Dear Goers with the Gut,

Ahhhh, the old gut- not just a place for digesting food or housing your microbiome. The guts were long considered to be the seat of various emotions by various civilizations. The Greeks thought that the bowels housed the more passionate and fiery emotions; the ancient Hebrews believed the stomach and intestines were the home of tender and sympathetic feelings. Modern science relocated the locus of emotion to the brain, of course, but discoveries in recent years are backtracking on that just a bit. The digestive tract has more neurons than any organ other than your brain, and it certainly seems as if the microbes in your gut have more influence over your state of mind than we had previously ever thought possible.

Nowadays "the gut" is used as metaphor for an instinctual, subconscious, untraceable deciding faculty, standing in sharp contrast to the analytical prefrontal cortex, which does its reasoning logically, transparently, and in the full light of day.

I love the gut. I go with the gut from time to time myself, but I find it odd how and when most people choose to delegate their decisions to the trusty old gut. There's a time and a place for the gut, but there's also a time and a place to not go with the gut, and many people don't seem to know the difference.

Two years ago my office started a March Madness bracket pool. If you've been living under a rock (or in your parents' basement playing Magic The Gathering) for the last twenty years, here's what one of those brackets looks like.

You try to predict which NCAA basketball teams will win and move on in this elimination tournament, round after round, all the way to the final championship game. You get points for each correct guess, and the points are weighted so that correct guesses in later rounds are worth more than correct guesses in the early rounds. Little known fact: this seemingly innocent fortune-telling game was originally developed and used in order to trick witches into revealing themselves so they could be subjected to trial by ordeal. To this day, correctly guessing the outcome of all 63 games would result in arrest and interrogation.

The eight or so people in our office pitch in $10 each, fill out a bracket with their win/loss guesses, and submit it. The person with the most correct guesses/points at the end of the tournament gets the $80 pot.

Now this seems like a betting game that would favor people who know a lot about college basketball, but (confession time) I've been living in my parents' basement the last twenty years playing Magic The Gathering.

You'd think I'd have no shot at this. One of the guys in our office is an ex-college basketball player, plenty of the people in the office actually enjoy watching college basketball, and I haven't so much as seen a game on TV in over a decade. I vaguely remember something about Duke being a good team back when I was a teenager. UCONN is the name of a team, right? UCONN Ducks I want to say. That's probably wrong.

Anyway, I'm fairly suggestible and I want my coworkers to like me, so I decided to join in on this and slapped $10 and my big, swinging, sports-knowledge nuts on the figurative table. Honestly, I thought I was fucked, until I got one of those printed-out brackets in my hands, and I noticed something funny. The March Madness tournament is played at the end of the college basketball season, and the teams are ranked according to their performance in the regular season leading up to the tournament. The teams are ranked by experts based upon strength of schedule, win/loss ratio, etc, and the rankings ARE ON THE BRACKET.

It took me about three minutes to fill out my bracket. I picked every favorite to win... and then I was done. I've put more thought into whether I should take a shit in the subway bathroom or try to hold it until I get home than I did filling out this bracket. Meanwhile, my colleagues labored over theirs. They researched and argued and debated. They speculated about lineups and match-ups and injuries. They discussed previous games and recent seasons, they penciled in names and then erased them furiously, they waited until the last second to turn in their brackets, just in case fresh information came to light in the hours leading up to the tournament.

And I get it. For serious college basketball fans, this is the fun part. But it wasn't the productive part. I've won the pool both years now. I've ascended to dominance like the planeswalker Nicol Bolas when he munched on the maelstrom of Alara.

After winning it the first year, I thought for sure someone would copy my simple strategy the second time around. Nope. And here's the thing- even the colleagues who are as clueless as I am about college basketball insist upon ignoring the expert rankings and going with their gut. Based upon what criteria? I have no idea. I think some of them pick their winners based upon jersey color or which team has the cooler name. UCONN Ducks. Sounds like a winner.

Unless you're somehow privy to information or experience that the expert rankers are not, substituting their judgement for your own is only going to degrade the quality of your predictions. The bracket is like a test with the correct answers already filled in, from a statistical perspective. There is literally zero reason to change any of them unless you're planning on Tonya Harding-ing the best team's star player.

I know what you're thinking- "But there are huge upsets every year! All of the favorites never win through as predicted."

And that's true. There are upsets every year. But you're not going to pick them. You're going to predict upsets that don't happen and you're going to miss the ones that actually do. I don't know what the odds are that a perfect, no-upset tournament would ever take place, but however infinitesimally low those odds may be, the odds of the tournament playing out according to your randomly assigned upsets is even lower. Granted, you would appear to be a genius if it ever did happen, but the key word here is "appear."

