“News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.”—Rolf Dobelli
You may have noticed there has been a labor action here at Advanced NFL Stats. I’m on a work slow-down, taking a vacation from all the lockout noise. Apparently there’s an NFL lockout going on, and there may or may not be full, normal NFL season this fall. That’s all we know, and that’s all we need to know as fans. That’s the signal, and everything else is noise.
Weeks ago I unsubscribed from rumor mills like Pro Football Talk on my RSS reader. I avoid articles in the sports pages about the lockout and change the station when the local sports talk veers into lockout soap opera. Too much of it is gossip, rumor and speculation, and it’s a giant waste of time.
Sure, following a pro sports league is a giant waste of time to begin with. It's supposed to be. One of the reasons I delved so deeply into stats and analysis is to escape the chattering, blathering nonsense of ‘real’ news. The last thing I want is more talking heads yapping about law suits, stays, appeals and anti-trust laws.
In fact, I recommend getting off the treadmill of “news” altogether. As a recovering news junkie, it was a real wake up call to read this in an essay by Swiss businessman and author Rolf Dobelli:
“Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that - because you consumed it - allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career, your business - compared to what you would have known if you hadn't swallowed that morsel of news.”
Dobelli’s essay explains that we are ‘cavemen in suits’ with brains optimized for the tribal existence of small bands of hunter gatherers. Almost every bit of information would have impacted our survival then. But now, nearly nothing we call news is relevant to our lives.
Modern news is systematically biased toward the sensational, the personal, the narrative, and to the graphic. News feeds the weakest vulnerability of the human intellect—confirmation bias. From the media’s perspective, the very purpose of news is to manipulate and create anxiety. Media outlets want you worried so you’re eyes are glued for the next meaningless development.
Have you ever picked up the front page of a newspaper, and noticed just how much of the news is nothing but speculation? Beyond the first couple paragraphs of any newspaper article, it's almost completely guesswork and opinion. A few years ago, I saw a talk by novelist Michael Crichton about speculation in the news. During the talk, he opened the day’s New York Times to the top front-page story. It happened to be about steel tariffs. The article said that the tariff action "is likely to send the price of steel up sharply, perhaps as much as ten percent." American consumers "will ultimately bear" higher prices. Allies "would almost certainly challenge" the decision. Their legal case "could take years to litigate in Geneva, is likely to hinge…and “set the stage for a major trade fight.” Articles like that are the staple of the news business, and sports news is no different.
Media speculation is almost always wrong, or at least dramatically overblown. (Does anyone remember a trade war five years ago?) Projections and predictions are hard enough in football, which is a bounded system of 60-minute games and 100-yard fields and which instantly offers every conceivable bit of relevant data available online. Speculation in the unbounded system of the real world is a fool’s errand.
So next time you hear or read “today’s ruling could mean that the 2011 season may…”, just tune out. Unplug. You’ll thank yourself.
Wake me up when it’s over.