Monday, August 20, 2012

Rating, Beer, and Sports

I had a bit of a "Eureka!" moment this morning. I had SportsCenter on in the background while getting ready for work, and a segment about which college football teams were the most overrated/underrated. Those words, like "hype", have become something of a dogwhistle for me, indicating that the speaker doesn't understand what words mean. This is because, like "hype", 99% of the time someone uses them in the context of beer they're using them incorrectly.

But, of course, in this context it absolutely fine. The preseason rankings just came out. No one has played a game, but teams have already been ranked according to expectations (and hype!). So of course someone can be overrated or underrated. Saying "Oklahoma is overrated" means that their final ranking will be lower than their current ranking. Same with "Oregon is underrated", that's a prediction that they will finish higher than their current placement. (Those were the talking head's picks, not mine.) And, crucially, this will be tested on the field. These teams will have to play games in order to earn their spot. My alma mater's coach has apparently said (paraphrasing) that preseason polls should be printed on toilet paper, because then they'd have a use. And he's right! Without playing any games it's an exercise in masturbation, driven by humanity's bizarre need to talk about the unknowable future. So it's clear what over/underrated means in this context, that a team won't win/lose as many games as their ranking says they should, and thus won't be ranked as high/low at the end of the season. Pointless prognostication, yes, but at least there's a clear meaning.

Now, when you say that a beer is overrated, what are you saying? The only rankings beers have are the cumulative review statistics on the review sites. Can those be wrong in any sense? I can't envision the case for this happening. All those reviews purport to do is measure what the community at large thinks of a beer. That's not something that can actually be wrong. And the rankings don't purport to tell you who is more likely to win beer judging competitions or anything like that (although they'd actually probably do a decent job on aggregate). Calling Westvleteren 12 "overrated" isn't the same thing as calling Oklahoma "overrated". Oklahoma could lose to Baylor or Iowa State or Texas. Westy 12 isn't going to be upset by Mortification or Pannepot. That doesn't make any sense! And it's not a prediction that the aggregate rating is going to go down with time, because there's no clear mechanism by which that could happen, and no clear timeline on which to judge. (And it tends not to happen, ratings are actually pretty constant through time, at least when I've looked at them.)

So what does the speaker mean? The only plausible interpretation is "I like this beer less/more than its review average would indicate." The only response to which is, "Congrats! Go review it and then shut up about it." That your tastes don't line up with a community as a whole isn't unexpected, surprising, or meaningful. As with the ridiculous overuse of "hype" in the beer scene, the use of "overrated" is clearly just an attempt to demean something. I mean, saying "Westy 12 is overrated" is clearly an insult to it and the people who like it, while "I enjoyed Westy 12 less than the aggregate scores would indicate that I should have" isn't. But when someone says the former, they really mean the latter! That's the only possible thing you can mean. (Unless, of course, you're actually claiming that there's a conspiracy to drive the ratings of something higher, which can certainly happen but is rare enough to not be worth talking about, especially not without any kind of actual statistical evidence.)

Like "hype", I'd love to see this carry-over from sports cease to be used in beer discourse. Like "hype", I'm fully aware that won't happen. Oh well.


At October 5, 2012 at 5:48 PM , Blogger Jeremy said...

College football rankings + beer tasting + exasperated but admittedly futile demands for other people to stop being wrong = a perfect Stupac blog post. :-D


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