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Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

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Many of you will recognize my chosen titular phrase as being from one of Mark Twain's more popular quotes. You'll likely learn - sooner rather than later - that I am a fan of famous quotations. In fact, the only things that I am more keen of quoting than the words of those wiser or more articulate than I, are statistics. Unfortunately, stats have acquired a bit of a bad reputation in some circles. As the aforementioned Twain quote captures particularly well, they are often accused of being weapons of willful obfuscation at best and outright deception at worst. That perspective, however, is akin to giving the credit for a base hit to the bat rather than to the player swinging it. Statistics are but one set of tools in a fan's tool box, but they are indispensable in our quest for higher knowledge of this game that we all love. In order to persuade those of you who are dubious of statistics and their paramount place in the study of football - and to further support those of you who are already on that bandwagon with me - I would like to share some of my general thoughts on the subject.

Some of my fellow staff writers here at Mile High Report are far more inclined to - and well versed in - statistical studies than I am. The truth is that, while I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for mathematics, I simply do not have the mind for it. At very least, my brain just doesn't think that way. That said, it doesn't take a mathematical mind to embrace statistics. Moreover, the other guys on staff here at MHR do a fantastic job of making that world accessible to us all. Studies like theirs put our perceptions to the test and unearth crucial information that would otherwise remain hidden from us. When wielded properly (i.e. objectively and openly) statistics can cut through the layers of bias and belief that can sometimes keep the truth out of our reach. Since I am not best suited for working through the math with you, I thought I'd chip in on this process by helping you all appreciate the results a bit better.

71.3% Of All Statistics Are Made Up On The Spot

While most people aren't audacious enough to publish bold-faced lies as a means of advancing a particular argument, I think we've all been guilty of manipulating the evidence in our favor when it's expedient. In my experience, lying through statistics is usually done by omission. A good way of making a case for or against a certain player, unit or team is to only mention the positive or negative stats respectively. This particular ploy is rather transparent and weak, but it paves the way for the ultimate aim of the statistics skeptic...

Not All Stats Are Created Equal

How many times have you debated someone, exchanged salvos of statistics that seemingly supported your differing claims and then had the argument come to a screeching halt following some variant of: "there are stats to argue both sides, so there's no point in pressing that aspect of this issue further"? That particular claim is an offshoot of the more general belief that "stats can be made to say anything", which is nothing more than the affirmation of absolute statistical skepticism. In my humble opinion, those sorts of statements are simply not true. Just because you can conjure up a statistic that can be construed as supporting your claim, that does not make you right and it certainly does not disqualify opposing stats from the discussion altogether . In other words, not all stats carry the same weight and they mustn't be unanimous to yield a point. More modern rate metrics, for example, certainly outshine the limited traditional measures that are most commonly associated with football today.

Statistics and the Sanctity of the Game

Beginning with Bill James and Major League Baseball in the 1970's, sports have been, are in the midst of, and will continue to experience, a profound statistical revolution. The quest for purely objective knowledge of sports through more meaningful and comprehensive statistics is very much in its heyday. At the outset, the stats guys were at odds with establishments that refused to give them a seat at the table; as a result, their endeavor took on a more hostile feel and the battle for the soul of sports began. Critics claimed that advancements in statistics took away from the fan experience and even threatened the game itself. Today, that war is over, and the ultimate winners were the fans. The debate pushed both sides to refine their techniques and eventually compelled them to work hand in hand instead of head-on. As it turns out, using both the subjective and the objective in tandem brings us that much closer to the truth than we might otherwise get.

Insider and Outsiders Unite

The stats revolution may be most pervasive in baseball, but it has already spread to football and it won't be long before it takes hold in earnest. Groups like Football Outsiders are on the cutting edge of advanced metrics for the NFL and they've already developed partnerships with mainstream media flagships like ESPN. While I sometimes struggle with the math behind their newfangled statistics and even disagree with some of their findings from time to time, I respect their process and always try to keep an open mind when considering them. They and others like them are hard at work retrofitting formulas to account for past results, untangling the intertwined nature of football - the world's ultimate team sport - and trying to determine what is most significant and important in the game. It's impressive stuff that is becoming more and more useful with every step they take.  There is plenty of meat on those bones already, even as they push to flesh out their metrics, so it's best to dig in sooner rather than later!

Loose Change

Statistics are not for the dim of mind or for the faint of heart. They can be difficult to comprehend and they may show you things that you might not want to see. They're also not the end-all, be-all of any debate. They're not even a necessary component of every discussion, but they can be paramount in some. Embrace them, but never become a slave to them or take them for granted. They are tools, sometimes critical ones, but it is up to you to determine how they are to be wielded. And so, let us all do our part to help rid stats of their undeserved bad reputation and become better fans for it. After all, stats are only damned lies when they're used by liars.