Counting words at the World Cup. A nice idea worth further testing


Team 1 determined pride together
Team 2 confident flair unconvincing
Team 3 positive effort spirited
Team 4 flair talent dark horse
Team 5 injustice defensive forceful
Team 6 powerful focused committed

[Source: BBC and Cambridge University Press ]

A computer data base has been used to produce the three words most commonly used in the media to describe each of the teams that played in the 2014 football World Cup in Brazil. The result makes an interesting point for discussion. Howeever, there is a fundamental difficulty in interpreting the data. As I found to my cost some years ago, word counts can be deceptive signals in interpreting or representing a concept.

This latest study attempted to measure the confidence in the England team and produced a Confidence Index. That particular piece of research came to an abrupt end with England’s departure from the tournament. A subsequent more ambitious study was then reported, perhaps to rescue the project until the World Cup ended.

My own work taught me how words require context for their interpretation. Some years ago, I applied a similar approach to that reported here in studying innovative companies. In my pilot study, one company stood out as receiving the highest number of mentions of the key word innovation. However, In checking for context, I noted that the company was often being criticized for its lack of innovation. I later discovered that linguistic scholars are familiar with the principle. Wittgenstein in his unique way warns us against misunderstanding the nature of ‘word games’. In short, words are dangerously misleading if they are divorced from context.

Lists of adjectives in the World Cup study need context for them to be tested. This turns out to present difficulties both practically and for various theoretical reasons to do with multiple contextual meanings of words.

If you are of such a mind, you might consider an empirical trial of the data. Take another look at the descriptions above. Two of the six teams are the two finalists in the Competition. Can you (or your football following friends) identify the adjectives associated with Argentina and Germany? You will find the ‘correct’ answers in the BBC and Cambridge University Press article

The exercise may help you decide what sort of ‘truth claims’ you are prepared to accept concerning the the research.

Does this matter?

It mattered to me because many popular articles present interesting ideas backed up by claims of the authority of the researchers. I encourage my students to be vigilant and consider how the research might be tested easily. Too many of my students take for granted the reliability of claims made of findings that are ‘scientifically established’. Even without the prior work in a similar area, I would have looked for ways of testing the claims. The testing method I suggest can be made more rigorous, but serves to illustrate my point.

Research note:

In my research, word counts were used to assess innovation performance of businesses. The results were published in 1998 in The International Journal of Innovation Research ‘Benchmarking the creative organisation: Preliminary results from a database investigation’ I counted entries referring to innovation in the index pages of leading textbooks to obtain my word counts. The method and results were elaborated in an article published in The Encyclopedia of Creativity.

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One Response to Counting words at the World Cup. A nice idea worth further testing

  1. This article was written and published because of its topicality. Also because it may reinforce messages to MBS Worldwide students on workshops around the world who are are at present studying news articles and ‘testing’ their claims.

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