On Being Wrong

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Here's a nice Q&A over at Slate between Kathryn Schulz and Joe Posanski. It combines two of my hobbies--sports and being wrong. Specifically it looks at why readers love it when sports writers are wrong:


What puts the fun in the "fun sports way of being wrong"? 
Part of it is the gambler's thrill: Who's going to win the NCAA tournament? Who's going to be No. 1 in the country? But it's also about narrative. The fun of the Super Bowl is the week leading into it; once it's actually played, the story dies down very, very quickly. But heading into it, all these stories and all these angles and all these different version of what could happen--95 percent of those are wrong, yet they constitute 95 percent of the thrill. In sports--and I suppose this is true in life in general--most of the time, things aren't going to turn out the way you think they are. And it'd be boring if they did. The way you describe sports, it sounds like one big futures market. But, as we've all just seen in spades, people in finance are usually terrible at admitting their mistakes. 

Do you think people in sports are better at it? 
It depends on what you mean. I'd be surprised if futures traders get as many nasty e-mails as sportswriters. You get plenty of people who are very, very happy to tell you on a daily basis how wrong you are. But for the most part, there is still a sense that at the end of the day, it's only a game. 

About those nasty e-mails--why do you think it makes people so happy to tell you that you're wrong? 
The nastiest e-mails I get tend to be when I've picked a team to lose and then it wins. For the fans, winning is great, but proving somebody wrong is even better. In sports, there's an extreme culture of playing off of the media. Coaches will go into their team meetings and say, "These guys think you can't do it, they picked you to lose," and fire them up that way. Same thing from the fan's perspective. You wake up in the morning and you read the paper and it's saying you're going to lose and then your team goes out and wins. Well they didn't just win, they proved somebody wrong. That's what's at the heart of the joy.

There's a lot of truth there, and a lot of good stuff in the rest of the interview. I think two factors are neglected, however. First, media in general, often confuse accuracy with honesty. I think analysts, reporters, and the people overseeing them, are loath to admit error because they see it as a kind of brand erosion. The question becomes--If I admit to you that I was wrong, why should ever trust me to be right again? My sense is that only a fool actually expects media people to be right all of the time. 

What they expect, I think, is for you to be honest and informed. I love watching Steve Young talk about football. I haven't had a TV in a while, but when I did, I enjoyed listening to Greg Anthony talk basketball. There's a guy in Dallas, Norm Hitzgis, who I'd gladly pay to hear talk about the Cowboys everyday. It's not because I think these people have supernatural powers of prediction. It's because I like hearing informed argument. I don't expect that the arguments will always be born out, but I do expect it to be intelligent.
There's also the fact the much of what passes for sports analysis is a sport in and of itself. I suspect that, say, Skip Bayless, and his interlocutors, are doing something beyond even what you see in your average sports bar. In the main, they have no incentive to disagree. The premium is on the argument portion. The opinions don't need to be deeply-held.

Lastly, there's what my label-mate Andrew calls, "journalism's dirty secret." The dirty secret is this--perhaps more than any other "profession" journalism's barriers to entry are really artificial. It does take a special person to be a great journalist. Curiosity in the extreme is important. A strong desire to see, and thus think, clearly is important. But neither of these can really be taught in a crude classroom environment. Journalism can't be absorbed through a series of lectures and assigned readings. It must be done. No one can teach you how to go up to strangers and ask rude questions. You just have to do it. Repeatedly.

In point of fact, many of the journalists whom we regularly see exhibit neither great curiosity nor clear thinking. It's much like acting--there are many great actors, but many of the ones you see regularly are not. Thus the sense is that the perch which journalists enjoy is undeserved. A journalist is not, say, like a chemist, or an ophthalmologist. When we watch sports analysts loudly proclaiming who's going to win, and who isn't, we look at them and think, "Why is this guy on TV? I can do that."

Indeed you could--and many more of you should. And not just in sports. Some of the best, and most informed, commentary I read happens underneath posts like these. Indeed the comments sometimes exceed the post to the extent that I end up having to reverse myself. Forgive the circle-jerk. But sometimes I read some of you and wonder why you're here. You should be out there with guns. We need soldiers.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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