The New York Times’ World Cup Pop Science

In a recent article published in The New York Times’ The Upshot section, Yale economist Dean Karlan outlines a utilitarian approach to World Cup rooting and, as it turns out, a specious argument for why one should root for Nigeria (or Brazil, Mexico or Ghana).

Why anyone would decide which team to support based on utilitarian principles is beyond me. After all, is not the World Cup, much like the Olympic Games or college football, made to appeal to our tribalistic roots? I would like to think that the fact that tournaments like this provide an opportunity for people who might not get along at all otherwise—Republicans and Democrats, Crips and Bloods, Barack and Michelle Obama, what have you—to come together to support their particular tribe and feel connection with each other is far more important than making sure you adhere to some utilitarian principle of altruism (as if for whom a bunch of Westerners cheer for is going to make any difference whatsoever to the poor people of Nigeria).

In fact, it seems absurd to choose a country to support based on utilitarian principles. Karlan tells us we should root for the outcome that will produce the largest aggregate increase in happiness. But how could you possibly quantify an emotion accurately? Emotions are highly subjective experiences. Anyhow, if we for one moment disregard all this, we shall soon discover that not only is Karlan’s article pointless, his calculations are about as valid as the labor theory of value or geocentrism.

Above is Dean Karlan’s index, which is calculated by a country’s passion for soccer multiplied by its average level of poverty multiplied by its population. “Why this formula?” one might ask. Karlan explains:

Considering soccer interest seems obvious enough — the more passionate fans are, the happier they’ll be if their team emerges victorious. I incorporate poverty into the score for several reasons. First, happiness and wealth are correlated, and all else being equal, a utilitarian would prefer to help the person who is worst off. Second, the wealthy have more outlets for dealing with sports disappointments — such as going out to a nice meal — and can bounce back faster.

Finally, if we are to embrace the utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number of people, we need to think about the population of the countries in question. While Uruguayans undoubtedly love soccer, it will be a nation of only 3.3 million people celebrating their triumph should Uruguay come out on top. In contrast, if neighboring Argentina wins, it will mean a celebration for 42.7 million.

Put aside the comment about the wealthy’s ability to go out to a nice meal to bounce back faster, and disregarding the fact that the formula does not take into consideration cultural aspects that might affect the intensity of happiness, this seems fair enough. But we have not yet been informed how these variables are measured. Buckle up, because this is about to get really shaky, really fast.

To quantify the passion for soccer in each country, Karlan used Google Trends to look at how soccer compares with other popular sports in each country, based on searches. That is right, folks. The portion of Google searches about popular sports that concern soccer specifically now represent a country’s passion for soccer. As Karlan points out in the article, it does not take a genius to know that Ghana was more invested in its match with the United States than the United States. But it does, apparently, take a genius to figure out that this type of measurement is horrible—and Dean Karlan does not appear to make the cut.

First of all, Internet access in poor countries tends to be restricted to the wealthy, and Internet traffic is therefore not representative of the population as a whole’s interests. If one is indeed truly a utilitarian, concerned with the well-being of the poor, it is imperative to pay attention to what they think. Perhaps the poor in Nigeria are not at all as interested in soccer as the poor in Brazil. A serious economist and committed utilitarian would take this into careful consideration, and perhaps find another way of measuring public opinion.

Secondly, it is not clear if Karlan controlled for negative Google searches about soccer; is it not possible that the people of Mexico hate soccer, and were googling “Why soccer sucks”? Moreover, what if Iran actually only really cares about the German soccer team, and would in fact prefer it if Germany won against Iran? Surely, then, it would be cruel—according to Karlan’s logic—to cheer for the Iranian team.

But perhaps the gravest mistake of them all was not failing to control for confounding variables, but to compare soccer searches with other sports searches in the first place. After all, just because a country cares a lot about soccer relative to other sports does not mean it cares a lot about soccer, period. After all, just because there are more Protestants than Catholics in Sweden does not mean that Swedes in general are Protestants; in fact, Sweden is one of the most irreligious countries in the world.

In the future, it would probably be prudent of Dean Karlan to abandon the utilitarian principles for which he advocates in the article. While well-intentioned, utilitarianism is doomed to utter failure. It is impossible to accurately measure and compare subjective utility, because it is just that—subjective. And The New York Times would be wise to stop publishing pop science articles. It is beneath the newspaper’s and its readers’ dignity.

One comment

  1. ganjaman · · Reply

    Surely the most fundamental argument against any sort of utilitarian approach to choosing a team to root for is the fact that however and for whomever you root, it makes literally no difference to the outcome? Just a thought 😉

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