Like I said. I get it. The office pool is about fun and people aren't necessarily doing everything in their power to win. It's a token sum of money, it's about bragging rights, and you can't brag about blindly following the statistically-dominant strategy. No one thumps their chest about being sensible. My big, swinging, sports-knowledge nuts are steeping in figurative cash tea on account of all the winnings, but no one thinks I'm a college basketball guru, or even a witch who needs to be subjected to trial by ordeal.

What I don't get is all the other more important stuff people go with their guts on in the face of better information.

Seeing as November 8th is rapidly approaching, let's start with elections. My gut kind of agrees with Jim Jefferies when Jim says of electing Donald Trump, "There's a little bit of me that thinks, 'Fuck it. Let's do it. Let's do it and see how crazy shit can get.'

I feel like I've got some chops when it comes to crass, political incorrectness. I'm the guy who depicted a Jesus/Mohammed hybrid, compared white people to the sickening artificial sweetness of white chocolate, and wrote of Michael Bay-

Whither shall your career progress after your mouth has been so stuffed with man meat that not one more tube steak can be rammed into your gaping cock holster? Your toothless dong drainer can only accommodate so many rock-hard rods. Only so many phalli can be hammered down your velvety throat with shims and axle grease.

So I think you know where I stand on the sliding scale between free speech and sensitivity. And in a world where dressing up as a samurai for Halloween is racist and making jokes about dongles is sexist, I hope you'll forgive me for briefly sympathizing with a man who just says whatever the fuck he wants and basically tells the P.C. police to drop trou and get fucked.

...and then my prefrontal cortex reminds me that he had his own line of Trump steaks, sold at The Sharper Image and I check the box next to "Anyone but Trump" on my ballot, because sometimes my gut is a short-sighted simpleton.

But no matter who you vote for, it's impossible to avoid listening to people opine on the election. Last week I was at a family gathering and I swear to God I overheard my uncle say, "Trump'll win it. I think he has a lot more support than people think he does. I see signs in people's yards all over town, and most of them are for Trump." 

This man has access to myriad national polls, the Iowa Electronic Polls prediction markets, the statistical voodoo of FiveThirtyEight- I mean literally some of the most accurate predictive engines the world has ever seen, but that's not good enough for this modern day Nostradamus. No, instead he's going to base his national election prediction on the yard signs he's spotted in certain neighborhoods in one small, Midwestern town. I was tempted to launch into a discussion about sample size and selection bias but then my aunt sauntered over with a couple of tortilla chips in her hand and said, "I think it looks more like Hillary might take it." 

"A voice of reason," I thought to myself. "Here's someone with an eye on the data."

"Yeah," my Aunt continued, crunching on a chip. "All the moms at Kara's daycare are saying they'll be voting for Hillary."

It's not just fantasy sports and election predictions of course. People ignore or replace good data with their own trivial anecdotes all the time- creationists, moon landing conspiracy theorists, those hemp-wearing hippies who think organic, non-GMO peas are tastier than normal peas.

There's a fine line between going with your gut and talking out your ass. The two are only a few loops of intestine removed from each other after all.

But what I find even more confusing are the situations in which most people choose not to trust their guts. There are so many subjective situations where data is meaningless and the only real guide is opinion and that juicy gut feeling. Despite that, so many people leave these subjective judgments up to so-called "experts," celebrities, and other taste-makers. Why would you let other people make your taste?

There are (not) literally gazillions of amazing bands out there, and there have been for decades. You can find them here, here, and here. Instead the vast majority of us stick to the same 100 songs for months at a time. Many of these songs suck. I know this because my gut told me. I imagine a lot of people's guts have been telling them the same thing, but they're probably too busy fretting over next year's March Madness bracket to hear their gut expressing its opinion about something it actually has expertise on.

Pam Hogg wants you to think this is haute couture. My gut begs to differ.

Here's an art exhibit I found at MoMA in NYC. It's like they're daring us to call them out on their bullshit.

Maybe the bank where I found this painting has excellent taste. Maybe they don't.

Sweet art, hospital. I'm sure this will brighten everyone's day.

My gut says this art installation is tots bogus. Maybe that makes me a close-minded philistine. Or maybe the person selecting the art for this corporate campus is a pretentious art history major who gets his rocks off on a firm pair.

Art. Fashion. Music. Literature. Cinematography.

You're a god in these subjective arenas. You can make sweeping pronouncements and authoritative decrees and no one on planet earth can tell you you're wrong, because there is no right or wrong. 

It's an open sandbox; a free-for-all Mad Max Thunderdome without rules, where bluster, braggadocio, and Nietsche's Will to Power are all that are required to be judge, jury, and executioner. How is it that so many of us get cowed by critics, experts, and advertising agencies into playing follow-the-leader for fear of being thought an uncultivated troglodyte?

More guts! ...and less guts, are what we need. It's a Serenity Prayer type of situation, I guess.

Sebastian Braff


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