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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 22.1 > Science v. Subjectivity

Science v. Subjectivity

Selecting College Football Playoff Teams as a Case Study

If you are not familiar with how college football determines the four teams that are picked to contend for the national championship, I refer you to the Selection Committee Protocol which is a guide on how the committee chooses the four playoff teams at the end of the regular season and after the league championship games. The first words of the protocol are telling: “Ranking football teams is an art, not a science.” The protocol specifically calls into question any rigorous mathematical approach: “Nuanced mathematical formulas ignore some teams who ‘deserve’ to be selected.” Deserve?

So what are the guidelines that instruct the 13- member college playoff panel? They are somewhat obvious and include “conference championship wins, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition, comparative outcomes of common opponents, and other relevant factors such as key injuries that may have affected a team’s performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance.” I hasten to point out that strength of schedule can only be determined by “nuanced mathematical” rigor. The guidelines fall into two categories: facts (e.g., conference champions) and opinions (e.g., whether a key injury will impact team performance). My argument is to eliminate opinions and choose the final 4 teams in the most rational and unbiased fashion—that is, use computer algorithms. Exceptions to the computer rankings could be made by the committee when facts like conference championships play an important role.

Informed opinions can be important and a group of football experts might have insights into the game that mere mortals might not. Many of the committee members are former coaches and athletic directors, but I am concerned that their opinions might be influenced by the teams and conferences they come from. (They probably don’t even know they are biased.)

A massive amount of scientific research shows we have difficulties being unbiased. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has written an entire book on heuristic and cognitive biases, Thinking, Fast and Slow.1 A good example comes from witnesses of crimes or traffic accidents. Any good detective knows to take eyewitness testimonies before the witnesses have had a chance to discuss the event because studies show that witnesses who share information will tend to foster similar errors about the event. Research also shows that eyewitnesses are notoriously inaccurate.

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About Skeptic

SPECIAL SECTION Skeptic’s Science Dialogues: Bill Nye in Conversation with Michael Shermer on Climate Change, Travel to Mars, Artificial Intelligence, Nuclear Power, GMOs and more… ARTICLES Miracle Water: Why Zamzam Water is Not a Valid Medical Treatment; Lone Wolf Terrorism: The Convergence of Mental Illness, Marginality, and Cyber Radicalism; Torturing Data; Mass Hallucinations and Shoddy Journalism; What Would it Take to Change Your Mind?; ET v. Earth Pathogens; Trouble in the Multiverse; Science v. Subjectivity: Football Playoff Teams Selecting College Football Playoff Teams as a Case Study COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Functional Medicine; The Gadfly: The Multi-headed Hydra of Prejudice REVIEWS The Stealth Determinism of Westworld—a Review of the television series Westworld; Back to the Future and Forward to the Past—a Review of Time Travel: A History; Cosmic Consciousness and the Ptolemaic Principle—a review of You Are the Universe: Discovering Your Cosmic Self and Why it Matters; Science International—a review of Courting Science: Securing the Foundation for a Second American Century; Conjuring Magic—two books on the history of magic: Conjuring Asia: Magic, Orientalism and the Making of the Modern World and Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World JUNIOR SKEPTIC An Easy Guide to Baloney Detection
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