By Tony Attwood
Among psychologists it is called Mathswash: the notion of presenting ideas and vague thoughts on what might happen, as if they were firm facts and evidence based predictions. No caveat, no suggestion this might be wrong – just here it is, it’s bleedin’ obvious.
You know the style: If Mr Wenger continues running the club, then this will be the season that Arsenal slip out of the Champions League. It has been said each and every season since Untold started in January 2008, and self evidently has been wrong each time. But it is said each season.
Mix claims and predictions up with some misleading statements – the simpler the better – and repeat them a lot, and very quickly reasoned argument goes out the window.
We have a lot of this in the UK at the moment as we are having a referendum campaign to decide whether we should stay in the European Union or not, and the main thrust of the campaigning is one side saying something akin to, “We will all die of malnutrition if we stay in the EU”, and the other side saying, “no, we will all be as fat as very fat things who have everything we have ever wanted and lots of money to spare if we leave.”
Such evidence as there is, is that that few people are swayed in their views by such nonsense, but it is of interest because we have the same problem on Untold. If we try and have a football debate based on reasoned argument, evidence and logical analysis some people pop up with simplistic one sentence answers, which tends to divert the discussion off course.
Thus the tendency to reduce everything to single sentence statements is not just the norm football, it is not the norm in pretty much anything being debated in the UK.
Part of the reason for this is genetic. We are entities who, when we have no idea of what to make of a situation, will hit on a simple solution and then become absolutely certain this is the right thing to do. As a species we love simplistic solutions, and we find it very, very hard, to shake them off.
It is an ancient response mechanism that is shared with most animals but it is at odd with the diverse sort of behaviour we started to develop around 100,000 years ago which allowed some of the population to think, “hang on a minute, if the power of steam can lift the lid off a saucepan, maybe it could power an engine” and stuff like that.
The trouble is, that’s all a bit complex. “Build a wall between the US and Mexico and get the Mexicans to pay for it” is nice and simple, and that is what people like.
Such simplistic solutions ignore the multiplicity of other factors and the way in which the world will change if this new single solution approach were to be adopted. Trump says, “we’re going to make America great again” without details of consequences, costs, implications or anything else, and some people like it.
Call for Wenger’s resignation and you still have to have a new manager, buy players, get tactics right and sort out a lot of stuff. What evidence is there that the next guy will do better? Figures elsewhere show that most new managers fail. It’s complicated and needs thinking through.
Ban Muslims from entering the US as Trump says, and then maybe Saudi Arabia might stop exporting oil to the US (60% of US oil is imported, and Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest sources). Oil prices could go up. But that’s boring detail. Simple headlines are better.
My point is the degeneration of the debate in football into single issue “do this and all will be sorted” approaches is just a reflection of what our societies do when faced with any issue. It has always been this way inclined (blaming witches in the 17th century, blaming gin in the 18th century, blaming Jews in the 19th century, blaming imperialism in the 20th century, blaming social media in the 21st century). That’s just how it always has been.
So we still have free speech – in fact we have a lot more free speech since the means of disseminating our free speech is available to anyone with an internet connection, But now it means we are all free to say anything, and that is where it gets confusing, as vast numbers of people seem to be pre-programmed to accept an ill-thought out statement as an overwhelming truth. The US would be better off if it banned Muslims, Arsenal would be better off with any centre forward other than Giroud; it’s all part of the simplistic approach.
Of course the first statement is infinitely more worrying than the second, no matter how passionate one might be about one’s club, but still the general point is the same. Let’s do what we have always done: find a scapegoat and thus avoid that most painful of approaches: thinking. Witches, gin, Jews, imperialism, Muslims, social media, Wenger, Giroud… anything you like, and just ignore the evidence, avoid the debate.
The problem is that social media brings us in touch with people who have totally different mindsets and so any discussion that pops up may have little in the way of mutual understanding. I can say Giroud should stay because aside from scoring 24 goals last season, he also plays in a way that allows speedy wingers like Alexis space to score by distracting defenders. You can put forward counter arguments and we debate. If however my verbal opponent says “if you think Giroud is good enough you’re an idiot” free speech exists, but for no purpose.
So we get to the stage where calls for Mr Wenger to go are in fact nothing other than a simple protest vote against the fact that Arsenal didn’t win the League. But the worrying thing is that if we did win the League there would be dismissal calls the following season if we didn’t do the double and at least get to the final of the Champions League. Soon we are at the point where if we don’t win everything and go unbeaten all season, the club has failed and the manager must be sacked.
