Crawl Across the Ocean

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Is Sports the New Religion?

From the National CAtO Post News Service:

In his new book Apollo’s Arrow, ambitiously subtitled The Science of Prediction and the Future of Everything, Vancouver-based author and mathematician David Orrell set out to explain why the mathematical models scientists use to predict the outcomes of sporting events and player performance are not getting any better, just more refined in their uncertainty.

What has been discovered, in trying to sketch the first principles of prophecy, was the religious nature of modern sports fan-dom.

This is not to say that cheering for your favourite team is irrational in the way supernatural belief arguably is, just that — in its myths of the Fall and the Apocalypse, its saints and heretics, its iconography and tithing, its reliance on prophecy, even its schisms — the sports movement now exhibits the same psychology of compliance as religion.

Dr. Orrell is no sports-hater. He calls himself a fan. But he understands the unjustified faith that arises from the psychological need to make predictions.

"The track record of any kind of long-distance prediction is really bad, but everyone’s still really interested in it. It’s sort of a way of picturing the future. But we can’t make long-term predictions of the economy, and we can’t make long-term predictions of the next league MVP," Dr. Orrell said in an interview. After all, he said, scientists cannot even write the equation of a single game, let alone make a workable model of the entire season.

Formerly of University College London, Dr. Orrell is best known among scientists for arguing that the failures of sports forecasting are not due to chaotic effects — as in the butterfly that causes the hurricane — but to errors of modelling. He sees the same problems in the predictions of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Player Performance report, which he calls "extremely vague," and says there is no scientific reason to think that the outcome of entire seasons is more predictable than the outcome of a single game.

"Models will cheerfully predict that the Panthers will win the Stanley Cup or that Kyle Wellwood will win the Art Ross trophy, even if they are basing predictions on pre-lockout scoring levels," he writes in Apollo’s Arrow. And so forecasters use theoretical concepts like 'VORP adjustments' to make the models agree with reality. When models about the next season are in agreement, 'it says more about the self-regulating group psychology of the modelling community than it does about the teams and players involved.'

In explaining such an arcane topic for a general audience, he found himself returning again and again to religious metaphors to explain our faith in predictions, referring to the 'pool gods' and the 'images of almost biblical wrath' in the literature. He sketched the rise of 'the gospel of deterministic science,' a faith system that was born with Isaac Newton and died with Albert Einstein. He said his own physics education felt like an 'indoctrination' into the use of models, and that scientists in his field, 'like priests... feel they are answering a higher calling.'

"If you go back to the oracles of ancient Greece, prediction has always been one function of religion,' he said. 'This role is coveted, and so there’s not very much work done at questioning the prediction, because it’s almost as if you were going to the priest and saying, 'Look, I’m not sure about the Second Coming of Christ.'"

He is not the first to make this link. Thirty years ago, shortly after Bill James launched modern sports analysis by publishing leading to the first Toronto Blue Jay season in 1977, a Princeton history professor named Lynn White wrote a seminal essay called 'The Historical Roots of the curse of the Bambino.'

"By destroying pagan animism [the belief that natural objects have souls], Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects," he wrote in a 1967 issue of . "Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not." It was a prescient claim. In a 2003 speech in San Francisco, best-selling author Michael Crichton was among the first to explicitly close the circle, calling modern sports fandom 'the religion of choice for urban atheists ... a perfect 21st century re-mapping of traditional JudeoChristian beliefs and myths.'

Today, the popularity of American author Dan Shaugnessy's 'Reversing the Curse' confirms the return of a sort of idolatrous animism, a religion of sports. The recent emergence of the Elias Baseball Analyst and then Baseball Prospectus, did not create this faith, but certainly made it more evident.

It can be felt in the frisson of piety that comes with not mentioning a shutout or a perfect game while it is in progress, a modern blasphemy.

It is there in the pious propaganda of media outlets like the, Toronto Star, which on Jan. 28 made the completely implausible claim that, 'This could be the year that the Jays return to the playoffs.'

It can be seen in the public ritual of congregating at bars and pubs, in the veneer of saintliness on Don Cherry and Wayne Gretzky (the rush for tickets to the recent pond-hockey championships, crashed the organizers servers this week), in the high-profile team allegiances (honest or craven) displayed by Prime Minister Harper, and in the sinful guilt of throwing a worn-out team jersey in the garbage.

Adherents make arduous pilgrimages and call them road-trips. Newspapers publish the iconography of Penguins and Mighty Ducks. The Baseball Prospectus reports carry the weight of scripture (indeed, the first sentence on Amazon reads, "Described as 'the fantasy baseball bible.'")

John Kay of the Financial Times wrote last month, about future league champions: 'Christians look to the Second Coming, Marxists look to the collapse of capitalism, with the same mixture of fear and longing ... The mythology of team 'curses' filled a gap in the canon ... [and] provides justification for the link between the sins of our past and the catastrophe of our future.'

Like the tithe in Judaism and Christianity, the religiosity of sports is seen in the suspiciously precise mathematics that allow Vegas oddsmakers to sell the supposed neutralization of losses from prior bets.

It is in the schism that has arisen over whether or not to allow a designated hitter, which, even if the starry-eyed purists are completely discounted, has been a divisive force for baseball fans.

What was once called salvation — a nebulous state of grace — is now known as victory, a word that is equally resistant to precise definition. There is even a hymn, The Hockey Song by Tom Connors, which is not exactly How Great Thou Art, but serves a similar purpose.

