Predicting the unpredictable

Last night during the halftime show for the Boston Celtics-Orlando Magic NBA playoff game, ESPN’s Stuart Scott said something along the lines of, “Let’s give credit to Michael Wilbon. He correctly predicted that the Washington Wizards would win the draft lottery.”

I wondered if this was said with tongue planted in cheek. But no. Scott proceeded to ask Wilbon to explain his prediction. Wilbon then went into a long discourse on his “reasoning,” which was that the Wizards had bad luck in the lottery in the past so they were due for good luck, especially with the heartwarming story of the widow of long-time owner Abe Pollin being on hand as the team’s representative.

Everybody nodded seriously, and there was follow-up talk about what a good prediction it was.

Hello, folks! The lottery is a random process, and as such it is absolutely unpredictable! There is no explanation for any particular team winning (other than probability, since it’s a weighted process where the teams don’t have an even chance), nor any reason that they won except that the numbered ping-pong balls happened to go the right way.

My first thought was that if there were any statistics professors watching, their heads might have exploded. Actually, though, they would have been nodding their heads, not in agreement with what was said but in recognition that such talk is consistent with research studies that have been done. In one study, subjects who had streaks of early success in predicting the results of coin tosses rated themselves as better at it than others—even though that’s impossible.

Also, part of Wilbon’s reasoning is the “gambler’s fallacy” about something being “due” to happen. That’s simply not true for random processes: The ping-pong balls didn’t know the results of past NBA lotteries, and this outcome was independent of all others.

(I should mention that I didn’t detect any “conspiracy theory” undercurrent to the discussion to the effect that the NBA somehow controls lottery outcomes. Nor was the tone that Wilbon was somehow clairovoyant. No, it was as if he had predicted the outcome in the same way he would predict the winner of a game.)

This got me thinking about an instance in sports where the “prediction” of a random event can actually affect the outcome of a game—the coin toss in football. The visiting team calls heads or tails, which means that they either win or lose the toss.

In point of fact, there is a 50 percent chance of winning or losing either way. The coin toss could just as effectively be conducted by saying that the home team wins the toss if it is heads and the visiting team wins if it is tails.

But since it’s done by one team calling heads or tails, it makes it look like they were right or wrong. If they lose by calling heads, they can slap their heads and say, “If only we’d called tails!” It creates the illusion of controlling the result of the toss.

The coin toss at the beginning of overtime may well have determined the outcome of last season’s NFC Championship game, where the New Orleans Saints got the ball first and beat the Minnesota Vikings. Whoever decided to call “heads” for the Vikings is probably regretting the decision to this day.

Maybe he should have consulted Michael Wilbon.

TOPICS: Non-Golf

ABOUT: David Barrett

David Barrett was an editor at Golf Magazine for 18 years and has written two books on golf–Golf Courses of the U.S. Open and Golf's Dream 18s. A long time ago, back when Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson were the perennial favorites, he covered the Masters (as well as SEC football, ACC basketball, etc.) for The Augusta Chronicle.

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