Newton, Nietzsche, and Narratives

I saw an article on Puck Daddy the other day about Islanders broadcasters ripping a statistical analysis of John Tavares, and while I'm certainly not 100% sold on the analysis in question, I got to thinking about the response and why it seems to be so common. This rambling, probably incoherent fanpost is what I've come up with.

Newton, Nietzsche, and Narratives: Why People are Resistant to In-Depth Analysis

From the beginning of human civilization, we have striven to make sense of the world around us. Early societies used extensive mythology to fill in the vast gaps in their knowledge of the universe, and the rituals which they invented in an attempt to control the mysterious forces of nature have been covered in as much detail as anyone could ever ask for in The Golden Bough. While such superstitions seem primitive to modern man, are we really so different? The need to assign purpose or reason to the often cruel caprices of the universe which led to those superstitions is still alive and well in the world today, albeit in a slightly different form.

The Scientific Revolution which began during the Renaissance set us on the path to a more complete understanding of the world we live in, replacing myths with hard evidence and verifiable results. Droughts, floods, storms, earthquakes, and disease have all shifted from the realm of wrathful gods to that of natural phenomena. With no human-related causes to such disasters, any chance of preventing them or at least finding meaning in them after the fact was lost. With divine influence removed from nature, its only remaining realm was that of metaphysics.

In Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, however, Nietzsche famously declared that God is dead within us as well. This of course is not meant literally, but rather to show that we have lost our connection to any objective system of order or morality that might exist independently of the human mind. Looking at the general lack of respect or consideration which people show to each other and their surroundings in the world today, I don't think this point requires argument. The loss of this connection led to the concept of nihilism, the twisting of which led to Nazism, among other things (as shown by Albert Camus).

With modern science and philosophy tearing down the old superstitions, and the continued vicissitudes of fate being joined by the threat of nihilism, people cling to their beleaguered belief that life is somehow supposed to be fair more desperately than ever. This is especially true in America, where we are raised on the idea that if you work hard and do the right thing, you will always succeed. I'm trying really hard to keep religion and politics out of this, so I'll move straight into sports now even though it will probably detract from the connection I'm trying to make here. (This post is getting too long anyway).

So now we come to the anti-stats arguments. The main thing that Grit, Hustle, Will, Heart, etc. have in common is that they are all unquantifiable. Their existence and the extent of their effect can neither be proven nor disproven, making them perfect substitutes for objective claims that could be proven false. Any attempts to introduce objective information into the conversation are invariably drowned out by the bleating of Orwellian sheep ("Use your eyes, watch the games!"). But why celebrate voluntary ignorance? Edit- I want to make explicitly clear that I am not criticizing people who think about things with an open mind and just happen to disagree, I'm criticizing those who ridicule things without making an effort to understand them.

Just like the primitive civilizations who believed that their chants and sacrifices could bring the rain, sports fans want to believe that their team's Grit and Heart (and Truculence!) can maintain an unsustainable PDO in spite of poor possession metrics. Just as our ancestors would kill or drive off “witches” to make the crops grow, people want to believe that exorcising a talented “locker room cancer” will increase the team's Hustle and Will, thereby making up for the decrease in objective talent.

Media narratives like “lack of mental toughness,” “guy with something to prove” or “a team buying into the system” feed into not only our perception bias but also that desire to control our own destiny which goes back to those prehistoric rituals. If the “gritty, hard working” player can outperform the “naturally talented but lazy*” player, it reinforces our naïve belief that we will all get what we deserve. Stats pull aside the curtain and reveal undesirable truths by pointing out the inevitability of random variation and regression. This goes against what it is our nature to want to believe, in one of the few remaining areas in which blind faith in our ability to control the world around us remains possible. Essentially, deprecating “intangibles” amounts to attacking people's concept of life, the universe, everything. I believe that this is the source of such vitriol as this diatribe from Islanders announcer Howie Rose:

[H]e came up with some kind of goofball numerical response. I don't know who this house-bound agoraphobe is, but I suggest he open the shades in room, get a little light in there and watch the games and stop playin' around with, you know, computer-based [cross talk] and calculators … give me a break! Open your eyes! ... That's just stupid. There's no other way to put it.

Why else would so many conversations about whether stats can supplement and even improve observations end up getting as heated as a creation vs. evolution debate or a presidential campaign?

So now that I've worked through my thoughts here, am I just reading way too far into this ongoing debate? Do my disjointed ramblings completely misjudge human nature? More importantly, how do we work through the issues (whatever they may be) and have constructive conversations with more traditional fans?

*(BTW, for non-Phillies fans- the link to Dom Brown was a reference to a fabricated media narrative, just like the other links in that paragraph)

This item was written by a member of this community and is not necessarily endorsed by <em>Broad Street Hockey</em>.

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