Sports fan-dom even has its persecutors, embodied in the angry seniors who write to the CBC to complain about the delay in 'The National' during the NHL playoffs. Of course, as religions tend to do, sports fans commit persecution of their own, which has created heretics out of mere Sens fans.

All of this might be fine if religions had a history of rational scientific inquiry and peaceful, tolerant implementation of their beliefs. As it is, however, many religions, sports fans included, continue to struggle with the curse of literalism, and the resultant extremism.

"Maybe I’m wrong, but I think all this is wrapped up in our belief that we can predict the future," said Dr. Orrell. "What we need is more of a sense that we’re out of our depth, and that’s more likely to promote a lasting change in behaviour."

Projections are useful to "provoke ideas and aid thinking about the future," but as he writes in the book, "they should not be taken literally."

The "fundamental danger of deterministic, objective science [is that] like a corny, overformulaic film, it imagines and presents the world as a predictable object. It has no sense of the mystery, magic, or surprise of life."

The solution, he thinks, is to adopt what the University of Toronto’s Thomas Homer-Dixon calls a "prospective mind" — an intellectual stance that is "proactive, anticipatory, comfortable with change, and not surprised by surprise."

In short, if we are to be good, future fans, we must not be blinded by prophecy.

"I think [this stance] opens up the possibility for a more emotional and therefore more effective response," Dr. Orrell said. "There’s a sense in which uncertainty is actually scarier and more likely to make us act than if you have some analysts saying, 'Well, we're going to miss the playoffs this year, and we know what’s going to happen.'"

Today's front page headline is, "The green fervour:
Is environmentalism the new religion?"

At some point, making fun of the National Post starts to remind one of that little kid from up the street with no friends who always used to come down when you were shooting hoops in your driveway and challenge you to a game of one-on-one even though he was only 3 foot 6.

Still, I struggled with how to best encapuslate the sheer incoherence and inanity in the article and this was the best I could come up with. To be honest, I am pretty baffled by the decision to graft a simple concept (predictions from complex models should be taken with a grain of salt) onto the dreadfully cliched 'x is the new religion' framework.

Please note that this post is a slightly modifed version of the article in the National Post and is not to be taken as truth! e.g. Despite residing in Princeton, Lynn White never, to my knowledge wrote about the historical roots of the curse of the Bambino.


  • Maybe it's because I'm sick, but I wasn't 100% of the satire until the end.

    Anyway, these are pretty superficial criticisms of climactic/geophysical models. My current work is in biological modelling, in fact, and we are well aware of the difficulties in getting a model to be a) accuate and b) accurate because the underlying dynamics are correct and not because we've tuned the parameters in just the right way.

    In the case of all these climactic models, we are always given uncertainty bounds, so to say that climate change projections are "deterministic" and do not take into account any sort of uncertainty is just plain wrong.

    By Blogger JG, at 6:06 PM  

  • No, it was intended to be pretty subtle. You can only really get the full flavour of the post by reading it side by side with the article in the Post.

    What made this article (in the Post) special in my view, was the seemingly random combination of the one-sided view of climate models with the trite and silly 'environmentalists are like religious people' theme (not like Christians though or else wouldn't the Post always be defending environmentalists...)

    Either piece on it's own would have been bad, but randomly jumbled together with no rhyme or reason made for a real mess.

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:16 PM  

  • One final point: The reason the satire is not obvious is that my point is that you could easily write the exact same article about some other topic and it would come out sounding exactly the same, thus casting doubt on the idea that the things mentioned in the article are any special feature of environmentalism rather than the same old things you could say about any cultural phenomenon (e.g. there are people involved who are highly respected (the veneer of saintliness!), and the people in this phenomenon have opinions about things (holy doctrine!), and there are documents they have respect for (scriptures!), and they disagree about some things (schism!), and there are people they don't like (persecution!) and people who don't like them (heretics!), and they get together sometimes (congregate! at temples/shrines!), etc. etc.)

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:23 PM  

  • As I read this article, I was convinced more and more that some people do in fact treat sports as if it were a religion. I can agree with the comparisons between facets of religion and certain aspects of sport fan behavior. I would also like to point out that like religion, people turn to sports when they need something to believe in if they are feeling down and hopeless. For example, watching a football game temporarily puts my negative feelings on hold and acts like a momentary outlet for bad moods. I personally believe religion came about because people had an innate need for support and hope during bad situations. I think a perfect parallel can be drawn from religion to the world of sports—it provides inspiration to those who seek it, and also give fans and participants a sense of importance and purpose. Sports can lift the spirits of a fan or athlete, which is why there are so many people who participate in some kind of sport activity.

    By Blogger AU, at 6:10 AM  

  • So, if Bill James is god.... what does that make Joe Sheehan? Or Will Carroll? Or Nate Silver? Or Nate Davenport? Or Keith Woolner (inventor of VORP)? Would they all be the disciples or is this a polytheism? Hmmm...interesting....

    By Blogger Bailey, at 2:14 PM  

  • "Would they all be the disciples or is this a polytheism? "

    I have no idea - I'm just happy that at least one reader caught the 'VORP' reference. Things like that make it all worthwhile...

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:11 PM  

  • Polytheists do not always worship all the gods equally but can be specializing in the worship of one particular deity.

    By Anonymous kamagra, at 4:45 AM  

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