The "I Don’t Know" Argument

Generally I teach The Economics of Sports in the Winter Quarter at Cal-State Bakersfield. The quarter begins the first week of January or right around the BCS championship game in college football. Given the students focus on college football, I always ask a question like the following on the first day of class: Who is better – Michigan or Florida?

A few years back this question asked about USC and Auburn. In 2004 the question was about USC and Louisiana State.

Students take this question and return the second day of class with their answers. Although the teams I ask about change each year, the answer I am looking for is the basically same. Because college football teams only play a small sample of games, and because the sample for each of these contenders is generally completely different, it is not possible to look at the data and provide a definitive answer.

Students do not typically offer this answer. Rather students offer impassioned defenses of one team or the other. And when these are turned in I go over the basic problem with the student’s approach. In analysis the size of the sample matters. And the sample we see in college football is not sufficient for us to know whether Michigan or Florida is better or worse.

For members of the sports media, though, the “I Don’t Know” answer is probably not going to work. Just saying “I Don’t Know” will not fill in many column inches or take up much air time. So there is a tendency for people to take a stand.

And as a fan of Michigan, I am more than willing to follow suit. I grew up in Michigan and I “know” the Wolverines did not somehow get worse than Florida these last two weeks. In fact, if I ask this question of my future students in the Economics of Sports, I think students better be telling me that Michigan is much better than Florida.

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