With another college football season just beginning, it's hard to know which teams are really the best. Toward the end of the season, when you'd think we'd know a lot more about it, we'll know even less.
As The Times reported last week, an analysis of 11 preseason Associated Press polls showed they predicted bowl game winners 60.2 % of the time. The preseason college coaches polls achieved a similar 60.9% result. But the polls' predictions at the end of the regular season were correct only 56.6% and 55.8% of the time, respectively.
This drop isn't huge, but it's wildly counterintuitive. After all, end-of-season polls can draw on the actual outcomes of the games teams have played, and how successful their opponents have been against other opponents. Furthermore, the coaches and AP's pundits arrive at their late-season picks knowing (as they obviously can't preseason) which team lost its quarterback to a knee injury or found a new star.
Sports offer a satisfying exception in a world where victories are seldom absolute and final. But winning proves a lot less than people imagine. Knowing which team is ahead on the scoreboard when the final whistle blows may feel like a fundamental truth revealed, even like a neat vindication of your city or university. But winning a few games doesn't tell us much.
To cite a traumatic memory from my childhood, the 1960 Pirates were not a better baseball team than the Yankees they beat in that year's World Series. My Yankees outscored them by better than a 2-1 ratio over the seven games, 55-27. That doesn't mean the Pirates weren't really the World Champions or that it isn't cool that they came out on top — maybe the improbability makes an underdog win even cooler. But would an informed and rational person have bet on the Pirates rather than the Yankees to win the next year? (Spoiler: The Yankees ran away with the 1961 American League pennant and cruised to a five-game World Series win, while the Pirates finished in the lower half of the National League.)
College football polls used to determine which team was declared "best" each season. Then in 1998 — so fans could know "for sure" — the polls and some computer programs decided which teams would compete in a postseason championship game. Now a committee ranks four teams for a championship playoff after the regular season. There's no reason to expect that committee to be immune to the overvalued win-loss binary that has misled reporters and coaches over the last 11 years.
The committee members know fans and media commentators would ridicule them for ranking a one-loss team ahead of an undefeated team, or for ranking a team ahead of another that beat it, even if that game was so close that the outcome was as random as the flip of a coin.
Any number of flukes can decide a close contest — a bad bounce, a bad call, just a probabilistic range of bad luck generally. But pundits cover that up by claiming that a football team that has squeaked past a few opponents "knows how to win" and its lucky defense "bends but doesn't break" or "creates lots of turnovers" (which are mathematically quite random).
In the preseason AP and coaches polls, on the other hand, those doing the predicting are spared the obligation to pretend that victory proves superiority. Their picks can reflect the overall strength of players, and the long-term success of coaches and programs: less information, in a way, but from a broader view, using intuitions grounded in expertise.
How much other useful wisdom does our society squander because we assume some quantitative "bottom line" is the only real truth? And, in a neo-liberal world that relies on ruthless competition to plan the fate of all living creatures, how much callousness gets authorized by the assumption that anyone who loses is just "a loser"?
Digitally structured information — one or zero, victory or loss, us or them — is degraded information.
This statistical surprise vindicates what the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and the English Renaissance poet Philip Sidney famously affirmed about the value of literature. Whereas history is stuck telling you what really occurred — even if that was fairly random and obscures a larger understanding of humanity — an imaginative story can conjure a verisimilitude that may ultimately be truer than mere factual truth.
Here's how Aristotle's "Poetics," composed about 2,350 years ago, explained the difference:
The poet's function is not to tell what actually happened, but what could or would happen by probability or necessity.... Poetry is therefore a more scientific and exalted thing than history, because poetry tends to offer general truths, while history offers particular facts. By a "general truth" I mean what a certain type of person will do…. A "particular fact" is what Alcibiades did or what was done to him…. The worst plots are [those] in which the episodes don't follow each other in any probable or inevitable sequence. Bad poets write those.
So the imagination of a good poet is no more a falsehood than the prediction of the preseason rankings of coaches and pundits, because poets are allowed to speak of what is likely and coherent. As the episodic football season goes on, those coaches and pundits become bad poets.
Sidney's "Apology for Poetry" made a similar point, more than 400 years ago: "The historian … is so tied, not to what should be but to what is, to the particular truth of things, and not to the general reason of things, that his example draweth no necessary consequence, and therefore a less fruitful doctrine."
When the great Dutch soccer player and coach Johan Cruyff was asked whether it still hurt to recall the defeat of his brilliant team in the 1974 World Cup final by the more methodical West Germans, Cruyff replied, "Yeah, but maybe we were the real winners in the end… I think the world remembers our team more." And it's true: Several of the world's most successful teams of recent years bear the clear imprint of Cruyff's artistic attacking style, and soccer is the better for that.
If you want a society capable of looking ahead with any wisdom, stop telling young people they should skip creative writing and learn only the latest technical facts. That's the wrong way to bet on the future.
Robert N. Watson is a professor of English at UCLA. He recently completed his terms as associate dean of humanities and Neirkirk Chair for educational innovation.