Jonah Lehrer should not write about sports
This is largely the fault of sabermetrics. Although the tool was designed to deal with the independent interactions of pitchers and batters, it’s now being widely applied to team sports, such as football and basketball. The goal of these new equations is to parse the complexity of people playing together, finding ways to measure quarterbacks while disregarding the quality of their offensive line, or assessing a point guard while discounting the poor shooting of his teammates. The underlying assumption is that a team is just the sum of its players, and that the real world works a lot like a fantasy league.
No, Jonah Lehrer. That is not the underlying assumption behind sabermetrics. The underlying assumption behind sabermetrics is that things can always be done better, and finding a way to measure things is a good way to help us do things better. But there’s a reason teams are not run by computers, and it’s that general managers are still valuable for the reasons you cite. A team without statistics would do just as poorly as a team that used them exclusively, and your comparison to a stock market study (where people without analyzed the stock market better than those with too much data) doesn’t hold water. The stock market is a confidence game. Sports are results-based.
The problem is with not the numbers. The problem, as always, is about the people using them. There is no “math problem” in sports, the same way there is no problem with sports coverage on Grantland. Just people who know what they’re doing, and those who don’t.