March obviousness

We are living in a progressively stat-oriented time.

The irony of this thesis is that I couldn’t prove it quantitatively. There’s no feasible way for me to provide a purely statistical argument that people use statistics more today than a decade ago. Granted, I could collect massive amounts of data from a variety of sources and parlay it into some official sounding stat-based paper, but I still wouldn’t have formally proved my thesis. There’s simply no easy way to count how many statistics are used over a given time period. I’m not even quite sure what counts and does not count as a use of statistics. I can present a perfectly acceptable statistical argument that precipitation in the U.S. was greater in 2009 than in 2008 (assuming you agree with standard rain measurement techniques), but cannot replicate that methodology to show more stats were thrown around in consulting agencies in 2010 than in 2000.

Yet, my thesis isn’t exactly a controversial one—it’s just not provable.

Consider another thesis of limited provability: Productivity in workplaces and schools decreases during March Madness. Everyone with a pulse can corroborate this statement anecdotally. If you’ve ever done any level of research for a tournament pool, you’ve wasted time that could have been spent studying chemistry or modeling exotic options. Overall, whenever CBS Sportsline is producing more traffic than July 4th weekend, it’s probably a bad time for schools and offices.

How bad a time is it, though? Presumably the answer to this question is a number. As in “1.8 billion in unproductive wages during the first week of the tournament” or “a 6 percent drop in articles viewed on JSTOR in the week following Selection Sunday.” The former estimate comes courtesy of John Challenger of consulting agency Challenger, Gray & Christmas; the latter is the work of Duke professor and economist Charles Clotfelter. Every year around this time, such estimates get their moment in the sun as the media invariably publicizes them in a feature about the dark side of the NCAA tournament. Over the last week, readers have been privy to headlines like “March Madness at work raises questions of priorities, productivity‎” (Fox News, Mar. 15), “March Madness is bad for business…”(NY Daily News, Mar. 17) and, closer to home, “I’ll do it next month: Studies see March productivity drop” (Chronicle, Mar. 16). All of these articles present some new statistical evidence casting doubt on the non-basketball merits to be had from a 65-team tournament.

More importantly, all of them are based on research of extremely dubitable value.

To somehow quantify college basketball’s impact on productivity—be it monetary, social or academic—begs the question of how the impact is measured. This all-important how tends to encompass a good amount of fudging. John Challenger’s previous work on productivity in March, for instance, has drawn heated criticism for failing to account for built-in breaks in the work schedule, manipulating tournament viewership numbers and using unrepresentative data sets.  Challenger even admitted in a U.S. News and World Report column published Wednesday that his work regarding the tourney was “whimsical” and “taken too seriously in the best of times.” Again, this bears repeating: the world’s foremost researcher on workplace productivity during March Madness now freely admits his numbers are a joke.  

Joke or not, why limit calculating workplace productivity to the time during the tournament? It’s due time for the consultants and professors of the world to crunch the numbers on productivity after the tournament. Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Sobut of Northwestern University argues, “Contrary to popular belief, if you’re happy and enjoying life, which most fans are during the tournament, then their productivity over the long run will go up.” Amir Syed, owner of American Street Mortgage, suggests the tournament brings his employees closer together for the foreseeable future. It appears there is a legitimate case for improved long-run productivity as a result of March Madness. Thankfully, now Challenger and co. have another utterly unquantifiable thesis to study for future years.

To be fair, proving unquantifiable theses is what keeps most of Washington up at night. The difference here isn’t in the means, but the ends: Barack Obama and John Challenger both argue unquantifiable positions (healthcare reform is good; March Madness is bad), but Obama does it in the name of progress (or, at least, the left’s version of it), whereas Challenger does it for the sake of… reiterating the obvious. Number friendliness aside, proving an important position about the world shouldn’t be stat-preclusive.

 Inane positions, however, should be.  

Ben Brostoff is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs every Friday.


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