Causality and Umpire Errors

I used to read a lot of social science research in my previous life, and one of the most pressing issues in this “soft” science (compared to, say, physics) is whether we are able to identify causality when dealing with such complex and varied human patterns. During a presentation, one sociologist put slide after slide showing very persuasive evidence linking a factor to rising inequality, but then showed a slide that said, simply: “Sigh…causality.” No matter what she had showed us, she noted, there were many, many caveats.

I bring this all up to offer some amount of comfort to those Bangladeshi fans who are convinced, but for a dodgy no-ball call, they would have plucked their way into the semifinals. I’ve written before about the “linear fallacy” in cricket commentary, wherein people assume that if a certain wicket had/had not fallen at a specific time, the end result would have changed. But it is entirely possible that had Sharma been given out on that delivery, other players would reacted differently. Who knows? Dhoni, for example, would have had more time at the crease, and he may have added more to the scorecard than six runs. Or maybe India’s bowlers would have been comfortable defending 270. We’ve seen plenty of turnarounds and surprises in cricket to know that a good innings here or a bad umpire call there does not, in itself, cause victory or failure.

So, yes, be annoyed that you were not able to see the counterfactual, and that you were denied it by a call that seems only so-so. But do not assume that your life would have been that much different in the counterfactual — we simply do not know. And be comforted, as this Indian fan is, that your team made it as far as it did.

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