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Temporal Fallacies on the LSAT vs. the NFL Playoffs


The LSAT talks about a lot of different subject areas. Fractal geometry, the mating habits of sage grouse, diapir eruptions, “group think” behavior, and even unicorns have all been the topic of discussion at different times.

But they don’t talk about sports. Well, not much, at least.

And I think I might know why. There are certain issues in sports that I believe can poke holes in the reasoning used on the LSAT.

For example, let’s discuss the NFL playoffs. There are four more games coming up this weekend. On Saturday, the Cardinals go to New Orleans to try to upset the Saints (-7) and the Ravens will try to injure Peyton Manning before he inevitably mounts a comeback to beat them in the 4th quarter (-6½). On Sunday, the Cowboys travel to Minnesota to deal with the ageless Favre (-2½) and the Jets bring their impressive defense and fat coach to sunny San Diego to deal with the Chargers (-7) and LT (who has apparently lost his mind and his rhythm).

As I was reading through the various articles on the upcoming games, I couldn’t help but pick up on a trend in every report. Sports commentators base their arguments on a method of reasoning that is clearly fallacious on the LSAT. They commit temporal fallacies like they are going out of style.

  • “History says one or two road ‘dogs will pull off divisional-round upsets.” (Sportsline)
  • “This is Ken Whisenhunt’s time of the season, with the Cards’ head coach 4-0 in the NFC playoffs.” (Clark Judge)
  • “(The Cardinals) hammered a 12-4 Panthers team on the road in the divisional round last season.” (ESPN)
  • “The Jets seem to be H-O-T, H-O-T, H-O-T. They just blew out the Bengals…” (Bill Simmons)

If you have lived in our sports-crazed nation for more than a couple hours, you have undoubtedly heard statements like the above. Granted, these claims are at least attempting to base a conclusion on some body of evidence. This naturally makes them more convincing than some other platitudes that are thrown around in sports (“I was just feeling it,” “we just take it one game at a time,” “we played with a lot of heart,” “he has great intangibles”).

However, the LSAT constantly warns against the use of such temporal arguments. In the legal world, evidence of prior acts is commonly excluded from trials because it is deemed to be irrelevant to the issues at hand.

But where is the line? If Kurt Warner went 29-of-33 with 5 touchdowns last week, is that a reasonable basis for concluding that the Cardinals are more likely to beat the Saints this week? If Brett Favre started to look his age (72, I believe) down the stretch of the regular season, does that imply that the Cowboys have a better chance for an upset?

Here is an LSAT question that can be used for comparison:

    Executive: Our next environmental proposal will likely be approved, because normally about half of the environmental proposals that the prime minister reviews are approved, and our last five environmental proposals have all been rejected.

    The argument’s reasoning is flawed because

So the basic argument here is that we are going to win on this proposal because we lost on the last five. This is a Flaw question. The LSAT (and, by extension, the legal profession) clearly must believe that this is an invalid argument. The answer choice states that this argument makes the unsupported assumption that having the last five proposals turned down affects the chances for the current proposal.

It is notable that the answer choice does not say that the argument draws too strong of a conclusion, but rather the answer states that it is a mistake to conclude that the past has any effect at all on the current proposal.

Now, if this were the wide world of sports, the argument should conclude that the current proposal will have the same fate as the earlier proposals (continue the hot streak). Many commentators are concluding that the Colts are going to win this weekend because they have won in the past and Peyton was the league MVP this season. But the point remains the same. The evidence about the past is supposed to be irrelevant to the present circumstances.

But where is the line?

Anyone who has played sports will agree that there is some relationship between the past and the present. It sounds like crazy-talk, but many of us have entered the proverbial “zone” in which we feel unstoppable. The baseball moves slower, the hoop appears to be the size of a small lake, and the ducks seem to be flying much slower (for all of you in the red states).

But it would seem that you have to be very careful about what type of evidence can be used to forecast into the future. It occurs to me that there are two requirements that must be in order to use the past to make predictions about the future:

    1. The situations need to be similar in form and time.
    2. The issue in question must be something that translates in time from one event to the next.

First, you have to make reasonable comparisons. This is where sports really sways off course. If I have to hear one more time about stats dating back to 1960, I am going to hurt myself. Did you know that the Cowboys are only 2-7 against the Vikings in the playoffs? Of course this stat is all-time. Most of the players on the two teams were not even born when these games were played. And I am supposed to believe that this has some effect on their performance this weekend?

Decades ago definitely doesn’t matter, last year doesn’t even really matter.

The second issue is equally important. If you flipped a coin and it ended up heads five times in a row, does that mean the next one will be heads? No, because those occurrences are not related. We have all been burned by this fallacy in Vegas and the damned game of roulette. Five blacks in a row? Bet big on red; lose big on red.

However, if a concert pianist plays four flawless performances in a row, does that mean that she is more likely to play well in performance number five? I would say yes. It surely does not guarantee it, but that evidence seems highly relevant.

The pianist seems to be a much better analogy to sports than flipping a coin. So there would seem to be some situations in sports that violate the temporal fallacies that abound on the LSAT. But as long as you follow the two rules outlined above, you should be just fine.

While I am on the topic, here are my picks for the weekend. The Saints will beat the Cardinals 134 – 96 in the highest scoring game ever. Peyton will lead a fouth-quarter comeback, win, and then film 18 commercials simultaneously. The Chargers will finally make it so that I don’t have to watch the Jets and Dirty Sanchez anymore.

And my upset pick: Cowboys over Vikings. I mean, come on, Tony Romo has been so hot lately.