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Fans Dodge The Truth To Hold Fast To Their Delusions

Plato & Aristotle via <a href="">Wikimedia Commons</a>, public domain.
Plato & Aristotle via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Numbers don't lie. They just don't agree with you.
--George E. Ays

In 2009-2010, the Colorado Avalanche received more press than any other team in the Western Conference besides the Chicago Blackhawks. Initially predicted to finish 14th in the conference, a group of young players with enormous talent and a bunch of rag-tag role players defied all odds and made the playoffs.

The Avalanche also generated a significant amount of discussion amongst the stats-based blogs in this corner of the hockey blogosphere. Call it luck or variance, but the Avs rode it as hard as they possibly could, and barely held on to squeak into the 8th spot in the playoffs. From last April:

I appreciate the "little engine that could" side of this story, but in the end, I wish that Colorado would have slipped out of the playoffs. Colorado fans can now hold on to their delusions, rather than gaining a deeper understanding of what was actually going on during the first four months of the season.

No one tried harder to demonstrate the amount of luck involved in what the Avalanche did more than the esteemed Gabriel Desjardins of Behind The Net Hockey. Try as he might, however, Avs' fans refused to believe their team was lucky at all. A quick read through the responses to Desjardins' work on the Avs shows just how far Avs fans were willing to go to explain their success. They delved deep into the well of cliches:

"depth of scoring", "a puck possession style", "Coach Sacco's will", "strong starts", "high percentage shots", "up and coming young forwards", "team speed", "better scoring chances", "great young talent"

Kent Wilson knew better:

A team rides the percentages all year every year. MTL did a couple of seasons ago, BOS did it last year. This year, it’s the Avs turn. When they regress next season – as BOS and MTL did previously – everyone will wonder why they’re "not working as hard" or if "success went to their heads".

And regress they have. This season, the Avs sit firmly in 14th in the Western Conference, and it's not an accident. Though their underlying stats have improved ever so slightly, the Avs are still a terrible team at even strength, but this season Craig Anderson wasn't superhuman and without superhuman goaltending, the Avs cannot overcome their own true talent level. Predictably, Avs fans have reached for the cliches and the blame has landed squarely on the shoulders of coach Joe Sacco. Last year, according to the fans, Sacco was directly responsible for the Avs' success, and this year, he's directly responsible for the Avs' failure. His 2010-2011 deficiencies include:

He tends to overreact to good and bad play...
The team has had no heart or will to win recently...
...control of the locker room may be slipping from Sacco's hands
He’s not getting the best out of any of his players and he hasn’t since last year...
His schemes are not working and he hasn’t figured out how to adjust to the adjustments that shut him down...

In the span of five months, a man who deserved the Jack Adams Trophy has developed more faults than attributes.  True talent level never comes into play - there are plenty of reasons to fall back on thereby continuing to ignore the primary driver of poor play.

Avalanche fans are not alone in ignoring, even denying the evidence behind the performance of the team. In an article entitled "When the scientific evidence is unwelcome, people try to reason it away" in The Guardian, author Ben Goldacre explores what happens when people are "...confronted with scientific evidence that challenges their pre-existing view." His conclusion? "Often they will try to ignore it, intimidate it, buy it off, sue it for libel or reason it away." Goldacre references a 1979 paper from Lord, Ross and Lepper. From the paper's abstract:

People who hold strong opinions on complex social issues are likely to examine relevant empirical evidence in a biased manner. They are apt to accept "confirming" evidence at face value while subjecting "disconfirming" evidence to critical evaluation, and, as a result, draw undue support for their initial positions from mixed or random empirical findings.

Goldacre goes on to discuss a second group of people - those who attack the science behind the evidence presented to them.

When presented with unwelcome scientific evidence, it seems, in a desperate attempt to retain some consistency in their world view, people would rather conclude that science in general is broken.

This line of thinking is similar to that used by fans who argue in favor of shot quality. Shot quality has become the great foil used by those arguing against possession metrics as a basis of hockey analytics. The ever-increasing mountain of possession data, evidence and studies means little to the shot quality folks. Arguments abound in favor of shot quality with no evidence to back it up, so lacking so Desjardins challenged the world to prove the existence of shot quality. There were no takers.

Goldacre concludes:

When presented with unwelcome scientific evidence, it seems, in a desperate attempt to retain some consistency in their world view, people would rather conclude that science in general is broken.

This is an important point. Avs fans not only concluded the possession metrics were broken, they did so without proving their own hypothesis. In fact, Avs fans (and a couple of other fan bases through the playoffs) extended their flawed reasoning by advancing the argument that if their unproven arguments weren't yet proved incorrect, they were right. By their reasoning, not only is the possession science broken, the lack of science behind their arguments was right because it was unproven. The more data, the more studies, the more evidence presented to the contrary, in favor of the possession metrics, only saw the shot quality proponents retrench deeper into their opposition of possession metrics. They came up with more wild explanations for their point of view, devling deeper into the world of cliched intangibles.

Shortly after the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, NPR ran a story on this very subject matter, though NPR's area of focus was American politics. In that story, NPR interviewed Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan who published a study, When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions. In the study, Nyahn and his colleague conducted four experiments in which they purposefully misled test subjects and at times issued a correction to the purposefully misleading information. From Nyhan's abstract:

Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a "backfire effect" in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

Nyhan says in the NPR interview:  "You know, it's hard, it's threatening to us to admit that things we believe are wrong."  Rather than admit they are wrong people have tendency to dig in.  They attack the evidence, they attack the science, they attack the source and they hold more fervently to their beliefs.  It's a shame.  Rather than advance the discussion and gain a deeper understanding, Avs fans were busy building narratives without evidence to explain their 2009-2010 season.  Lacking a fundamental understanding of the makeup of the team led to assumptions and expectations completely out of line with the true talent of the team.  Those who gained a deeper understanding of the team like Wilson did above understand the impending correction and even predicted the fan reaction.  Others predicted the impending 14th-place finish.  Without their own evidence, people try to reason away the existing evidence and are forced to create false narratives.  Armed with the evidence of possession metrics, a person finds a deeper understanding of the game of hockey which leads to a deeper understanding of players, teams, and seasons.  By rejecting the evidence before them, Avalanche fans have prevented themselves from gaining the ultimate insight into their team.