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William Ockham

I'm not a linguist, but I think I can explain what you're missing here. First, the most important background detail here is that the heavy favorite (Kansas) for the tournament lost in round two. None of the experts saw that coming. In fact, this autistic kid maybe the only person who predicted it. That's the key to the story. If Kansas had won their game, there would be hundreds, if not thousands of people with perfect brackets.

Next, you're missing the "Rain Man" connection. That movie established the popular link in people's minds between autism and the older notion of the idiot savant. In the movie, Dustin Hoffman's autistic character performs all sorts of "magical" feats with numbers. Since then, any story that features an autistic person (the younger the better, but that's a generalized feature of feel-good stories) doing something amazing and at least vaguely math-related will get a lot of attention.

All this is an example of how stories that reinforce certain narratives (modern day myths, really) get a lot of play and attention. The Language Log folks (really linguists, btw) are usually all over this. I strongly suggest you send them a link this post and see what happens.


William: I can't agree with your first point. Of all the people participating in brackets everywhere, there's got to be many more than one person who picked Kansas as an upset.

The Rain man is proof that it's about the "autistic teen", and it doesn't really matter whether it's a perfect bracket or some other magical feat. Depending on whether you believe in causation or correlation, the Rain Man scenario is one of my first four scenarios. So we are agreeing on this point.

I sent a note to the Language Log folks, and also to James since after all he is the linguist!

William Ockham

espn.com says that there were 4.78 million brackets submitted to their site and none of them were perfect by the end of the second round. This kid's bracket isn't perfect anymore, apparently.

John Duns Scotus

The kid's bracket is clearly a hoax. His bracket was using a program that does not "lock" the brackets at the start of the tourney. As William points out, there are 5M brackets on espn.com , even the best one through 2 rounds (48 games) misses at least 4 or 5 games. 2^48 ~= 2.5 x 10^14. Even with 4-8 first and second round (not this year with Kansas though) gimmees, you're still talking astronomical odds.


John: That's why I stayed away from talking about odds and so on. Any realistic odds computation has to include behavioral assumptions, similar to what William pointed out above, such as the fact that there will be many fewer brackets predicting upsets. Plus, as you pointed out, there is also fraud.

The point I raised transcends all that, though. Andrew gets it.

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