Mehi Hasan on Jenny Tonge and Ehud Olmert - can you spot the difference?

Condemn Tonge for her comments on the future of Israel if you want to. But you'll have to condemn Ehud Olmert too.

Gotcha! Don't you love it when journalists corner a politician or pundit with an outrageous or offensive quote, which makes afore-mentioned politician/pundit look mad, bad or both?

I don't. I find it frustrating, juvenile and, above all else, lazy. It tends to happens a lot when the issue under discussion is controversial and/or sensitive: e.g. the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Jenny Tonge, Lib Dem peer and ex-MP, is under fire right now for saying, according to the Guardian, "Israel will not last for ever". Labour MP Ian Austin has said Nick Clegg must

make Baroness Tonge withdraw these remarks.

Martin Bright, political editor of the Jewish Chronicle, tweeted:

I can only assume Nick Clegg will finally remove the whip from Baroness Tonge. That would be consistent with what he has said in the past

Even Ed Miliband's weighed in with a tweet:

No place in politics for those who question existence of the state of Israel. Nick Clegg must condemn Jenny Tonge's remark & demand apology

(n.b. One wonders what Marion Miliband makes of young Edward's remarks.)

Admittedly, Tonge has made some pretty dodgy remarks in the past about Israel and Israelis - which cost her a position on the Lib Dem frontbench - but this latest controversy seems rather manufactured. Her comment, in full, doesn't seem so controversial:

Israel is not going to be there for ever in its present form.

Shock! Horror! Tonge doesn't think Israel "in its present form" - that is, as a Jewish and democratic state that also happens to illegally occupy Palestinian land while denying Palestinians both self-determination and voting rights - can survive. After all, the demographics make a one-state, non-Jewish, binational state almost inevitable.

Hmm, I wonder who else has taken a similar view? Oh yeah. That's it: Ehud Olmert, Israel's former prime minister, who once talked of how "the State of Israel is finished" if it continues on its current, rejectionist trajectory. Outrageous, eh?

Here's the then Israeli premier's full quote from Haaretz in November 2007:

If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.

An article on the BBC news website was devoted to Olmert's words. Guess what it's headline was?

Olmert warns of 'end of Israel'

So condemn Tonge for her comments on the future of Israel if you want to. But you'll have to condemn Ehud Olmert too. Funny old world, isn't it?

And, on a related note, the truth is that a single, secular, binational, one-state solution is now a mainstream, much-discussed alternative to the Middle East status quo. Polls show it has the support of a third of Palestinians and, astonishingly, even a quarter of Israelis. It also has the backing of, among others, the late Edward Said, the late Tony Judt, Ilan Pappe, Shlomo Sand, Virginia Tilley, Meron Benvenisti, Ahmad Khalidi, Ali Abunimah, Noam Chomsky, Jeff Halper and Sari Nusseibeh. Oh, and, perhaps a little reluctantly, me too.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

OLIVER BURSTON
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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