Meanwhile, because of what are known as cognitive shortcuts – the use of simplistic statements without evidence – we find that points raised in arguments become shorter and shorter, and less and less meaningful, until we end up with, “I want my Arsenal back,” one of the most meaningless sentences in an increasingly meaningless set of exchanges.
One may ask what this means – the Arsenal of the 1930s in which the crowd jeered and booed the best team Arsenal had ever seen by a mile, if they didn’t win by several goals to nil? The Arsenal which in the same era reduced Jack Lambert to tears (while scoring 98 goals in 143 league games). The Arsenal of George Swindin and Billy Wright? The Arsenal of the later Mee years when we only just avoided relegation? The Arsenal of George Graham in which we managed 40 goals in a 42 match league season? The booing of Gervinho? It is a nonsense phrase, but it keeps coming back.
So now we have a suggestion that there was a mythical golden age in which the fans somehow owned the club. That age was on offer between 1910 and 1913 when three times, Henry Norris offered the people of Plumstead and Woolwich the chance to buy the club by taking £1 shares. He’d paid off all the debts out of his own pocket, and sought none of that money back; the club would stay at Plumstead, and he would back away. But each time the share issue failed. So it must be our ancestors fault.
But there is one other point I’d throw in; the question of whether social media actually does affect anything. Or does social media just let people who would have burned witches, sought the prohibition of gin, renounced the building of the empire, rounded up and removed the Jewish population, or whatever the flavour of the day was, have some other outlet for their anger.
For the point about this list of things we have blamed for the failings within our society, is that they are not only diverse, they are all nonsense. Of course when someone takes the approach seriously the results can be awful, but most of the time it is simply a distraction.
It is like having a ball throwing machine and setting it to random throws so that the dog will go chasing. It might muck up the garden a bit, and the dog’s barking and occasional colliding with the fence might annoy the neighbours but otherwise it is just a way of tiring out a rather simple animal.
Certainly all the serious reports I have read about the effect of social media as a way of influencing people en masse the general view is that it has become a fairly neutered activity. Few people are convinced, few change sides. It is actually just a way of letting people make noise.
This is not to say that it is not worth using logic, reason and evidence to point out the failings of one sentence points of view that surround football, politics, religion and most other things today. I think it is, but doing this is for the minority who actually want to spend the time thinking what evidence and debate actually means.
Sadly this minority of people who contemplate evidence doesn’t include political leaders any more than it includes the aaa, but in my view, there is no reason to give up on serious analysis, extrapolation of data and review of options. I thought the analyses of the Fair Play League, the “Arsenal don’t shoot enough” articles and the analysis of the Distribution of Referees articles were really worthwhile, as was the article on the possible reasons for unsupported opinions and the piece on why the media insist on ignoring key issues. Not because we might change anyone’s mind – although if we did that would be nice, but because it makes information available for those who are willing and able to think about issues in more than one concept at a time.
That doesn’t mean that I am saying the people who write in, and without any sense of irony or fun say “you can prove anything with statistics” are somehow lesser human beings than someone who can engage in the debate. I am just saying I doubt that I have the skills to convince those who believe in the validity of one sentence analyses that their reduction of everything to simplicity – but that maybe this doesn’t matter unless the silly buggers start burning women as witches, or banning religious groups.
If the mindless chatter on Twitter and Facebook is the price we have to pay for the continuation of our democracies then so be it. Let’s just not ever think that we can convince these people to contemplate more complex analyses.
And let’s not be reduced to the one sentence level ourselves.
- Arsenal 3 Scotland 0 and the big problem with signing Vardy that seems to be overlooked
- Ooooooooooooooooospina: its Copa America Centenario, and he’s done great
- Blimey – the Vardy bid looks like it is true, and there is a release clause, and it wasn’t all made up
Untold Arsenal has published five books on Arsenal – all are available as paperback and three are now available on Kindle. The books are
- The Arsenal Yankee by Danny Karbassiyoon with a foreword by Arsene Wenger.
- Arsenal: the long sleep 1953 – 1970; a view from the terrace. By John Sowman with an introduction by Bob Wilson.
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football. By Tony Attwood, Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews.
- Making the Arsenal: a novel by Tony Attwood.
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal by Mark Andrews.
You can find details of all five on our new Arsenal Books page