On football myths:
We all know the cliché, defense wins championships. It is alive even this year, when the Giants and Patriots made it to the Super Bowl while ranking 27th and 31st, respectively, in total regular-season defense. We leaned on the research of Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats, who finds that elite offenses historically outperform elite defenses. Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim looked at data from Super Bowls as well as 10,000-plus regular-season games, and similarly found the defense cliché to be unsupportable. So why does the cliché live on? One explanation may be that truly great defenses (the 1985 Bears, the 2000 Ravens, the 2002 Buccaneers, for instance) are so breathtaking (in a suffocate-your-opponent kind of way) that they stand out in our memory, the way any big anomalous event tends to stand out.
On conventional wisdom:
“I think the most fundamental error we make is mistaking a noisy, anomalous event for the norm. This happens all the time — in the stock market, in reports of crime and natural disaster, etc. The fact is that big, noisy, anomalous events catch our attention because they’re anomalous, which isn’t a problem in and of itself. But our (rather primitive) brains do such a good job recalling those anomalies that we too often treat them as something that happens all the time. We do this, obviously, at our own peril.”
“Perhaps the most sobering stuff we’ve written is about the general inefficacy of chemotherapy. Cancer is in general an increasingly important topic, in part because we’ve gotten so good at preventing other forms of death that cancer, despite some gains made against it, is becoming even more prominent.”
It’s amazing how much irrational, or at least suboptimal, behavior you get even in a workplace that’s dominated by rational thinkers. It’s amazing how unwilling most people are to admit they don’t know the answer to a question or a problem, and instead charge forward on a “gut instinct” that turns out to be crap.
The "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," a 900-page book makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Expert performers are nearly always made, not born. The best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully is a process known as deliberate practice. Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome. Ericsson's research suggests a cliché: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. Ericsson says of his work, "a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it."
On the scientific method:
Self-experimentation, though hardly a new idea in the sciences, remains rare. Many modern scientists dismiss it as being not nearly scientific enough. In some ways, self-experimentation has more in common with economics than with the hard sciences. It was the Stone Age that informed Seth Roberts’ system of weight control. He had come to embrace the theory that our bodies are regulated by a "set point," a sort of Stone Age thermostat that sets an optimal weight for each person. According to Roberts's interpretation of the set-point theory, when food is scarcer, you become less hungry; and you get hungrier when there's a lot of food around. In the academic community, Roberts's self-experimentation has found critics but also serious admirers. Among the latter are the esteemed psychologist Robert Rosenthal, who has praised Roberts for "approaching data in an exploratory spirit more than, or at least in addition to, a confirmatory spirit" and for seeing data analysis "as the opportunity to confront a surprise."
Football Freakonomics: The draft is much more of a crapshoot than most of its practitioners would have us think. Consider the research of Cade Massey and Richard Thaler, who find top draft picks to be seriously overvalued. Consider the draft position for the top players in the 2011 fall season in the following key categories.
2011 Receiving Yards Calvin Johnson 2nd pick
2011 Passing Yards Drew Brees 32nd pick
2011 Rushing Yards Maurice Jones Drew 60th pick
2011 Sacks Jared Allen 126th pick
2011 Tackles London Fletcher undrafted
Interestingly, in these major categories at least one of the top five performers was an undrafted free agent.
White Collar Crime and Bagels
Paul F., a very successful economist, started a second career delivering bagels and a cash basket to company’s snack rooms; he would return before lunch to pick up the money and the leftovers. It was an honor-system commerce scheme, and it worked. The United States tax code is, like Paul F.'s bagel business, largely built on an honor system. By measuring the money collected against the bagels taken, he could tell, down to the penny, just how honest his customers were. The same people who routinely steal more than 10 percent of his bagels almost never stoop to stealing his money box. Paul F. has noted a strong correlation between high payment rates and an office where people seem to like their boss and their work. Unseasonably pleasant weather inspires people to pay a significantly higher rate. Unseasonably cold weather, meanwhile, makes people cheat prolifically.
On human physiology:
Do football players’ body clocks affect their performance? Check out the video at http://www.freakonomics.com/2012/04/20/football-freakonomics-how-do-players-body-clocks-affect-their-performance/ to hear about the data suggesting game start times should be considered for a winning season.
1. Consider your talents. Is it a hobby, a sport, an academic endeavor, art or music? How did you get good at this hobby, at this skill? How much time did you typically spend on this hobby? What were you thinking about as you were doing this hobby, getting better? becoming more proficient? watching out for mistakes? congratulating yourself on success? Given that practice is essential for success, how much practice will it take to succeed in each of your courses?
2. Which of the stories told by Mr. Levitt in his Freakonomics lecture surprised you? Describe the story. Describe what you thought would be the rationale explanation of his story and why did it go against what you thought would happen? Read a news article either from a newspaper or online. Discuss something you found surprising and describe what you learned from reading the article.