The Frontal Cortex

March Madness

Being on book tour means that I watch way too much SportsCenter, since that’s what I do when I can’t sleep. And so, because it’s mid-February, I’ve noticed that the ESPN anchors are already talking endlessly about March Madness, college basketball and brackets. (Of course, this is also because they have little else to talk about. Football season is over, baseball has yet to begin, and the NBA is mired in its mid-season lull.) What most impresses me about the college basketball analysts is that they act like they’re actual analysts, that there’s some logical structure to the college basketball season that only they can detect.

The reality is that no such logic exists – March Madness is a largely unpredictable event. That, at least, was the conclusion of a 2001 paper by the economists Edward Kaplan and Stanley Garstka. They mined every statistical tool they could think of in an attempt to crack the office pool. They searched for secret algorithms in past NCAA tournaments, and used Markov models to see if regular season performance affected post-season performance. They ran endless computer simulations, and plugged in a vast trove of player data.

The end result? They achieved “overall prediction accuracies of about 58 percent, but did not surpass the simple strategy of picking the seeds when the goal is to pick as many game winners as possible.” In other words, all the fancy mathematical equations were utterly useless: the tournament remained a mystery, a stochastic process of indeterminate outcome. So don’t waste too much time and money trying to be an expert, or pretending like you know if UNC is going to beat WSU or if Villanova has a chance against Kansas. (At this point, I’m just rooting for Davidson.) The NCAA tournament isn’t a science; it’s a sport.

Of course, the larger moral of the unpredictable basketball bracket is that reality is more random and unpredictable than we can even imagine. Consider the economy, which is a much more complex system than a 65 team sports tournament. And yet, there’s no shortage of pundits and institutions who confidently proclaim that they know what’s going to happen, that the recession will end in the second quarter, or that the S&P 500 will bottom out at 7300. (I stole both of these predictions from the talking heads on CNBC in the last 15 minutes.)

Should we listen to these analysts? I like this anecdote: in 1984, The Economist asked four finance ministers, four CEO’s of international corporations, four Oxford students and four garbage collectors to predict the rates of inflation and economic growth over the next decade. When The Economist tallied up the scores a decade later, they found that the garbage collectors were tied for first with the CEO’s. The finance ministers finished last.

PS. On a completely unrelated note, my favorite variation of March Madness is the Tournament of Books that takes place every year over at The Morning News. This year they were kind enough to invite me to participate.


  1. #1 MargaretWV
    February 19, 2009

    Yeah, but . . . has *Nate Silver* run his endless computer simulations?

  2. #2 podblack
    February 19, 2009

    Funnily enough, I was first told of March Madness in whilst talking about sports superstitions, although it didn’t turn up in the final cut of the interview I did for the Skeptic Zone podcast about a week ago. Perhaps there’s a correlation in terms of it as a ‘superstition’?

  3. #3 Dan
    February 19, 2009

    … yeah, but just think of the possibilities if you could crack bracketology! Road trips with Digger Phelps, Dick Vitale and Bob Knight; beer pong games with Pat Summitt AND Erin Andrews; and you might even be asked to come up with the ultimate solution… a BCS formula that everyone likes!

  4. #4 Marin
    February 20, 2009

    Ah… now to decide whether to forward this information to my guy network or continue to look like a genius when I let my cat pick my brackets.

  5. #5 Fertanish
    February 20, 2009

    The only predictable event is an article like this not even mentioning Hockey as an alternative to watch…and the season really is getting exciting.

    (at least, exciting for the 37 of us in the US who watch the sport…)

  6. #6 Owen
    February 22, 2009

    Jonah – Excellent post. I also very much enjoyed reading How We Decide, which I finished a few days ago.

    I also have a passion for basketball, and for basketball statistics in particular, which I developed after reading a book called the Wages of Wins, and which I carry on as a contributing writer on a Knicks blog.

    I really think you might profitably spend a little time poking around in that area, especially in regards to Michael Lewis’ recent article and various other questions, like whether Kobe is better than Lebron and what it means that a majority of NBA Gm’s think he is. Or what it means that 76% of a sample of 190 NBA players would want Kobe to take the last shot of a game, despite the fact his end of game record is quite poor.

    It’s topical and having read your stuff, it’s definitely in your wheelhouse.

    Keep up the good work…

  7. #7 e-okul
    March 13, 2009

    Funnily enough, I was first told of March Madness in whilst talking about sports superstitions, although it didn’t turn up in the final cut of the interview I did for the Skeptic Zone podcast about a week ago. Perhaps there’s a correlation in terms of it as a ‘superstition’?

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