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Dave Helling: In baseball or politics, statistics miss the human factor

Who foresaw a spat between Donald Trump and a Fox News host? Not very many people.
Who foresaw a spat between Donald Trump and a Fox News host? Not very many people. The Associated Press

Baseball’s nerdocracy is wiping its brow this summer, trying to figure out where it went wrong with the Royals.

For the casual observer, a review: In the spring, statistics geeks estimated the local nine would win about 76 games this year, a woeful record. The team may win 20 more games than that.

The baseball number-crunchers have tossed out a few explanations for their big miss. Predicting the performance of young players is tough, some have argued. Unforeseen injuries played a role. Prediction models may be outdated.

Maybe the Royals have just been lucky.

All of these excuses are fun to read, particularly when your club is, uh, winning. But the hand-wringing over missed projections may also teach us something important: Predicting the future, when human beings are involved, is almost always a fool’s errand.

We miss this fact because non-human events are typically stable and more predictable. When I set my alarm clock at night, I can safely predict it will go off in the morning, absent a mechanical or electrical calamity. If I put cake batter in a hot oven, I can confidently project dessert 45 minutes later. Most of the time.

Humans are not clocks.

Last week, in this space, I confidently predicted Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump would have some staying power in the pursuit of his party’s nomination. Naturally, Trump proceeded to torpedo his campaign with a series of whining complaints about the questions he was asked in the first debate.

It’s easy to conclude, in hindsight, that Trump was likely to shoot himself in both feet before voters locked in on the race. But hindsight is always perfect. Who saw a spat between Trump and a Fox News host before it happened? Not very many people.

Even now, we can’t be sure what’s next. What if The Donald responds to the furor by becoming a quiet statesman? That’s possible. What if his opponents say something wrong, or something brilliant? Events, reactions — humans — will affect the 2016 presidential campaign in ways we can’t possibly imagine today.

Are you listening, Hillary Clinton?

Political dorks have tried to wrestle some of this to the ground by using poll averages and statistical analysis to more accurately predict electoral outcomes. Good luck with that. Polls seem more error-prone than ever, and algorithms can’t fully account for the human condition.

Numbers still don’t tell the whole story. That’s good for politics, and for baseball too.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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