Friday, November 05, 2010

We Don't Know What We Don't Know

Since the name of this blog is "Basketball Predictions" I do a lot of predicting of the future. Inevitably, anybody making projections about the future is going to be wrong from time to time. If any of us could always predict the future we'd either be in Vegas making billions like Biff from Back to the Future Part II or we'd be helping the government find Osama Bin Laden.

When bad predictions are made, it often leads to fun at the predictor's expense. And one prediction spinning around the internet today is this one from political analyst Stuart Rothenberg in April, 2009. The article looks hilarious now in the wake of Tuesday's elections, but that's not why I'm linking to it. Not only do we all make bad predictions, but Rothenberg's analysis wasn't much different from everybody else's at that time.

The reason I'm linking to Rothenberg's article is because it demonstrates the exact opposite of the demeanor that I try to take here. The fact is that we don't know what we don't know, and we all tend to be far too confident in our predictions. Here are two choice quotes of Rothenberg doing the exact opposite;

[The idea that Republicans can win back Congress in 2010] is lunacy and ought to be put to rest immediately. None of the three actually predicted that Republicans would gain the 40 seats that they need for a majority, but all three held out hope that that’s possible. It isn’t.

...and the chance of Republicans winning control of either chamber in the 2010 midterm elections is zero. Not “close to zero.” Not “slight” or “small.” Zero.

What Rothenberg is doing here is not just stating an opinion about what will happen, but ridiculing those who dare disagree. And that's where he crosses the line. He may be absolutely positively sure that something will happen, but is it really impossible for him to be wrong? In his case, was it really impossible to believe that a series of events could lead up to a big wave election? I could come up with one simple possibility - a huge Barack Obama scandal akin to Watergate. That's not what happened, of course, but how could anybody have been so certain it wouldn't happen a year and a half ago? Scandals can happen to anyone at any time.

Bringing this back to college basketball, this reinforces why I'm so cautious about making firm predictions. I will constantly tell you which teams I think will make the NCAA Tournament, and I'll tell you why, but I don't say a team absolutely positively can't make the Tournament until that's really so. And that earns me a lot of grief, because "bracketology" is a field that lends itself to extreme projections. We are told by ESPN that teams are "locks" to make or miss the NCAA Tournament that end up proving false the predictor of their fate. I try very hard not to make that mistake.

Every year, with my first bracket projection after January 15th, I begin featuring what I call the "full bubble", where I include every team with any possible chance of making the Tournament. I then eliminate teams in each new bracket. In all of the years I've done this I have never once eliminated a team and then had that team get back into the bracket or into the Tournament as an at-large. Yet while I'm proud of this, it leads to attacks from readers. I'm told that I'm an idiot wasting time by listing teams in the "Still alive, but pretty much need a miracle" category. Yet sometimes those teams do make big turnarounds. A good example was in 2007-08, when Kentucky started the season 7-9 with losses to Gardner Webb and San Diego, and weren't even too near the RPI Top 100 when I was listing them as a team still alive. They then proceeded to go 11-2 the rest of the regular season and snuck into the NCAA Tournament with an 11 seed.

I don't intend this post to sound whiny about the complaints I get. I know that it's what I get for running a blog. But I think that this sort of thinking has applications to all parts of life, as Stuart Rothenberg has probably learned the past couple of days. We are all free to make predictions, but we need to be humble and recognize the uncertainty inherent in predicting the future. Just because somebody disagrees with you doesn't mean that they're stupid and ignorant and worthy of ridicule.

A lot of things are possible that we don't think are possible. We just don't always know what we don't know.

No comments: