Anyone can win it!

Good news! If you, me and every other reader of thenewstatsman formed a soccer team and got ourselves entered in the African Cup of Nations, we’re just as likely to win the tournament as any other team, according to Firdose Moonda. (She doesn’t mention any reduction in the odds if there are less than 11 readers.)

The bad news is that the competition ended a month ago, and the only reason I’m writing about it is that the research for the posting promised last week is proving to be quite time-consuming.

However, I’m just as interested in writing about these minor – and obvious – misdemeanours as I am about seemingly plausible sports-maths that is, on deeper examination, misleading. If you see something silly that warrants a wrist-slap for the journo concerned, or a bit lengthier that demands analysis, or even something quite reasonable (like a table of AFL full-forwards with their goals-per-game average) where you sense the orthodoxy needs challenging, please leave a comment.

Meanwhile, suffice it to say I disagree with Firdose and agree with commenter jmjm1973 (because he is me), who writes: “ ‘There is only a 37.5% chance that the team who lifts the 29th African Nations’ Cup on February 10 will be a new winner…’ …. that is, if the winner is selected randomly from the competing teams. I suppose if Brazil played St Kitts, they’d each have a 50% chance of winning?”

Malcolm Knox’s pretty average use of batting stats


Malcolm Knox has invented his own metric. Oh dear.

Knox starts this piece with a bang: “WARNING: the following contains material that may offend those who don’t eat cricket statistics for breakfast, or those who think Test cricket only started in the 1990s.”

Well, that list of offended parties at least makes a start. Can we add those who may not eat statistics for breakfast or any other meal, but do have a passing understanding of them? Continue reading

Stats-abusing journos, the odds are against you

Reading the sports pages and getting annoyed is a familiar feeling for anyone who follows a team or a sport. I can live with reading about my team getting thrashed or being on the wrong end of a bad umpiring decision, but there’s one thing I just can’t stand – being treated like an idiot. Is it too much to ask – for sports writers not to refer to “the law of averages”? Not to supply an average when a median would be a better measure to support (or test) their point? Not to use selective endpoints to skew a tenuous analysis?

Freakonomics, Moneyball and other books (“now Major Hollywood films!” … well, Brad Pitt is in Moneyball) have started to educate the public about how common sense, even supported by statistics, is sometimes just plain wrong. This blog will examine opinion and analysis pieces in the sports media, which have – or try to have – a statistical focus.

Of course, some articles don’t even quite make it over the common sense threshold. Round-one losers, the odds are against you sits at the top of the league table for infuriation. The phrase that set me off was “statistically significant”. (A commenter when The Age originally published this may have done the job I’m about to do by simply writing: “Statistically significant. Bwah-ha-ha!!!” But I’ll persist.) Continue reading