Monday, April 21, 2008

April Agate

How do you read the daily baseball data in the season's first month? I don't mean whether you read them in the paper on the subway (one area where the Herald always has been and remains superior to the Globe is box scores of all sports) or online late at night. The question is, how do you process the data?

In general, I have found fans divide into two groups on this issue. The first, much larger group, is one we'll call normal people. First, they check the 5Ws as to their favorite team, including the "what" if said team played on the West Coast, and they live on the East Coast and are gainfully employed. Then, they look to see how their fantasy team players did, then wander about the numbers seeking anomalies of interest, such as David's Ortiz's early slump or a possible clue as to how the hell the Orioles are over .500.

Then, and only then, they glance at the standings. This occupies perhaps one nanosecond, and is only a look at the top and bottom of each division's standings to see if any teams are off to a particularly hot (Diamondbacks) or wretched start (Tigers).

The second group, and we all know somebody who's in it, is a little more driven. They look at the standings first. They take their team's, or more frequently their team's biggest rival's, won-loss record and extrapolate it out for 162 games, then obsess over that figure. One hopes, for their sakes, none of this group has any emotional connection to the 2008 Marlins.

This is nuts, and the people who do it know it's nuts, but can't help themselves. Bruce Berlet, the Hartford Courant golf writer for many years, had a handy rule of thumb: don't look at the standings until August 15. How much more pleasant life would be inside the Red Sox Zone if the Berlet rule was in general use! It may interest you to know that the tippy-top levels of the team's management structure agrees with me on that point.

This post is not designed to make fun of the suffering souls who can't let go of the standings no matter how irrelevant those are. I have a tip for them. They have a big future in American political journalism. The entire field consists of reading its agate backwards, then getting really excited about the results.

Public opinion polls are the agate of politics. So far in the 2008 presidential election, they have been supremely useless as a forecaster of future events. The science of statistics and the glut of polls themselves have combined to turn them into white noise. Imagine if there were five different sets of American League East standings, with a different team in first place in each of them. That would approximate current polling data.

On the very same day well-respected poller Gallup showed Democrats were evenly split between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, well-respected "Newsweek" had a poll showing Obama was favored by a 20 percent margin among those very same Democrats. They can't both be right, but they can be and probably both are wrong.

So the data is of no probative value. Political journalists, good, bad, and indifferent, from the left, right, and center, use it anyway. Obsessively. They write reams and speak for hours on just what the useless data tells us about the future, and what voters think (oddly enough, it's often what the journalists think). And it doesn't matter how far in the future the election being polled might be-the journalists KNOW today's poll is an accurate forecast of that election.

Polls show a close race between Republican John McCain and either Democratic candidate. Could be right, could be wrong. Is meaningless, because in politics, like baseball, stuff happens. Plenty will happen between now and November 4. Nobody takes April standings seriously because who knows? Players can and will be hurt. The number of actual world events that could influence the election is almost infinite. Why take April polls seriously?

The answer is, American political journalism, as a profession, sucks. Without polls, its practioners haven't a clue as how to proceed. The dullest sportswriter can spin 100 good stories about a baseball season without reference to the standings. Somebody like Gloria Borger or Jonathan Alter would be struck dumb (a fine thing) without polls to cite.

The French have a political equivalent of Berlet's Law. It's a real law, too. The news media are forbidden, under penalty of serious fines, from printing public opinion polls the week before national elections. Since America in its democratic wisdom now stages an election every fourth day, and polling is being done on the 2020 election even as I write, a similar law here would prevent polls from being published AT ALL.

So naturally I'm all for it. I bet polls show I'm not alone, either.


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