Statistics World Cup

The commentator of the quarter-final game between the Netherlands and Costa Rica reminded me of a politician during an election campaign, rolling off a list of statistics. The latter uses numbers to prove the success (or failure) of the government’s policies; they’re a reference to the past. Not the commentator though. It was bad enough that he kept going on about how often one of the teams failed to win in extra time, how one of the goalkeepers only managed to save two penalty kicks out of 20 during the previous English premiere league, how regularly one team failed in penalty shoot-outs. Wouldn’t an occasional reference while commentating the actual game have sufficed?

No. What is more, he felt the need to infer that because such and such happened in the past year or 20 years ago, then in all likelihood it was going to happen again – that the result of the 30 minutes extra time was pre-decided by statistics or that the penalty shoot-out was a foregone conclusion because the numbers from the past would dictate the future. Surely the man must have read, seen or heard advertising for financial services, where the obligatory disclaimer makes it clear that past successes are not a guarantee for future positive results.

For this particular match, past failures certainly shouldn’t have been used to predict future negative results because the Dutch did survive extra time and even went on to win the penalty shoot-out.


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