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Quibbling Rivalry

November 18, 2009

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Quibbling Rivalry

Last Sunday evening, while I was watching the final minutes of the now famous Indianapolis Colts - New England Patriots football game, I experienced a moment of middle-aged serenity. I realized that I didn’t actually need to have an opinion on perhaps the leading topic of office water cooler debate in this decade: Which quarterback is better—the Colt’s Peyton Manning or the Patriot’s Tom Brady?

I could just sit back and enjoy the show.

You can, too, with these highlights. 

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The everlasting Brady-Manning controversy reminded me of an epistemological insight that Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker suggested when I interviewed him in 2002 during his book tour for his bestseller The Blank Slate. It didn’t fully register upon me at the time, but what has stuck with me the longest is Pinker’s concept that “mental effort seems to be engaged most with the knife edge at which one finds extreme and radically different consequences with each outcome, but the considerations militating towards each one are close to equal.”

To put it another way, the things that we most like to argue about are those that are most inherently arguable, such as: Who would win in a fight, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?

Sunday’s final score, 35-34, is symbolic of how comparable the two men’s achievements have been. Yet, their records are different enough to give each side strong arguments. Thus, we find fascinating each round of their ongoing duel.

The game’s outcome hinged upon the fingertips of each quarterback’s receivers. Manning beat Brady because on fourth down and two yards to go with 2:08 left on the clock, the Patriot’s Kevin Faulk momentarily bobbled Brady’s pass, costing the crucial first down. In contrast, with 13 seconds left, Reggie Wayne made a superb grab of Manning’s bullet pass for the Colt’s winning touchdown.

The next day, Wayne’s fingertip snag was forgotten in the hullabaloo over Patriot coach Bill Belichick’s decision not to punt on fourth down. As Vox Day sagely pointed out in Belichick’s defense, however, “I’d much rather bet on Brady than against Manning.”

As Pinker observed, this notion of the most evenly matched being the most interesting “seems to explain a number of paradoxes, such as why the pleasure of sports comes from your team winning, but there would be no pleasure in it at all if your team was guaranteed to win every time like the Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals.”

On the other hand, scientific knowledge is that which tends to become increasingly less arguable (which might help explain why Nielsen ratings are higher for football games than for chemistry documentaries).

Despite the intensive efforts that the two quarterbacks’ partisans have invested in arguing their respective cases over the years, it’s not clear that there are all that many larger lessons to be drawn from the Manning-Brady debate. If some disputant were to conclusively prove that one player is better, what would that teach us about, say, the optimum size for an NFL quarterback? Brady is listed at 6’4” and 225 pounds, while Manning is 6’5” and 230.

This doesn’t mean that these interminable debates are all sound and fury signifying nothing. Just because Brady and Manning have been (more or less) similarly excellent in the past doesn’t mean they will continue to be. Both could become free agents after next season. Tens of millions of dollars ride on forecasts of their future performance.

The most famous quarterbacking example of the importance of this kind of imponderable decision stems from 1998, when Manning entered the NFL draft out of the U. of Tennessee.

That year at work, I was on a task force choosing a new email system for our corporation. We quickly narrowed the plausible candidates down to the industry leading products from Microsoft and Lotus. At that point, though, decision-making bogged down for weeks. Years of competition had made the systems quite similar, except that one appeared to offer more upside while the other promised less downside. We indulged in many long Microsoft v. Lotus debates, but we couldn’t reach a consensus over which would prove better for our specific needs.

After awhile, I noticed that the newspaper debates over who should be picked first in the upcoming NFL draft were eerily similar to my corporate concerns. The consensus was that Manning was less risky, but that strong-armed Ryan Leaf of Washington State had more potential.

That there didn’t seem to be any terribly objective way to choose between the two quarterbacks afforded me a certain philosophical tranquility over our email travails: we had eliminated all the obvious bad decisions. Yet the football analogy offered no practical consolation because history suggested that though Manning and Leaf projected out as roughly equal, they probably wouldn’t turn out that way. Drafting pro quarterbacks is a troublesome business, with a wide variance in outcome. One of the players would likely become a star and the other a disappointment.

But which?

