson in 2008, Va Tech in 2009 and 2013, Michigan in 2012), and would've had home-and-homes with Michigan State and Georgia Tech if it weren't for uncertainty about SEC alignment, I'd love to see them adopt a schedule that would give them two quality non-conference opponents from outside the southeast every year. An ideal two-year non-conference schedule, in my eyes:

2017:
at Big 10, say Ohio State
Home against Pac 12, say Stanford
Easy Win
Easy Win

2018:
Home against Ohio State
at Stanford
Easy Win
Easy Win

With the limitations of a 12-game schedule and the fact that Alabama doesn't need to prove itself by playing such a schedule, I doubt it will happen. One can dream, though.

Andrew_FL writes:

35 sounds kind of high for an average, at least from my limited experience. What was the average for all teams?

Tom West writes:

A compelling narrative beats boring old facts any day.

Deprived of a narrative when given a bunch of facts, humans will use the facts they're given to compose a narrative, and then adjust the facts they've been taught to fit that narrative.

In other words, it's almost impossible to teach "how" without teaching "why". If you don't give them a "why", they'll make one up based on the "how" instructions (and their own personal experience), forget the "how" instructions, and then re-derive the "how" from their constructed "why".

Oddly enough, I learned this in a second year Computer Science human interfaces course about 30 years ago.

There was a beautiful paper by IBM in which they had people speak out loud what they were thinking while working on their word-processor (pre-IBM-PC). The word processor came with a complete set of *beautiful* manuals that carefully displayed every step to take. They were almost works of art. And they couldn't stand up to the narrative that users constructed in their head about how the computer was working.

One of the most valuable pieces of information I ever picked up.

Austin writes:

How does LSU/Alabama's 35 points per game in 2011 compare to top teams from other conferences?

I added things up for my favorite team (oklahoma state) and they averaged 49 points that year.

Art Carden writes:

I don't know the overall average from top conferences, but it is true that the SEC wasn't Oregon-style basketball-in-cleats, but LSU beat Oregon 40-27 that year (with Oregon only getting that close with a couple of fourth-quarter garbage touchdowns, if I remember correctly). And yes, Oklahoma State was an offensive juggernaut that year.

The scores that pulled down Alabama and LSU averages were the Alabama-LSU games (I haven't calculated the average for non-Bama-LSU games).

And @Tom West, this might be the best--and most frightening--internet comment ever:

Deprived of a narrative when given a bunch of facts, humans will use the facts they're given to compose a narrative, and then adjust the facts they've been taught to fit that narrative.
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