Just about everyone knows that one of Noam Chomsky's big things is that he thinks the media are badly distorted away from the truth and toward the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Once a long time ago I read or heard either this quote from this interview or something like it:

"Take, say, sports -- that's another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it -- you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that's of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about -- [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it's striking to see the intelligence that's used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in -- they have the most exotic information [more laughter] and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this."

Taking this quote along with the rest of the interview, the idea seems to be that that the default condition of most people is to have decent critical faculties unless someone takes the trouble to actively screw them up. So in contrast to their badly distorted ideas about politics, people tend to have sensible ideas about sports, since the powerful have no particular motive to distort those ideas (though they do have a motive to get people to think about sports instead of things that are important).

Leaving completely aside the merits of Chomsky's critique of the media or any of his other views, I have logged a pretty decent number of hours listening to sports talk radio and folks, I'm here to tell you that the quality of the discourse is generally mighty low. It might not be as low as on political talk radio (people aren't as hate-filled), but it's low. I sent an email to Chomsky pointing this out (which I cannot locate as it was many years ago), and to his credit he wrote me back. I don't think I am revealing any confidences by saying that, to the best of my recollection, he admitted that it had been many years since he had really paid any attention to sports or sports talk or anything like that. The point is not (or at least not mostly) to ding Chomsky for being a little loose with the facts behind his just-so story. The point is that whatever you think about the media and the powerful and all that (see here for some of my views), it is not true that reasoned discussion is the default condition of humanity and prevails unless someone comes along and screws it up. I think it's closer to the truth to say that natural irrationality is the raw material that manipulation by the powerful has to act upon.

And that is the story of one of my very few brushes with fame (I also once saw Mike Ditka on a plane, once saw Al Sharpton on a plane, once shook hands with Paul Krugman and knew a very lucky someone who had actually personally laid eyes on Gwyneth Paltrow).

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I think it's closer to the truth to say that natural irrationality is the raw material that manipulation by the powerful has to act upon.

Irrationality may still be too strong of a word here. After all, a lot of people still manage to get by pretty well in their lives without having someone more rational hold their hand through it.

It seems more that most people have a natural arationality that functions on a mixed associative and rote learning basis, and does--on the whole--pretty darn well, even in a context very different from the EEA.

It's when people try to apply abstract thinking without prior training that they go catastrophically wrong and are easily manipulated by people with influence.

I think that's about right. But both sports talk radio and political talk radio fall into the "abstract thinking" category.

I'm here to tell you that the quality of the discourse is generally mighty low.

Upvoted, but I'd enjoy an example or two. (I don't follow or know much about any sports.)

Probably the best examples involve instances of judging the wisdom of a decision made under extreme uncertainty based on how it came out. So the decision to try to steal a base was praiseworthy if the runner was safe but foolish if the runner got thrown out, and things like that. More broadly, the phenomenon is very strong opinions based on limited or misinterpreted evidence. For example, there are a couple of pitchers on the Yankees right now where there is a big debate about whether they are better suited to be starting pitchers or to be relievers. People have incredibly strong opinions about this on the basis of next to no information, and they regard those opinions as being altogether vindicated in each individual instance where the pitcher does well in their preferred role.

This is common not just in sports, but in other fields as well. If the Allies had been thrown back into the sea on D-Day, it would have gone down as a historic blunder; many, perhaps even most, judge decisions not by their expected chance of succeeding but by their results.

I enjoyed your article, but after reading this comment I enjoyed it even more. Thanks for the examples.


There is also common over-valuing or undervaluing of players according to bad criteria. The only sport I follow closely is basketball where examples of this flourish. The best case is Allen Iverson (who I love, he went to my college) but has been consistently overvalued because he is flashing and athletic and scores a lot of points. The problem is that the reason he scores a lot of points is that he uses a lot of possessions. He scores those points with average efficiency. Moreover, while he (at least in his younger days) grabbed a lot of steals by gambling and jumping after the ball when he wasn't sure he could get the steal he has always been something of a defensive liability because he is too small to guard most other players who play his position (its worse now that he is older and can't get the steals). Meanwhile he has been named an all-star 10 times (fan vote).

Actually, most box scores tell you surprisingly little about how good a player is (the relevant statistics are usually not recorded).

  • *Of course NBA general managers tend to be pretty irrational too, giving big contracts to players who don't deserve them.