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.

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13 Responses to “Unplug”

  1. James says:

    Should I remove Advanced NFL stats from my RSS feed?

    Seriously I think the insane babble makes your type of analysis more meaningful.

    In a wider sense looking at sabermetric-stylr approaches to sport. If everyone was 100% rational there would be no edge for those of us who disdain the talking heads trying to force meaning on a few events. I guess it depends whether you want to convert everyone to sabermetric/stats based way of viewing and analyszing sport or if you are happy to let the masses believe what they like confident that you are on a better path. Maybe it is analagous to the Christian vs Jewish approach to conversion.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The people running news organizations aren't stupid, they're businessmen. Their job is to make money.

    So while I'm sure it's satisfying to blame the "media", you've got it backwards. The suits in charge of Viacom, Disney, Comcast, and NewsCorp don't make the news sensationalistic because they want people to be worried and afraid. They do it because they know that's what sells newspapers and gets TV viewers.

    When news is presented in a thoughtful and rational manner (think NewsHour on PBS, or The Economist) nobody watches. When it's presented in a hysterical, alarmist manner (anything on Fox News, USA Today), it sells.

    It's not about scaring people; it's about making money.

  3. Brian Burke says:

    I agree. They don't want to be sensationalistic for its own sake. It's just how they need to compete and it's what people demand. It's the market.

    But that doesn't mean you need to lap it up.

  4. Michael Schuttke says:

    Thanks for what you had to say here.

    The ultimate irony to me in all of this is the growing sense of isolation and disconnect that marks this, the digital era, more than any other era of time.

    We have instant access to people's thoughts (i.e. Twitter, Facebook status updates, live news, etc.) yet it seems that there is this growing sense on the air of no one really feeling "known." Maybe this is also a reflection of a postmodern worldview in that nothing is truly "knowable".

    However, I think the biggest issue, more than the noise, is our love of entertainment combined with a fear of true engagement of reality.

    The reason news is noise is because people WANT that. They want sensationalism,not substance. They want visceral images but not data and (good) statistics. The monster perpetuates because we want it to--further reinforcing the need to "unplug."

    Regarding engaging reality, most people are so far removed from the actual community around them that this diving into the "fantasy world" that is news further perpetuates the isolation. We know about rising gas costs but how about carpooling to work with our neighbor? We will read about Prince William getting hitched but do not go over and attempt to engage the guy at the office in cube 6, row 7 that is going through a divorce.

    While disengaging "unreality" is part of the equation, I am more concerned that it is our love of the sensational, of entertainment ultimately, that will lead to a further disassociation within our society from true reality out of the fears that arise, initially at least, from engaging in real community.

    Again, thanks for your thoughtful words Brian.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Agree with everything you wrote. I follow the "news" to the extent that's required for my investment and personal entertainment, and nothing more. This doesn't require watching either the nightly news or reading the paper. In fact it mostly means following blogs of an in-depth nature like you own on a variety of topics.

  6. Rikki says:

    This is the reason why I unplug during the NFL draft. I could spend hours watching videos of players, but still not be able to tell if one player is going to have a better career than the other.

    It seems that this kind of absorbing news, and assuming the most popular conclusions as your own, is part of how fans are supposed to perform. If you are a fan that watches every game, i.e. more than a "casual" fan, you're "supposed" to "know" about the labor struggle and the draft.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I'm just waiting for more statistical analysis. I use your articles to help my online simulated football game http://deeproute.com

    And I need new articles to help me balance my game! I could care less about the lockout.

  8. Misfit says:

    Love this post.

  9. Ben Morris says:

    I stopped reading most actual news years ago, but I still read blogs that frequently discuss, debate, or criticize the news from various angles. As a general rule, I think I get a lot more out of the arguments than out of the underlying stories.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I disagree. Let's start here: It's the responsibility of citizens in a democracy to make informed choices at the polling place. To admit, as Dobelli does, that news doesn't affect his decision making is to claim that he already knows everything he needs to. That hardly seems plausible. News is important, and it sounds to me like this post is a deserved attack on particular sources of news, and not news in general.

  11. Anonymous says:

    " ... the growing sense of isolation and disconnect that marks this, the digital era, more than any other era of time."

    A friend once told me, "Joe, the thing that keeps me from being pessimistic is that I know a little bit about history. Whenever anyone says to me, 'It's never been this bad before,' I tell them, 'Yeah, it has.'"

  12. Anonymous says:

    So we should stop trying to foresee future events altogether? While I think that the pundits that speculate about such news are too often looked to for correct information, I think that they have an important role to play in the news reporting field.

    Pundits, such as those on ESPN, are often given the task of speculating about what the future events of may be. They tend to be alot closer to the subject being reported on than most of us, and therefore can make better guesses than most of us about how things might unfold.

    If we lived in the present moment like you suggest and ignored totally such news, and only presented news as something static, then we would be leaving out a very important aspect of the human condition. The ability to think about future events is what separates us from every other creature on this planet, and to not report news as a human might would be a diservice to all of us.

  13. Ian Simcox says:

    So the NFL season is on again. And that's all the info we needed to know from that story. Good advice Brian.

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