Michael, Picking and Predicting

Somewhere on my book shelves I have a worn copy of Michael Oakeshott’s edited edition of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1946).

It may had been even more worn had I realised that he was the co-author (with Guy Griffith) of A Guide to the Classics: or How to Pick the Derby Winner (1936). Michael and Guy were Cambridge fellows at the time. The publisher of a new edition of the book noted:

The book takes the abstraction out of the Derby by attacking the systems which had been developed by generations of ‘form’ experts. It exposes theoretical solutions as fraudulent – instead it applies hard-headed empirical and historical analysis.

Michael Oakeshott was an influential political philosopher in the twentieth century and I found it fascinating that he applied his approach to picking a Derby winner subsequently “to his analysis of rationalism in politics”.

I like Paul Franco’s (1990:1) view of Michael. He was, Paul suggests:

a traditionalist with few traditional beliefs, an “idealist” who is more sceptical than many positivists, a lover of liberty who repudiates liberalism, an individiual who prefers Hehel to locke, a philosopher who disapproves of philosophisme, a romantic and a marvelous stylist.

I think this makes him perfectly suited to a role as analyst, particularly with his interest in second order questions.

Ed Smith (2017) says of the Derby book (despite some of its assumptions dating):

Although the specifics have dated, the ­intellectual disposition is more relevant than ever, especially as sport is experiencing a revolution driven by data analytics. All decision-making in sport (not just gambling, but also recruitment and selection by coaches) hinges on probability. Oakeshott’s second chapter – to what extent does past form determine future performance? – now preoccupies sport’s cleverest thinkers and mathematicians.

Michael’s approach was to use historical judgement. Ed notes:

The more we know about data in sport, the more the Oakeshott position – confidence in good judgement rather than scientific “proof” – gains strength.

He concludes:

Oakeshott’s ideas on racing provide a case for the value and usefulness of the humanities – inexact but wise, sceptical but informed by deep knowledge.

I think this is excellent advice and comes in a week when Alan McCall, Maurizio Fanchini and Aaron Coutts (2017) urge caution about prediction in sport.

Their invited commentary in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance:

  • Highlights the common misinterpretation of studies investigating association to those actually analysing prediction
  • Provides practitioners with simple recommendations to quickly distinguish between methods pertaining to association and those of prediction.

I do believe that the quest for prediction can be undertaken with humility and the humanities.

Ed’s alert to Michael Oakeshott’s work is very timely. It speaks to the possibilities of disciplined historical insights in conjunction with the remarkable innovations in data capture and analysis. It should encourage us to think about we construct analyses of performance that entangle past present and future.

Photo Credit

Epsom Derby 2010 (Monkeywise, CC BY 2.0)

Going for Home (Monkeywise, CC BY 2.0)