Chris Brown over at SmartFootball has posted an oustanding article, “Thinking about thoughts, fourth downs, and the nature of evidence,” in which he analyzes the discussion caused by Bill Belichick’s counter-intuitive but correct decision to go for it on 4th and 2 from his own 28 yard line with just over two minutes remaining against the Indianapolis Colts. The backlash caused by the decision (and the subsequent analysis) has been a fascinating case study in the human decision making process, and Brown nails it in his piece:
Although some stats junkies went the other way and proclaimed that it would have been affirmatively stupid for Belichick to have punted, most people, when faced with the compelling statistical evidence that the odds were roughly in Belichick’s favor (or at least so close as to be even with all the late game variables at play), were left in a fit of consternation. And this is why I think the decision has struck a national chord. It gets to the core of how people see themselves versus how they actually make decisions.
Most people fancy themselves as being driven by the evidence such that they will always follow it, but that’s not really true. As amazing and wonderful as the human brain is, it is fully of inherent biases, and information, even compelling information, that does not comport with those biases is often devalued, even on a subconcious level. (One famous experiment confronts people with radios where the speaker is discussing views contrary to or similar to those already held by the listener, but the volume is set too low to be heard well. The listeners frequently turn up the volume when the speaker is saying things they already believe; they rarely turn the volume up if the speaker is discussing the contrary views.)
And so it was with the Belichick debate. It’s not that you must agree with the decision, but any reasonable person has to say, as Posnanski did, “Well, hmm, it seemed nuts at the time but I get it now, based on the evidence.” As Keyes [sic.] said, “When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?” Yet many people still refuse to reconsider their view on the subject. It was wrong and no degree of evidence can change my view or even make me reconsider. …
It’s not really fair to pick on Tony Dungy, who was an excellent football coach, because his excellence had nothing to do with any training in statistics or probability. But his comment that “you have to play the percentages and punt” is symptomatic of a wider issue, which is that when something “feels horribly wrong,” we inherently want the evidence to comport with that feeling, and we convince ourselves that it does. …
The fourth down debate is significant (though I risk inflating its significance), because it forces you to consider how you actually tackle problems. …
[T]his debate has reinforced a somewhat cynical view of people that I have. There are two basic types: Those who, when confronted with evidence that challenges their instinctive or “gut” reaction, are cynical of their gut, or those who are cynical about the nature of evidence itself. I think over the years of writing this blog I have shown that I am clearly in the former camp. Note that this does not mean you always and forever follow the first evidence that is shown to you: Often we have “gut” feelings for a reason, and some of the best work is done when some support is shown for a proposition that feels wrong, and then people try to figure out why they feel so differently about it. In those cases, the evidence either survives or is even improved (and hopefully some minds are swayed), or the rigorous testing shows that there was some flaw in the evidence. But this view almost always leads to a healthy, respectful debate, and we all learn through the process.
On the other side are those who distrust anything not in their gut. And these people, like Tony Dungy, might have very good instincts. But the result is the dismissal of many good ideas, along with any pretense at debate. “Why is that wrong?” “It just is. I’m telling you.” The sad fact is it is easier to dismiss or ignore arguments (and people) than it is to engage with them or to justify your own views.
Now, whether or not some coach went for it on fourth down is a pretty silly thing to get worked up about. Yet I think the reason people have is that this deep divide — between the instinct sceptics and the evidence sceptics — has become exposed again. To be fair, football is a fair place to leave rationality at the door, and most people, including me, no doubt occasionally operate in the opposing camp depending on the issue. But following the evidence is a lot harder than we usually allow. And for doing that here, Belichick deserves credit. May we all be so bold.
In reading this, I couldn’t help but think of my own field (biblical studies) and reactions to my research over the years. Like, Brown, I fall firmly in the first camp: when confronted with evidence that challenges my instinct, “gut,” or what I thought I already knew, I’m suspicious of my gut—I have long prided myself on following the evidence, regardless of the cost. But my experience has been that the majority fall into the second camp—and this is magnified in biblical studies, where assumptions, instinct, and “gut,” run especially deep (and often depend on centuries-old interpretive traditions and assumptions). And since my research in some cases questions some of these deeply-held foundational assumptions, I have often run into outright dismissal (I’ve been called “crazy” more times than I’d care to count) with no real debate, at least at the start. That’s not to say I haven’t received the opposite reaction. I was shocked by how positive the reaction was to my presentation at SBL last year in Boston, for example, and one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received was when Robert Jewett told me that it was obvious that I hadn’t gone into my work with preconceived notions, that I’d been willing to follow the text where others had been unwilling, due to its potential implications. But the tendency has been in the other direction—immediate protection of the “gut,” the “knowledge” founded on deeply-rooted (but perhaps not so well defended) assumptions.
That said, I have noticed that such instant, visceral reactions are not always permanent. In fact, what I have noticed is that changes come slowly—at each of my graduate school stops, I started with people saying, “that’s crazy,” only to get emails (or have conversations) two years later, with the same people saying, “You know, I think you might be right. I can’t get away from it—it’s everywhere I look now.”
Another key quote: “Second, they mistook convention for truth. Football is a conservative sport coached by conservative men. In moments of uncertainty, when a fast, important decision is required, they revert to what they know, what has been passed down, what is safe.” The same is true in academe: convention is all too often mistaken for truth, with scholarship tending to be highly conservative—even bordering on fundamentalist (but ironically tending to be practiced by at least politically liberal people). Academic biblical scholarship has tended to trade its biblical fundamentalism for a scholarly one—a German scholar said it in the 19th century, and it is the foundation for all truth, dangit! If we’re going to do especially good scholarship, we need to step away from this sort of academic fundamentalism, dependent on convention, and consistently reexamine the assumptions we carry into our studies. This sort of thoroughgoing criticism will often wind up looking a bit odd, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.