Stock figure: during Elizabeth I’s reign nearly 200 English Catholics were executed. Image: Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman
Show Hide image

The best of the NS in 2014: Religion

Our best pieces from the past year - this selection covers God, religion and atheism.

After God: how to fill the faith-shaped hole in modern life

By Rowan Williams, Melvyn Bragg, Lucy Winkett, Robin Ince, Vicky Beeching and Julian Baggini.

Religion used to define our seasons and our days. But now that it’s in decline in the west, what rituals can take its place?  

 

The new intolerance: will we regret pushing Christians out of public life?

By Cristina Odone.

In this provocative challenge to the left, the former New Statesman deputy editor Cristina Odone argues that liberalism has become the new orthodoxy – and there is no room for religious believers to dissent.  

 

Christians aren’t being driven out of public life – they’re just losing their unfair advantages

By Robin Ince.

A reply to Odone's piece from an atheist.  

 

What the jihadists who bought “Islam for Dummies” on Amazon tell us about radicalisation

By Mehdi Hasan.

Pretending that the danger comes only from the devout could cost lives.

 

Is religion to blame for history’s bloodiest wars?

By John Gray.

From the Inquisition to Isis, religion is blamed for brutality. But violence is a secular creed too.

 

Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism

By Karen Armstrong.

Although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century.

Gloriana’s underbelly: the terror of life as a Catholic in Elizabethan England

By Anna Whitelock.

Jessie Childs's God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England is a detailed and absorbing account of the difficulties of being Catholic in England in the 17th century.

 

Meet Libby Lane, the Church of England’s first woman bishop

By Caroline Crampton.

After decades of wrangling, the Church of England has finally appointed its first woman bishop. Caroline Crampton went to meet Reverend Libby Lane, the new Bishop of Stockport.

 

Six feet under: meeting Britain’s Gravedigger of the Year

By Xan Rice.

To his surprise, Jonny Yaxley, a former landscaper, found he enjoyed the craftsmanship involved in preparing a perfect grave. And he liked learning about the lives of the deceased.

 

The Myth of the Moderate Muslim

By Bina Shah.

Everyone seems to know that the moderate Muslim exists, but nobody seems to really agree on what he or she looks like, how he or she acts, behaves, what she believes in, how he or she practises.

 

On a vote and a prayer: how evangelical groups could influence the election

By Oliver Bullough.

Labour does not “do God”, in the words of Alastair Campbell, but a group of believers from Luton do – and they won the party the seat. Could their success be replicated?

 

Is the BBC’s “The Big Questions” the worst thing on television?

By Willard Foxton.

It’s one of the broadcaster’s flagship religious programmes, yet it makes religious people look unfairly crazy.

OLIVER BURSTON
Show Hide image

How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism