I received more than a few cranky emails from readers upset with my previous post pointing out how political science research helps explain Ted Well’s “prosecutorial mentality” that predisposed him to find guilt when sifting through the evidence regarding whether Tom Brady knew about, and condoned, deflating footballs below legal limits. As most of you know, a federal judge threw the NFL’s case out for a series of prosecutorial violations while casting doubt on most of the Wells Report’s conclusions. Several of you, however, have argued that Brady’s case was tossed on “legal technicalities”, and nothing the judge says proves the substantive allegations against Brady were wrong.
We should not be surprised that Brady’s accusers are not being swayed by the judge’s report. In a series of studies, political scientists have shown that strongly-committed partisans, when faced with evidence contradicting their most fervent beliefs, rarely change their minds. Indeed, they often double down on those beliefs, as was the case for the significant number of people who believe Obama is not a U.S. citizen, or is a Muslim, or that Bush deliberately lied to get us into the Iraq war. When showed apparently convincing evidence disproving these claims, many people remain committed to their original beliefs. As Brendan Nyhan, who has done extensive research on this phenomenon, concludes in comments regarding Obama-as-Muslim myth, “If people don’t want to accept the evidence, it’s more likely to provoke rather than correct. It’s really very hard to correct these things.”
I found out how correct Nyhan is when I tried to reason with Joe Sixpack, a fervent Colts fan and diehard believer that the evidence shows Brady is guilty as sin. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, sanitized for public consumption.
Joe Sixpack: “I’m sick of hearing you Brady-fanboys defending a cheater based on the judge’s decision. The truth is he said nothing in his ruling regarding the fact that 11 of the 12 Patriot footballs measured at halftime of the AFC game against the Colts came in at 2 P.S.I. below the league’s mandated minimum ball pressure. All the judge did was scold the league for mishandling the investigation. How do you explain the deflated footballs? They didn’t lose air by themselves!”
Me: “You must be referring to Chris Mortensen’s initial report last January for ESPN, three days after the AFC championship game, based on unnamed sources, that the Patriots’ footballs were severely underinflated by more than 2 P.S.I., while none of the Colts’ balls were. In fact, as Mortensen somewhat belatedly (and defensively) admitted, the numbers he quoted are incorrect. As reported in the NFL-sponsored Wells Report, which came out in May, the referees used two different gauges to measure the footballs’ air pressure at halftime of the championship game. Based on one gauge, none of the Patriots’ footballs were more than 1.6 PSI below the minimum. One was at exactly 1.6 pounds below, while six were between 1.0 and 1.5 pounds under the minimum, and three others were between 0.5 and 1.0 pounds under the minimum. One was only 0.2 P..S.I. below the minimum. The second gauge gave slightly different readings, with one Patriot football exactly 2 P.S.I. under league minimum standards, and the rest from 1.65 to .65 P.S.I. below the legal limit. Mortensen simply got the story wrong. However, for reasons that are unknown, the NFL didn’t bother to correct the Mortensen’s report during the more than three months between the initial inaccurate report and the subsequent release of the correct numbers. During that time, the myth that 11 of 12 Patriots footballs were 2 P.S.I. below league standards took hold.”
Joe Sixpack: “Whatever. You are simply evading the most important point by trying to confuse me with numbers. No matter the final readings, the fact is that most of the Patriots’ footballs, as measured by league referees at halftime, were below the league minimum, while the Colts’ balls were not. That’s clear proof that someone deflated those balls.”
Me: “Actually it’s anything but. To begin, we don’t know what the starting inflation levels of those footballs were, since the referees did not actual record the initial pressure readings. Given that the league had been tipped off by the Colts that the Patriots were allegedly underinflating balls, this oversight is hard to understand, and it has helped fuel the internet rumors that this was all a league-sanctioned sting, but that’s another matter. Let us, for the sake of argument, take the word of the league officials that all the Patriots’ balls measured at 12.5 P.S.I. before the game, at the low end of the legal limit and that the Colts’ balls measured about 13 P.S.I. The Wells Report concluded that when measured at halftime, the air pressure in Patriots balls had declined significantly more than had the pressure in the Colts’ footballs. But as a subsequent independent analysis showed, the Well’s statistical team made a significant mistake – they did not adjust their analysis to take into account the warming that took place while the footballs were sitting in the locker room waiting to be tested. In fact, a read of the final numbers is perfectly consistent with what one would expect with balls taken from a cold environment into a warmer one – the longer the balls are in the warmer climate before being tested, the less air pressure they seemed to lose relative to the original readings. Once you take this into account, and note that the Colts’ balls were tested after the Patriots’, and after sitting in the warm room for 15 minutes or more, there is no statistical difference in the decline of the air pressure of the Colts’ and Patriots’ balls.”
Joe Sixpack: “Wait. Are you trying to say there’s no evidence that any of the Patriots’ balls were manually deflated after the referees’ initial measurements?”
