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Jumping To Conclusions: Concussions, Suicides and CTE

via <a href="">Think Geek's Office Space Kit</a>
via Think Geek's Office Space Kit

Smykowski: It was a "Jump to Conclusions" mat. You see, it would be this mat that you would put on the floor... and would have different CONCLUSIONS written on it that you could JUMP TO.

Michael: That's the worst idea I've ever heard in my life, Tom.

Samir: Yes, this is horrible, this idea. 

--"Office Space"

It's pretty easy for even bright people to fall victim to faulty conclusions.  After all, pattern matching and recognition is a core part of our evolution as a species.  But those thousands of years of evolution have also wired our brain to search for patters that aren't there.  We're constantly looking to spot something, to recognize something and make it personal so that we can utilize that information in our day-to-day lives.  Most of the time, those faulty conclusions are harmless, as in "Man, the Oilers' always win when I wear the Weight sweater with the cheese stain!"  Sometimes the conclusions are harmful, like "10 reds in a row?  I'm putting everything I have left on black!"  And still other times, the repercussions of the faulty conclusions are nebulous and tough to decipher.

With the hockey world reeling from the deaths of three tough guys in less four months, nearly everyone is drawing their own conclusions, far too quickly and without regard for the possibility of those conclusions being faulty.  After the jump, I look at two excellent writers who have fallen into the trap and the problems inherent in doing so.

When it comes to jumping to conclusions, Damian Cox is the cock of the walk.  Last year, he made headlines (which was his obvious intention) by accusing Jose Bautista of using steroids:

When it comes to Jose Bautista, how is it exactly that at the age of 29 he's suddenly become the most dangerous power hitter in baseball?

Chance? Healthy living? Diet? New contact lenses? Comfortable batting gloves?

Anyone reading about the Roger Clemens perjury case this week, which of course brings up all of baseball's tawdry steroid history, should at least be willing to wonder about Bautista's sudden transformation into the dinger king.

Without evidence, Cox accuses the best offensive player in baseball of using performance enhancing drugs, and the reaction was outrage, and rightly so.

Now, aside from the fact that Chemmy is a well-respected writer and Cox is not, can anyone tell me the difference between Cox's comment and Chemmy's comment in the wake of Rick Rypien's death?

Symptoms of CTE include depression and suicidal tendencies. We don't know anything about Rick Rypien's death today but if anybody wants to place a cash bet that it wasn't suicide and he didn't have CTE I'm willing to give you good odds.

"Symptoms of CTE include depression and suicidal tendencies."  Since the term Chronic traumatic encephalopathy has entered the hockey lexicon, that sentence has been quoted from Wikipedia by writers and bloggers throughout the world.  Unfortunately, most of them snag the sentence they're looking for and close the tab.  Depression and suicidal tendencies are also symptoms of a bunch of other illnesses, from a broad range of mental illnesses to drug addiction which are all known factors in suicides, but Chemmy isn't gambling on those.

One more example and again, aside from the fact that BReynolds is a well-respected writer and Cox is not, what is the difference between Cox's comment and BReynolds' comment in the wake of Wade Belak's death?

Wade Belak is reported to have taken his own life. Depression is likely involved, but that is impossible to know now.

Everything after the comma means everything before should have been left out of the story.  No one knows, and in the end, Belak may have suffered from depression, but there is no confirmation of the allegation.  While depression is the leading cause of suicide, it's not the only cause, nor is it responsible for even a confirmed majority of suicides.  Saying it's likely that Belak had depression is essentially the same as saying Wade Belak had herpes.  Somewhere between 40-90% of North Americans are infected with a strain of herpes and somewhere between 30-60% of suicides are committed by individuals suffering from depression.  Is it appropriate to jump to the conclusion that Wade Belak had herpes?  Is it okay to say it's likely Wade Belak had herpes without any evidence?

All three comments were made for the single purpose of advancing an agenda or a narrative.  Chemmy and BReynolds aren't trying to be malicious, in fact, they are both good people and good writers putting their hearts out there for their readers and trying to instill change.  Their reaction is visceral, genuine emotion and their words reflect that.  The sports journalism world needs that.  But jumping to the conclusions they've jumped to is not useful, and in fact, it damages their point.  Both writers are unwittingly falling victim to Confirmation Bias, and in a big way.  The result of the confirmation bias is, as the BBC article linked above says is,  "...a simple error - the assumption that things happening after an event must be caused by it. Everyone examines data for evidence that their side is right. If a statistical morsel seems to our taste, the temptation is to swallow it."

Even if both Rypien and Belak's deaths end up linked to CTE and depression and even if they end up listed as the primary cause of death, it's worth waiting to find the specifics before jumping to broad-based conclusions. If we don't wait to find out, and if the deaths end up linked to something else entirely, each of these cases and the walls of text written over the last couple of weeks become nothing more than writers crying wolf.  The calls for change based on single events found to be faulty become nothing more than ammunition for opponents who then begin using single data points to reject other logically sound arguments.  "Oh yeah, well Joey Kocur and Stu Grimson are highly-successful businessmen and upstanding members of their community."  And away they go.  The initial calls for change are drowned by the din.

Concussions have always been a serious issue in sports and with the Pittsburgh protocol, trainers and doctors can at least finally diagnose them properly and recommend the correct course of treatment.  They cannot yet, however, accurately treat, or even diagnose the side-effects of a sporting lifetime of brain trauma.  There is a litany of existing research, facts, sad stories and evidence available to any writer who wants to advance the cause of mental illness treatment or removing fighting from the game.  Use the existing verified data or wait for the results of recent events.  There's no need to jump to conclusions using a single, unverified data point.  

In the meantime, as we wait for the facts to come in and take the time to carefully consider the existing evidence, hear Jennifer Belak when she says "...we respectfully ask that we be allowed to grieve privately."