The other day in a restaurant, I saw a man with a T-shirt that read, "Statistics mean never having to say you’re certain." Since I was a math minor in undergrad and a research assistant on a statistics textbook, the saying hit me where I used to operate. We depend on statistics to direct how we live, invest, travel, vote, buy merchandise, render a jury verdict, speed yet avoid a ticket, and so many other daily tasks and decisions. We follow polls and political predictions that always have a + or – percentage points of accuracy, then quote what we heard as gospel. As mathematically powerful as statistics sound, researchers can often develop statistical data using a very small sample, sometimes as little as 10 to 20 data points, to arrive at an earth-shattering conclusion that is supposed to be broadly interpreted across a multitude of products or people. This of course doesn’t take into account what I call "dueling statistics," which become anecdotal despite being scientifically-based. One statistician will declare that a certain public policy has an 80 percent approval rating, while another statistician will declare it only has a 46 percent approval rating. The disparity comes from how the data is gathered. Depending on the questions, participants can provide widely different results. Inquiring if you want a big box store two blocks from your house will likely result in a resounding "no" while asking do you want convenient shopping possibilities in your town is more likely to elicit a "yes." Of course, those statistics which can avoid the taint of bias and depend solely on mathematically- or scientifically-generated data, like baseball statistics or double-blind drug studies, are far more trustworthy and significant. Yet, in the end we all pick and choose the statistics we feel best suit our preconceived notions about what is actually true.
During Thanksgiving dinner, our conversation turned to soccer, which pretty much takes up a majority of our conversation at any time. With a goalkeeper son and a striker son, we have the field of play and opinion covered. For some reason, we started talking about penalty kicks, and I mentioned a study that said nearly 80 percent of all penalty kick shots made to the low post on the non-dominate side of the keeper succeed in scoring. This wasn’t opinion; it was factually based on a long-term and definitive collection of PK results at all levels of soccer. Nevertheless, both sons immediately disagreed with the statistical outcome. The striker said he prefers upper 90’s because he thinks keepers commit early to low kicks. The goalie said that he felt pushing off on his dominate leg to go to his non-dominate side was actually more likely to give him the strength and the distance to stop a PK attempt on that low post. In other words, they believe instinct overrides the numbers.
If sports teach us anything, it’s that facts can only take players and teams so far. Ask any coach who spends years cultivating a certain dribbling or batting style with players only to have some wild kid capable of streaking down the field with a sureness not born of rigid training but of instinct. How many major league hitters have settled into the batter’s box with their weight on the front leg, the bat resting on the shoulder, and/or their heads down, all the positions that statistics say won’t result in consistent hits. Yet they do it. Talk to the Boston Red Sox after the Yankees won the first three games in the 2004 American League Championship Series. Fans, sports reporters, coaches and players all knew that only twice in history had any team come back in a best of seven series down 0-3 to win the series, once in 1942 and once in 1975 — both by NHL teams. But once again, statistics didn’t dictate the outcome and Boston went on to not only win the ALCS, but the World Series. Ask Jay DeMerit about statistics. He never made any state, regional or national teams. He didn’t get any college offers, so he walked on to the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay soccer team and became a starter. Then he moved to England, painted houses and played for a local ninth tier soccer team for essentially no money. When he got noticed by Watford of the English Premier League, his soccer life took a dramatic turn. He played defense for them, made the U.S. National Team, played in a World Cup and now plays professionally for the MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps. The statistics on any player with his youth soccer history eventually achieving his adult soccer history are literally one in a 100 million. But he wasn’t interested in accepting the statistics, only pursuing his personal instinct that he could overcome the odds.
Obviously statistics do hold for most cases, but that little fraction that leads to the "never having to say you’re certain" gives everyone the right to defy the statistics or ignore them. We all know the statistics that tell us flying is safer than driving, but because we drive every day without incident we come to regard driving as safer. After all, driving is grounded and flying is suspended. We may distrust the statistics to the point of never flying and only using ground transportation. John Madden, the former football coach and announcer, famously refuses to fly opting for buses, trains and cars to get him from one NFL game gig to another. He can afford the luxury of distaining statistics because he can afford drivers to transport him and has bosses who will accommodate his schedule so he can avoid flying. The rest of us have to blindly hope the statistics are true as we board the plane for that business trip to Houston.
We know that victories on the field can easily have nothing to do with statistics. In the NCAA College Cup this year, Virginia defeated Marquette in the third round, not necessarily remarkable until you learn that one minute into the game Virginia got a red card and played the remaining 89 minutes with a man down. Statistically, Virginia should have lost or at the very least merely been able to hold a 0-0 tie. The teams were ranked evenly — Virginia at No. 8 and Marquette at No. 9 — so, statistically, it should have been a close match when the teams were both at full complement. With a man down, any slip on the part of the defense could easily allow Marquette to score, or Virginia could opt to "pack it in" to prevent a score, but not push forward in an attempt to score itself. Virginia ignored all of that, played aggressively and won, 3-1. It played against the statistics. Consider the recent game between Auburn and Alabama. Who would think that a missed Alabama field goal in the last second of regulation would result in a return touchdown for Auburn? That victory exists in the tiniest sliver of statistical uncertainty.
Using our instincts, personal beliefs and natural stubbornness we’ll scoff in the face of statistics. Our own experiences create the context in which statistics play out. If we know of someone who beat certain odds, we choose to accept that experience as the guiding factor in our lives rather than cold, unforgiving data that promises an opposite result. Without our willingness to challenge statistics we might abandon hope in the face of a medical diagnosis, or capitulate when victory seems impossible, or give up on a dream despite nearly insurmountable obstacles. We take risks when statistics tell us we should play it safe. Most entrepreneurs bucked the traditionally acceptable pathway. We call it "thinking outside the box," and in many cases the "box" is statistical opposition to an idea. Since statistics are built on past data, they are always evolving as new data comes available, so even with strict scientific methods the window for an unexpected outcome may open wider.
Of course, some statistics are just smart to accept. We clear off soccer fields during lightning storms because there is a risk, albeit statistically small, of getting hit. The consequence of playing Russian roulette with those statistics could result in injury, death and lawsuits, so we don’t mess around with that. People with a family history of breast and colon cancer can statistically diminish their threat by discovering these cancers quickly enough for treatment through early detection. Girls who do special warm-ups focusing on their knees have fewer ACL injuries, which doesn’t mean everyone avoids them but the statistical risk drops. When a player gets a head knock, concussion protocols reduce the risk of long-term effects from the injury. We wear seatbelts, don’t light cigarettes while waiting for our gas to pump, buy life and home insurance, avoid certain foods, choose the safest neighborhoods we can afford and exercise all based on statistical evidence. Still, there is room for faith beyond statistics when we need reassurance that not all is lost. That faith makes a come-from-behind victory possible. That faith allows for a future against all odds imaginable. That faith creates hope when hope is statistically unrealistic. While we can’t discount all statistics, we can cling to that bit of truth that statistics mean never having to say we are certain of any outcome.
P.S. As I wrote this blog, I learned of Nelson Mandela’s death at age 95. While his death was not unanticipated, it still came as a shock knowing the world had lost a tremendous role model for forgiveness, seeking peace and the politics of inclusion. His legacy is for people of all races, religions, sexual orientation and gender because he saw people as humans not defined by superficial traits but by their character. As he wisely pointed out, "No one is born hating another person… people must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, then can learn to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." He even had advice for the young soccer players out there who struggle and want to give up. "The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." His wisdom and generosity of spirit will be missed.