Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Whacky World Cup Formula: Germany will win

According to this article from the Telegraph (which, incidentally, is a carbon copy of the article in various other news sources from around the world - I assume it's lifted directly from a wire service, but who knows?) Germany are definitely going to win this year's world cup. How do we know this? Trigonometry!
The scientist has written a formula based on trigonometry which analyses all Germany's results from previous World Cups and predicts a winner for this year's tournament.

Having won the World Cup three times, in 1954, 1974 and 1990, Germany's average finishing place at previous tournaments is 3.7 and Prof Tolan says his formula shows this will be Germany's year to lift the trophy. 
Unfortunately, Metin Tolan doesn't show his work, so we can't see quite how he came up with this ridiculous conclusion. It's hard to see why any team with an average finish of 3.7 (whatever that means) would expect to finish in position 1. It's also really, really hard to see how a formula which appears to be essentially some sort of regression/reformulation of the law of averages could be 'based on trigonometry'.

We do get some indication of his track record:
Prof Tolan already predicted Germany would win the last World Cup, which they hosted in 2006,
So he may be displaying a tiny bit of overconfidence in his predicition to say:

"Nobody can beat us this year and you can already put the champagne on ice."

However, my favourite part of the article is the end, in which Tolan demonstrates that he doesn't understand basic game theory or probability, with regard to penalty shoot-outs:
"The weakest kicker should take the first penalty, then the second-weakest and so on," he said. "Then you have the greatest chance of scoring as many goals as possible."
Now this is quite clearly the exact opposite of the truth. I can't even be bothered to crunch any numbers, because it only takes a few seconds of thought to see that if one side follows the good professor's advice whilst the other uses the more sensible plan of doing the exact opposite, the latter side will win before things have even gotten started - the better players on Tolan's team literally won't get a kick.

I'm not quite sure why people who seem to have perfectly respectable research careers get inolved in this sort of thing. I would suggest it was for the money, but he did the same thing 4 years ago... is it just that some people can't resist having their name in the paper?

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