To move up merely from the third draft pick to the second in order to be assured of getting Leaf, the San Diego Chargers traded “two first-round picks, a second-round pick, reserve linebacker Patrick Sapp and three-time Pro Bowler Eric Metcalf.” Leaf’s career proved a debacle, as he finished with only 14 touchdown passes versus 36 interceptions. (Manning now has 353 touchdowns and 172 interceptions.)

Does that mean that quarterback performance in the NFL “can’t be predicted” as Malcolm Gladwell flatly asserted in The New Yorker? Blessed with the first pick, the Indianapolis management calmly settled on Peyton Manning, and—at least as of last report—remains satisfied with their decision. Not surprisingly, the data support Pinker’s statement in his New York Times review of Gladwell’s latest book, “It is simply not true that a quarter¬back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros.”

(In response to Pinker’s review, Gladwell wrote a letter to the Times pointing out that I engage in crimethink.)

Yet, if I were in charge of player personnel for all the NFL teams, Gladwell would no doubt be right about the futility of the draft in forecasting quarterback outcomes: I, personally, would have chosen Leaf over Manning.

As you may have noticed by now, I’m like that: clueless about most subjects that most people are most desperate to discuss. Who will win the Super Bowl? Will the stock market go up or down tomorrow? Will the health bill pass? Which party will win the next election?

Don’t ask me.

Those questions concern competitive institutions that are structured in ways that make their outcomes hard to foresee … and therefore captivating.

The NFL has become the top spectator sport in America in part by contriving its affairs so that the winner of the next Super Bowl is very much in doubt. (No NFL team is allowed to dominate financially, as the Yankees and Red Sox do in baseball; last year’s best teams get this year’s hardest schedules; and the worst draft first.)

Paradoxically, that means that my being profoundly ignorant about these concerns wouldn’t keep me from making quick predictions that would be almost as accurate as if I did nothing else but study the subject.

Who will win the Super Bowl? Well, two minutes on Google leads me to a betting site that says the New Orleans Saints are +360, while the Indianapolis Colts are +385. (I don’t even know what those numbers are supposed to mean.) Here’s another site that has the Colts at 3:1 and the Saints at 4:1, which at least I understand.

So, there you have my fearless forecast: the Saints will meet the Colts in the 2010 Super Bowl, and one of them will win.

You heard it here first.

If you want political predictions, I can check the Intrade market to see that … hey, what do you know? Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, and Tim Pawlenty are neck and neck for the 2012 GOP nomination.

So, that’s my 2012 conjecture: taking a page from the late Roman Republic, the GOP will nominate Palin, Romney, and Pawlenty to run against Obama as a triumvirate.

Do you have a better guess?

I suppose I could obsessively study the political tealeaves to learn the minutia of upcoming elections (such as who this Pawlenty person might be). But how much would I be adding to the sum total of human wisdom?

Not much, I suspect. One thing the press does well is cover political horse races.

Instead, I’ve spent time studying other fields, such as the social science behind educational and economic achievement. That way I can generate a higher return on my investment by being able to make more accurate predictions than the conventional wisdom about the effects of crucial public policies such as immigration. (That’s my metaphorical ROI I’m talking about. My financial ROI? Eh …)

In contrast to more popular subjects, in which what you learn is as ephemeral as the mood of the Tennessee Titans, what I’ve learned about school test scores over the last 37 years doesn’t become quickly obsolete. For instance, Chinese students are still averaging higher math scores.

Moreover, it’s not a terribly competitive market niche I’ve selected, since many people don’t ever want to think about it, and get angry at those few of us who do. Others just find these huge swathes of the social sciences as boring and depressing as if I specialized in being a bookmaker on Globetrotter v. Generals games. (Krusty the Klown explained after losing his fortune on an imprudent bet, “I thought the Generals were due!”)

Still, as Pinker told me in 2002:

Q: Aren’t we all better off if people believe that we are not constrained by our biology and so can achieve any future we choose?

A: People are surely better off with the truth. Oddly enough, everyone agrees with this when it comes to the arts. Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which everyone lives happily ever after. But when it comes to science, these same people say, “Give us schmaltz!” They expect the science of human beings to be a source of emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing.

Well, sure, but … Who do you think is better, Manning or Brady?

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