Four Examples of Science Ignorance in Sports
Science illiteracy and ignorance is rampant in society, so it's no wonder that it also plagues the sports that we play. Here are four prime examples in which logic, evidence, and reason goes unheeded in our favorite physical pastimes.
1. Football teams should never punt. In the upper levels of competitive football, teams almost always elect to punt the ball on fourth down rather than go for it, but this conservative choice is very likely costing them wins. When economist David Romer at UC-Berkeley studied six years worth of data from NFL games, he found that teams should almost always go for it on fourth down when the distance required for a first down is four yards or less. Moreover, failing to do so could cost teams an average of 1.5 wins per year! This probably sounds like blasphemy to ardent football fans, but it actually makes intuitive sense. A punt is essentially guaranteed to lose a team possession of the ball, but running a play on fourth down at least gives the offense a decent chance to stay on the field.
2. Ladies should be allowed to play just as long. In many sports – notably basketball and tennis – women play for shorter durations than men, but these disparities aren't based on evidence. Female collegiate athletes don't seem to suffer from statistically higher injury rates than males. Moreover, a recent study showed that women appear to have superior muscle endurance to men.
3. The NFL's CTE denial. In a recently published study of 111 donated brains from deceased NFL players, 110 of them were found to show signs of chronic traumatic encephelopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. The study was affected by selection bias, of course, meaning that the rate of CTE among NFL players is not nearly as high as the results indicate. However, the study clearly shows that the repeated blows to the head suffered by NFL players can damage players' brains.
There was strong evidence to support this conclusion years ago, but many NFL executives, owners, and physicians have instead elected to deny or obfuscate the science. Even as late as last year, the NFL's Dr. Mitchel Berger denied any link between football and degenerative brain disorders. Multiple team owners, including Jerry Jones and Bob McNair, have also dismissed safety concerns. The denial is reminiscent of Big Tobacco's. The NFL is worried that their product will no longer be palatable if players and fans are aware of the sport's very real and debilitating risks.
True, there needs to be more and better research on CTE, specifically with age and activity-matched control subjects, but refusing to listen to scientists is a bad place to start.*
4. Regression to the mean. An athlete's career is full of ups and downs. Sometimes they perform well, other times not so well. Oftentimes, these ebbs and flows can simply be attributed to sheer luck. However, in sports, we tend to create causal stories for everything. Take a coach's feedback, for example. It is human nature to admonish a player for a poor performance and praise a player for a good one. In both situations, the player will most likely return to their average performance afterwards. So a player will improve after a poor performance and regress after a good one. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman pointed out in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, this means that "we are statistically punished for being nice and rewarded for being nasty."
The tendency for a player to return to their average level of performance is regularly ignored. After NFL running back Adrian Peterson nearly broke the single-season rushing record in 2012, many sportscasters were predicting another standout performance in the following year. In fact, he fell back to his average, as one should expect.
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