Martina Hingis–cycle of uncertainty part I

Sports pages are full of summaries of last year’s big stories and predictions for next year. I’m terrible at summarizing and even worse at predicting – I predicted that Kim Clijsters would win the WTA year-end championship even after she sleepwalked through her first match, a loss, then said that she was so tired that all she wanted to do was go back to her hotel room and lie down – so I am taking a slightly different approach to the end of the year.

Instead of making predictions, I am going to look at our craving for certainty. We like certainty in our lives. We like to think that someone among us can predict the future because that means the steps we take in our lives today will affect what happens tomorrow. If life is totally random, what’s the point of good behavior? In this first part, I will look at Martina Hingis’s return to the tour.

Tetlock found that the experts were no more accurate than those who regularly read newspapers and followed current events.

In the first week of January, Martina Hingis will walk onto a tennis court and compete in a WTA tournament for the first time in three years. She’s playing in the Mondial Australian Women’s Hardcourts in Gold Coast, Australia, a tune-up for the Australian Open. Martina’s heels are healed and she’s anxious to see if she can compete against the bigger, harder hitting women on the tour today.

I’ve missed Martina because she’s outspoken and sometimes speaks before she thinks. I wouldn’t normally condone this kind of behavior but I’m so tired of the stock answers that most tennis players give the media that I’m beginning to feel like John Kerry. Kerry invited John McCain to be his vice-president even though McCain is a Republican because McCain is that unique politician who speaks his mind. At least he used to before he decided to run for president in the next election. Now he’s beginning to sound like any other politician.

Can Martina hang with the big hitters? Is her wile enough to make up for her short stature and lack of power? Is her serve hard enough? I write a sports column about tennis, I should be able to answer that question. Legions of sportswriters make predictions every day. They pick NFL winners, they tell you which players to use on your fantasy football team or which player will win the Australian Open or which team will win the World Series. They are experts.

According to Philip Tetlock’s research, as reported in an article by Louis Menand in the December 5th issue of the New Yorker, these experts might be no more expert than the interested sports fan. In his book, Tetlock describes his twenty-year study of 284 political and economic analysts. He asked the analysts to predict the outcome of various scenarios – the likelihood of the U.S. going to war in the Persian Gulf for instance – and looked at the accuracy of their predictions. Tetlock found that the experts were no more accurate than those who regularly read newspapers and followed current events. Not only that, the bigger the reputation of the expert, the more their accuracy suffered.

This is not new information. In one study, clinical psychologists and their secretaries were given test results related to brain damage and asked to make a diagnosis. The clinical psychologists did no better than the their secretaries. That’s a scary thought.

Why do experts perform so badly?

Let’s say that I want to predict the likelihood that Martina will win a grand slam next year. If I say: “Well, she could win a grand slam if she doesn’t get injured”, no-one is going to pay me to go on ESPN and say that. Any idiot could tell you the same thing. If I say, “Mary Pierce will beat Justine Henin-Hardenne in the French Open final because Henin-Hardenne will break down physically, Clijsters will take up where she left off and win the Australian and the U.S. Open, and Serena Williams will win Wimbledon to prove that she’s still the best tennis player in the family,” then I’ve created an interesting scenario and also brought up something worth arguing about. Argument is the mainstay of sports talk, after all.

The problem is that my scenario has a lot of conditions that need to be met: Henin-Hardenne and Pierce would have to get to the French Open final then Pierce would have to completely change character and play well in a slam final, Clijsters would have to continue to play well, and Serena would have to be so competitive with her sister, Venus, who won Wimbledon last year, that she’d change her focus from being a glamorous star to being a grind-it-out tennis player. The more conditions there are to be satisfied, the less likely the prediction will come true. What makes good press doesn’t necessarily make good accuracy.

…no-one could have foreseen that Serena would trip over her dog while getting out of her limousine therefore re-injuring her knee and ending her season.

If Pierce doesn’t win the French Open and Clijsters doesn’t win two slams and Serena doesn’t win Wimbledon, no problem, I’ll just say that a bad line call in Henin-Hardenne’s semi-final match kept her from making the French Open final, Clijsters would have won the US Open if she hadn’t been pregnant and decided to get married and retire, and no-one could have foreseen that Serena would trip over her dog while getting out of her limousine therefore re-injuring her knee and ending her season.

You probably won’t hold me accountable because we don’t hold experts accountable and they don’t hold themselves accountable. Even after all of his evidence shows that the future is unpredictable, Tetlock is as desperate for certainty as the rest of us. He suggests that political experts monitor their predictions much like NFL experts keep a running record of their picks for the season. As far as I can tell, that hasn’t helped NFL experts.

We like to think that science is the one thing that gives us certainty. If science can make physical measurements, it can predict behavior. If we aim a space vehicle correctly, it should reach Mars. This is true for large objects but for subatomic particles such as electrons, quantum theory dictates uncertainty. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that the more precisely you know the position of a particle, the more uncertainty there is in the measurement of its momentum and vice versa. To put it an other way, the closer you get to pin-pointing a particle’s position, the farther away you are from measuring its momentum. This means that you can’t predict a particle’s behavior. At it’s most fundamental level, nature snatches certainty away from us.

The truth is, I have no idea how well Martina Hingis will do, I’m in the same boat as you are.

Consider Tony Dungy, the well-liked and respected coach of the Indianapolis Colts football team. The Colts were sitting at 13-1 and looked like a shoo-in to win the Super Bowl. Then Dungy’s eighteen-year-old son, James, committed suicide. A triumphant season has turned into a tragic season. No one could have predicted that.

Many wonderful things happened this year along with the bad. The Chicago White Sox won the World Series after eighty-eight years of futility, Clijsters deservedly won her first slam, Andre Agassi looked as good as ever and James Blake recovered from a spinal injury and his father’s death to get to the US Open semifinals and play a fantastic match.

Shit happens, there’s no getting around it, and when it does, it helps to be a realist. Plan for the best, be pleasantly surprised when it happens and graciously accept it if it doesn’t.