Statistically significant

There are few things I hate more than false dichotomies. I hate the ongoing debate in my world about print vs. online journalism. I hate the free vs. paywall debate. I hate the traditional vs. new media debate. I don't think these are debates where you should be forced to pick one or the other. I think the forcing of false choices leads to division for division's sake. I feel the same way in the stats vs. "gut feeling" debate.

This is in the news, after Nate Silver (whose blog I'm a big fan of) has become kind of a whipping boy lately. Silver's statistical projections have President Obama as a 75-80 percent favorite to win next week. This puzzles many political pundits, who claim the race is "too close to call, 50-50, etc."

One of the nice things about grad school is learning basic statistics. I'm no expert, but I know a little bit. And Silver is not claiming Obama is going to win. He's claiming Obama has a 75 percent chance of winning. Which means Mitt Romney still has a 25-percent chance. There is a difference.

But in reading this debate online this week, I realized I've been reading the same debate for years in sports. It's the stats-vs.-gut argument that's in sports, primarily in baseball. You've got the sabremetrics guys one side, and the grizzled old vets on the other. The math nerds vs. the baseball lifers. Moneyball vs. Old-Time Ball.

I hate that debate, too.

I believe in stats. I believe that statistics show you what happened, not what you think happened. I believe stats can and should inform sports writing. I believe that stats don't always tell the entire story. Statistically, the Baltimore Orioles were, at best, an average team this year. But they had a logic-defying record in close games, made the playoffs, and were a fantastic story.

It doesn't have to be one or the other.

The other day on PTI, they were talking about a story that pointed out that Andrew Luck had better advanced stats than Robert Griffin III. Michael Wilbon said that it was easy to go by the stats, and harder to watch the game and think for yourself.

Let's think about that for a second: A prominent sports writer - an incredibly smart and gifted writer - said that it was easy to break down advanced stats and hard to sit back and watch a game on TV.

The fact is, journalists are scared of math. We hate it. It's true. We're word people, not numbers people. We did great in English and passable in math. We like the poetry of words, the universal nature of narratives. We don't like numbers, because math is hard for us, and it's not our native language. I'm generalizing, but there used to be a web site called "math for journalists" for a reason.

But with the vast amounts of data that's available, we can't afford to be afraid of math. We can't hate math and statistics anymore (I know they're not the same thing). Sure, sometimes statistics can infringe upon the poetry of a baseball game. Sometimes, statistics can contradict what we think, or what we want to think. But it can also enhance our understanding of a story. It can explain why a team is doing well, or why a team's success is so stunning and interesting. The math can help make the poetry a little prettier.

In political journalism, in sports journalism, it doesn't have to be an either-or debate. We shouldn't  have to pick between statistics and gut feelings.

Doing so just diminishes our product. It gives our readers a lesser product.