Sunday, 13 November 2016

Misinterpreting Close Contests

I often read about close rugby games decided by a margin equal to or less than the value of one penalty kick. Many reports will interpret the result as meaning the winning side was better-coached, has a knack for winning tight games, is generally better, etc. However, a gust of wind, a muscle twitch, or many other events mostly outside anyone's control could have changed the result, in which case the analysis would have been completely different. Thus, such analysis is nonsense.

The same problem afflicts analysis of close election results. If the margin of victory is very small, who actually won is not evidence of any preexisting condition, but it is often erroneously interpreted as strong evidence for the appeal of some candidate, or the effectiveness of some strategy, etc. In a close contest, "who won" will have a dramatic effect on the future but is irrelevant to explaining the past.

To avoid this cognitive bias, I wish rugby writers reporting on a close game would complete their analysis before they watch the last few minutes of the game. Likewise for people reporting on elections.

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