Bad Reasoning

This is going to be a quick post because I just want to make a single point. Take this case as a starting example:

Jake wants to ask Mary out on a date. Unfortunately for him before he gets the chance, John (his evil twin) swoops in and asks Mary out instead. She says yes and Jake now feels left out. He says to himself, "Man if only my evil twin John hadn't asked Mary out, I would've been able to." Unfortunately for him he doesn't know this fact: before his twin asked Mary out his cousin Jim was about to ask her out instead. If John had never asked Mary out, Jim would've been the first one to ask her out. Of course Jake doesn't know that and so he holds on to the false notion that if other conditions were present then he could've asked her out.

How often do we use counterfactual (contrary-to-fact) reasoning in our every day lives? Probably all the time. If I only hadn't done this is a common expression. Unfortunately there just doesn't seem to be a reason to believe our counterfactuals are even close to being right. There are too many things that we just don't know anything about to be able to make inferences about what would've happened under entirely different circumstances. The butterfly effect is a good example of this. Quoted from the Wikipedia article:

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state. The name of the effect, coined by Edward Lorenz, is derived from the theoretical example of a hurricane's formation being contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before.

Although the butterfly effect may appear to be an esoteric and unlikely behavior, it is exhibited by very simple systems: for example, a ball placed at the crest of a hill may roll into any of several valleys depending on, among other things, slight differences in initial position.

Dynamic systems, under which systems of complicated cooperation and competition fall, involve many such butterfly effects, and thus room for false counterfactuals. What does this all mean?

Take the draft and Travis Frederick. "Expert", and I use that word lightly, consensus says that Frederick was a 3rd round pick that would've been available much later than the Cowboys picked him. The Cowboys themselves had a high 2nd round pick on him. Now most people say, "why not take Cyprien or Elam and then take Frederick in the 2nd or even 3rd." However this is the very kind of inferential counterfactual reasoning that will get you in trouble. Say that the Cowboys take Elam. Who do the Ravens take? Say that we can predict that far and say, well it's only logical to assume that the Ravens would then take Cyprien instead. But who would the Jags take then? It's not at all obvious that they would want Justin Hunter. Maybe they didn't have a good scouting report on him, so they take someone else. Lo and behold one small move sets off a dozens of different moves in motion and you have no idea how the rest of the draft plays out.

But don't think the problems with our what-ifs end there. Another problem with the draft is that it is a condensed model of game theory. Often times teams make decisions based not only on who they like, but who they think other teams will draft. For example, if you're worried your favorite 3rd rounder won't be there when you pick, you trade up to snag him before anybody else does. Problem is: it's not so easy to know who other people value. You can make vague guesses based off things like team needs and who the team has brought into scout, but the likelihood you'll have anything close to 100% accuracy is laughable at best.

Further, past behavior is indicative of future outcomes. The Cowboys see 4 guards taken in the first round so they don't want to be left out to dry, given how much of a run on line talent there has been in the draft. So they take the "last of the mohicans" as Jerry refers to Frederick as. It's a smart move based on worries about the future. But it angers people who thought there was better talent based off who was available.

Was it the right decision? I don't know. I don't know how to scout a safety versus scouting a guard. That's like apples and oranges to me. If you want a center and you think that Frederick is worth where you pick him, you take him. If it turns out the Cowboys were wrong and he's not a good player, that's one thing. I'm not implying that Frederick is destined for perennial pro-bowl appearances. I'm just saying that I've had enough of the flawed reasoning perpetrating BTB for the last 3 days.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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