A feature of modern times is the fake nerd. That’s the guy who dresses and talks like he was a geeky kid growing up and now busies himself with science and math. The TV show Big Bang Theory plays on this. In reality these fake nerds are almost always toting liberal arts degrees of the soft kind, like sociology or psychology. These people are brought onto news chat programs to repeat conventional wisdom, but salt their language with statistics or references to science.
Sports TV has been infested with the fake nerds. Pablo Torre on ESPN is the prime example. He majored in journalism, yet pretends to be a math guy on TV. It is a fair bet he cannot do basic math with any degree of confidence, but there he is every day pretending to be a stat-nerd on TV. These guys cherry-pick language and concepts from stat-heavy sites that analyze trends. They don’t understand the math behind them, but they don’t have to, as their job is to play a role, like an actor.
The good news for the fake nerds is their rabbi is back in business. Nate Silver’s racket is back up and running with the help of ESPN. Silver is a bright guy, for sure, but he is an ideologue and that gets the best of him. He’s a lot like Richard Lewontin, who was undeniably smart, but consumed with ideology. So much so it led him to lie about his work and do so brazenly. That’s not to say Silver is a liar, but it shows the risk of allowing an ideologue to assume the role of empiricist.
The application of statistics to human activity seems like a fool’s errand. Sports is a great example. Using advanced metrics has not helped gamblers. It may have helped some gamblers for a short time, but gambling is not just a math puzzle. Games of chance rely on human fallibility. That’s true of sports. The key to winning at sports gambling, for example, is to find the game outside the 90%. That means the possible outcomes within the 90% probability are not going to be winners for the gambler. You need the upsets and unexpected blowouts.
That said, the new religion of economics is legitimizing the use of statistics to public policy, because it opens the debate to corruption. Instead of focusing on desired ends, the focus is on process. The statistics make people think the outcomes are ordained and that what matters is how you get there. It’s why economics often looks a lot like tarot card reading. That assumption the future is written is never said, but it is often assumed, so process is all that matters.
It is a bit ironic. The last time this sort of materialist zeal got a purchase with the public was in the 19th century with Taylorism. That was the application of engineering to the work place to eliminate waste. Sounds a lot like what the new religion means by efficiency. Taylorism eventually gave us The Efficiency Movement. Progressives “such as Herbert Croly, Charles R. van Hise and Richard Ely sought to improve governmental performance by training experts in public service comparable to those in Germany, notably at the Universities of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Schools of business administration set up management programs oriented toward efficiency.”
Herbert Hoover was a big fan of this. Contrary to Progressive mythology, he was not a small government conservative. Like Nixon, he accepted the main arguments of the Left. He just picked the wrong party and, it turns out, the wrong time to be President. The point being that the last time our elites had a religious zeal for a new science of efficiency, promising to bring heaven on earth, they almost destroyed civilization. For that reason I wish Nate Silver and his fellow monks nothing but the worst.