XKCD: Even when he’s wrong, he’s kinda right

Edward Tufte recently tweeted this xkcd cartoon:

It’s funny. And it’s funny because it’s basically true. So hear me out on this one…

Isn’t it slightly more accurate to say that sporting events are giant hidden Markov models, where the hidden factor is simply the true skill of the players involved? We’re pulled in because ultimately we all want to know who is the best. On some level we need to build narratives because we want to know so badly.Manning or Brady? LeBron or Durant? Ali or Frazier? Wilt or Russell? Each game, each playoff series, each season gives us a little more information – but never enough for us to fully convince our friend that they’re wrong. LeBron finally won a title? Well, he had Wade and Bosh. Tebow? He got lucky. Or perhaps – he’s a winner. We use the information we have on hand to affirm or refute. Sure, professional commentators should be a little better than that. But guess what – it’s entertainment. And guess what – commentators are pulled by the same forces as you and I. So while it’s fun to be snarky, maybe it’s not quite so pat as the cartoon suggests. And yeah, it’s a cartoon and I shouldn’t take it so seriously, but then again it’s an example of the the kind of too-cool-for-school thinking that geeks apply to jocks, and jocks to geeks, the kind of thinking that keeps these two camps apart. Surely Nate Silver would not approve.

(By the way, It’s pretty obvious that our desire to find out “Who’s #1?” is not the only reason to watch sports. For example, the enjoyment derived from watching people who are the very best at what they do. The documentary Manufactured Landscapes has some mesmerizing scenes of factory workers performing mundane tasks at an almost transcendent level. Why does this fascinate me? Why do I watch certain sports once every four years during the Olympics? Because it is a chance to see humans performing at their highest capability. Another reason is to be able to indulge in the fantasy of imagining what it would be like to be able to be a pro athlete. Sigh.)

Author: natebrix

Follow me on twitter at @natebrix.

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