Me: “That’s exactly what the data suggests. Even the Wells’ investigators acknowledge, in their report, ‘[o]ur scientific consultants informed us that the data alone did not provide a basis for them to determine with absolute certainty whether there was or was not tampering, as the analysis of such data is ultimately dependent upon assumptions and information that is uncertain.’ As it turns out, they made one important incorrect assumption.”
Joe Sixpack (long pause): “Well then what about all the text messages in which Brady is telling the ball attendants to remove air pressure? Why would he send those?”
Me: “The Wells Report found no such messages. It does describe an exchange between the equipment attendants recounting Brady’s unhappiness after a Jets game in October, 2014, when balls were found to be overinflated to 16 P.S.I., which is above the league maximum. Another exchange between the two (not from Brady) from before the season started, has one of the attendants describing himself as “the deflator” although it is not clear from the context to what this refers. But, as Judge Berman took pains to point out in his ruling, there is no direct evidence linking Brady to any scheme to deflate footballs. This is particularly true when it comes to text messages – there is no smoking email.”
Joe Sixpack: “Well, of course there’s not. Brady refused the league’s request to hand over his cellphone. Instead he destroyed it! Why do that if he’s innocent?”
Me: “Contrary to popular perception, the league never requested Brady’s actual cellphone, and they never said they would punish him for not turning over email texts. Again, don’t take my word for it. Here are Wells’ direct words as quoted in the Judge’s ruling: “I want to be clear– I did not tell Mr. Brady at any time that he would be subject to punishment for not giving– not turning over the documents [emails and texts]. I did not say anything like that.” On the advice of the player’s association legal counsel Brady did initially refuse to turn over his private emails, in part because the Wells investigators already had access to the phone records of the two attendants at the heart of the investigation, including their exchanges with Brady. However, when league officials subsequently told him he would be accused of not cooperating with the league, Brady agreed to turn over the numbers of all the people he contacted on his cell phone for the period under investigation. Most people missed this point, because it’s hidden in a footnote in the Wells Report. See footnote 11 on page 12 which states: “After the hearing and after the submission of post-hearing briefs, Mr. Brady’s certified agents offered to provide a spreadsheet that would identify all of the individuals with whom Mr. Brady had exchanged text messages during [the relevant time] period; the agents suggested that the League could contact those individuals and request production of any relevant text messages that they retained… .” So, Brady’s text messages were made available to the NFL, if the league had wanted to pursue the matter.
Joe Sixpack: “I don’t get it. If what you say is true, then why do polls show that most people believe Brady is guilty? They can’t all be wrong!”
Me: “This is where the political science comes in! Most people first heard of “Deflategate” through the initial erroneous reports by Mortensen, and others, which were recirculated in high-profile discussions by supposed experts like ex-quarterback Mark Brunell and football beat writers who peddled the idea that Brady was guilty. The same process occurred with the first stories about Brady’s destroyed cell phone – initial news reports simply said he destroyed the phone before going to a hearing with Goodell, without providing any context to that decision. Given the Patriots’ previous track record – see Spygate – and the fact that they have spent a decade beating up on most fans’ favorite team, much of the public was already predisposed to want to believe the team’s success owed something to cheating. The initial reports by ‘experts’, erroneous as they were, gave them ample reason to believe there was solid evidence supporting what they already wanted to believe. Alas, as research by Nyhan and others show, strong partisans who are predisposed to hate the Patriots are not going to let contravening evidence change strongly–held beliefs. Instead, they are more likely to dig in their heels and cling to their beliefs, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Brady cheated. Obama is a Muslim. Bush deliberately lied to get us into the Iraq war. Once these ideas take hold, they are almost impossible to eradicate, no matter how convincing the counterevidence.”
Joe Sixpack: (Silence.)
Me: “The bottom line is that based on the evidence presented in the NFL’s own Wells’ report, any reasonable person would conclude that there is no direct proof linking Tom Brady to any scheme to deflate footballs below the legal limit. It’s no wonder that an independent judge, when reviewing the NFL’s case, dismissed Brady’s suspension while going as far as the law allowed in an arbitration case in saying that the evidence didn’t support the NFL’s charges. In short, I don’t believe any person who looks at the evidence objectively can believe it shows that Brady is guilty of deflating footballs, in no small part because there’s no evidence the footballs were ever purposively deflated.”
Joe Sixpack (after long, long, long silence): “The Patriots are known cheaters. Their coach Bill ‘Belicheat’ has been caught before – remember Spygate? Brady is a liar. He deliberately ordered those balls deflated. And you are a (expletive deleted) know-nothing (expletive deleted) Brady fan-boy from (expletive deleted) New England who wouldn’t recognize the truth if it hit you square in your ugly (expletive delated) face.”
Me (after audible sigh): “Ok. Maybe we should discuss polling data? Did you know Hillary’s untrustworthy ratings probably won’t matter this election?”
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