[In spite of appearances, this post is not about football. In spite of appearances, Friday’s post will also not be about football either.]
“Look, I’m not a scientist” – Bill Belichick
I tried — I really, really tried — to stay out of the media feeding frenzy that followed the NFL’s announcement a week ago Monday that it was investigating the under-inflation of footballs used by the New England Patriots in the first half of the AFC Championship game. But the incident itself, followed by a flood of increasingly idiotic commentary, pushed a lot of my buttons. No button was more repeatedly mashed down than the big red button labeled “Science” that I keep near me at all times.
Let me begin by echoing Belichick, himself, and state for the record that I am not a scientist. I do not hold a science degree. I dropped out of the one and only Physics class I took in College. I have a long, uninterrupted record of academic mediocrity in various Science classes stretching all the way back to junior high school. If you’re looking for credentials, you won’t find them here.
But when those with credentials start invoking “science” without doing any of the heavy lifting that science requires, and when feckless sportswriters passing as journalists make no attempt to identify and understand even the most basic scientific issues, well, I have a problem with that. It’s the same problem I have with anyone who takes some scrap of scientific knowledge — the result of a single experiment, say — and derives sweeping conclusions about the way the world works. These days, when I read some new piece of research that has been twisted to prove that five-minute workouts are as effective as hour-long workouts, or that kale will add years to your life, I fume.
The problem is that we want to believe things, especially things that fit neatly into our existing belief system. When we encounter new information, we give it more credit when it supports — or at least doesn’t contradict — our preconceived notions. And sometimes we want to believe things just because it’s more comfortable to believe than to have doubts, more convenient to accept a conclusion than to continue testing and poking it to see if it holds up.
I’m prone to this myself. We’re ALL prone to this. Even scientists are prone to this.
Many years ago, I read a book that had a huge influence on the way I thought about science and the scientific method. The book was “The Mismeasure of Man” by Stephen Jay Gould, and it set out to chronicle the history of attempts to measure human intelligence. The book began with a brief history of craniometry (assessing cognitive capacity based on skull size), summarized the invention of “IQ” as a measure of intelligence, and surveyed numerous developments in using standardized testing to rank people from most intelligent to least. It would be easy to focus on the ludicrous or horrific elements of this history, the racism, the sexism, the xenophobia, for example. But Gould has another critical point to make. Some of the worst offenses to science were committed by the BEST scientists of their day. On encountering data that didn’t support their fundamental view of the world, they discarded or simply ignored the data, reasoning that it MUST be flawed in some way.
The physicist Richard Feynman wrote that “[in science] the most important thing is not to fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” Feynman descried what he called “pseudoscience” purveyed by self-styled experts who clothed themselves in the forms and conventions of science, but hadn’t really demonstrated anything. Feynman also wrote:
“I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to really get to know something, how careful you have to be about checking the experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it means to know something, and therefore I see how they get their information and I can’t believe that they know it, they haven’t done the work carefully, haven’t done the checks necessary, haven’t done the care necessary.”
What does any of this have to do with under-inflated footballs?
In the matter of footballs, a very large number of people decided they knew something based on the stories they heard and what they already believed — without doing the hard work, the checking, to really know. Those who already felt uneasy about or hostile towards Belichick and saw him and the Patriots as recidivist rule-breakers, pounced on every scrap of information that confirmed their bias. Those who felt loyal to the Patriots pulled out every rationalization they could think of to avoid facing the fact, as reported, that footballs from only one team were found to be under-inflated. Almost no one acknowledged that they didn’t have enough information to say anything substantive about what had happened and why it had happened.
It didn’t take the media long to start seeking out scientists to make statements about the possibility of a natural explanation. Whatever the scientists said was accepted without examination and presented without context. Therefore statements that might have been technically correct, such as the behavior of a gas in an enclosed space given a specific drop in temperature, were used, as often as not, to further the narrative that the Patriots had cheated (maybe they had intentionally heated the balls in advance, knowing they would lose pressure in the cold — those clever bastards!). There were assertions repeated endlessly that an under-inflated football is easier to throw and catch. Is that true? Who knows, but it helped sell the story. There was even an extensive statistical analysis of the Patriots uncanny ability to avoid fumbles, again, suggesting that it was just too good to be true. Surely they must be doing something illegal!
(I’m not saying I know one way or the other — the numbers on fumbles really are extraordinary and cry out for an explanation.)
The few stories that involved actual experiments with footballs were roundly ignored, because they didn’t further the morality story that the media had spent so much energy developing.
I shouldn’t have cared so much about this, but the more fevered the story, the more I sought just ONE voice who would state clearly what was known, what was unknown, and what needed to be examined further. Alas, all of my searching was in vain. The writers and broadcasters who invoked science demonstrated an ignorance of scientific method that would have been comic had it not been so discouraging. I felt especially betrayed when I saw that Bill Nye (The Science Guy) had weighed in to say that Belichick’s explanation “didn’t make sense.” Why it didn’t make sense wasn’t actually discussed, at least not on ABC. If he provided any additional comments or context, it was absent from what was presented to the public.
The gratuitous use of scientists in this story illustrates the basic problem with credentials. When an expert provides an answer to the wrong question, it is too easily taken as an answer to a different question, and then used to support a storyline that has been decided in advance. The devil can cite scripture to his purpose and broadcast news can quote scientists to further almost any narrative.
Whatever you think of him, Belichick probably came the closest of anyone to shedding light on the story by doing actual scientific grunt work. While others passed judgement or fixated on irrelevant things, the detail-obsessed coach demonstrated his compulsiveness by running a series of experiments to simulate the exact sequence of events that took place before the game. Apparently, he had a genuine interest in finding out what had happened. On Saturday, he presented his methods and his conclusions, complained about how much time he had spent on the project, invited others to replicate his findings, and then moved on, saying he wasn’t a scientist or an expert.
With that, it seemed, he let the hot air out of the story that had been artificially over-inflated for the better part of a week.