This is inspired by an increased level of subjective analysis in recent months, dating back at least to the end of last season and probably long before that. I mean it really goes back to forever, but we’re talking this particular blog here. These are universal concepts that apply to all of us, including myself. So don’t get your panties in a bunch.
There’s a difference between finding out what the evidence says, and finding evidence to support what you say. That difference is objectivity. An investigator who examines data in search of evidence to support his argument performs a disservice not only in presenting an incomplete picture to his eventual audience, but in further skewing his own perceptions. As humans we are prone to a number of psychological phenomena which can alter how we interpret our experience of our environment. One of these phenomena is the tendency of a person gathering data to pay more attention to information which supports their preconceptions. In doing so openly and intentionally, an investigator is subject to an even higher degree of selectivity as he actively discounts contrary data; he will favor data which he perceives to support his conclusions exclusively, and the resulting data set will have little resemblance to reality. His perception tends to become polarized such that he undermines his own ability to interpret the data. An interesting and useful effect of this, which you may have noticed in real life, is that a person who has taken a side in an argument tends to become increasingly polarized regardless of evidence to the contrary. The upshot is that it’s almost never worth your time arguing with somebody. I learned that in a high school psych class and it took me years to realize that it’s true in real life (it’s also true on the internet, but that’s no fun).
This phenomena is broadly known as confirmation bias (the various effects, which are not all addressed here, have other names). That phrase tends to be used incorrectly and, ironically, in the midst of two-sided debate. That’s not the goal in discussing it here. The important thing to remember is that it is universal; neither you, nor your really smart friend, nor some person who is just obviously right because he’s saying stuff you agree with is immune to its effects. Researchers take sometimes extreme measures in attempts to remove this bias and others from their experiments, and they still generally fail to some (note: typically minor) extent. We are not researchers. Nobody’s career, monetary investment, or life is depending on our objectivity. But that is not a reason to embrace our bias or embrace blatantly polarized arguments. If we legitimize bias in instances where it supports our own beliefs, we also legitimize bias in instances where it does not. We open the doors wide for all lowly manners of argument which depend on vehemence over accuracy, and the standard of discourse is lowered as a result.
The problem is exacerbated by the prevalence of speculation within every sports fan community, and that’s OK. Speculation is fun and interesting, and can even be instructive. Posing a biased argument, even, can make for interesting discussion. But it should be grounded in objectivity as much as possible. We run into a problem here as highly subjective arguments and evidence can be made to appear objective with a bit of manipulation.
One of the most prevalent manipulations used here is the classic argument from authority: a person claims to have some degree of expertise in a subject and thus anything they say is unassailable fact. A true expert can demonstrate his point without resorting to authority, and knows how much he doesn’t know. Fields are broad and practices vary. An argument is valid because it is logically valid, not because somebody says, “trust me”. A similar dishonest argument is the presentation of supposed “inside knowledge”, but that’s less common here among the outsiders.
Similar effects are at work when subjective evidence is presented as objective, based on the supposed authority of the presenter. This is particularly insidious as observers are led to believe not just that the presenter is an authority, but that he has objective evidence of his claims. In truth the entire construct is based on of the presenter’s interpretation of the evidence (hence subjectivity), and the only support for the given interpretation is the authority of the presenter which, to reiterate, is not a valid basis for argument. This can be difficult to assess as valid arguments can be made with similar presentations, absent the obvious bias of the presenter. This is most often seen here in film study, which too often provides false legitimacy to a subjective argument. Film analysis is itself highly subjective and should not be taken as gospel. That’s doubly true if the presenter is selling himself as an expert.
My aim here is to describe false reasoning so that other community members might be more aware and thus more careful in their contributions here to avoid the kind of fallacies I’ve described, with the ultimate goal of improving the level of discourse. This is not a condemnation of fun, or bullshitting, or titties and beer, or arguing with John just to piss him off. There is nothing wrong with argument, or speculation, or even bias. These all add character and interest to our discussions. But we should take care to ensure that our arguments are not so heated as to cloud judgment, our speculation so wild as to undermine truth, or our bias so strong that we don’t question it.
(This discussion can get really, really meta so let’s get some things out of the way real quick: Nobody, particularly the author, is perfect. I’m setting myself up for a barrage of future, “but that one time you said…” crap. Whatever, I don’t mind but I’ll probably laugh at you for wholly missing the point. Take what you will from this and try to be better at arguing, is all I’m saying. But anyway you should trust me. My work is heavily psych-oriented and I know what I’m talking about).