In Tim Blair’s latest column he takes a swing at scientists:

I did, however, turn up an intriguing claim, in a non-specialist journal — possibly an old encyclopaedia. There it was stated that cricket balls do not — could not — swing or swerve en route from bowler to batsman.

This did not tally with my own experience, in which balls regularly swung past the bat, striking either the stumps or me … Scientists, according to that half-remembered item, believed what I saw as swing was an optical illusion. …

Yet in the US, a similar science-based belief – that baseballs don’t curve – persisted decades longer.

Ten years ago physics professor Peter J. Brancazio, of Brooklyn College in New York, dealt with the matter in a Popular Mechanics article: “For years, many scientists believed that the curveball was an optical illusion. As we shall see, this is not true.” There followed much science talk demonstrating what any baseballer could tell you — that curveballs do, in fact, curve.

Which was a little different from what you might have heard from schoolteachers in decades prior. As science journalist Jennifer Ouellette wrote last year: “Heck, some of us are old enough to remember teachers who would swear the curve ball was just an optical illusion.”

The non-swinging cricket ball, the non-curving curveball . . . to argue against these claims back then would have been to argue against the consensus.

Well, no. Immediately after the sentences Blair quotes Brancazio writes:

In fact, physicists have long been aware of the fact that a spinning ball curves in flight, going back to Isaac Newton, who wrote a paper on the subject in 1671. In 1852, the German physicist Gustav Magnus revived the topic when he demonstrated in an experiment that when a spinning object moves through a fluid it experiences a sideways force. This phenomenon, now known as the Magnus Effect, is the fundamental principle behind the curved flight of any spinning ball.

and later:

It seems pretty clear that no right-minded physicist would ever argue that a curveball is an illusion.

So the scientific consensus has been that spinning balls curve and its been that way since 1852. There are some skeptics (that’s the term the Popular Mechanics article uses) who don’t (or didn’t) accept the consensus, but according to Brancazio the skeptics are not expert in physics. Kind of like the way people who won’t accept the scientific consensus on global warming tend to be those without expertise in climate science.

Far from curve balls being a case where the consensus was wrong, it’s another case where the consensus was right and the skeptics were wrong. And there was conclusive proof back in 1959:

For the better part of the 20th century, the curve ball was a hotly debated topic among fans and players. Many dismissed the ball’s sideward movement as an illusion. But Dizzy Dean, the legendary St. Louis Cardinal pitching ace during the 1930s, knew better. “Ball can’t curve?” countered Dean, leader of the Cards’ famed Gashouse Gang. “Shucks, get behind a tree and I’ll hit you with an optical illusion.”

In 1959, renowned scientist Lyman Briggs, who served as the third director of today’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, vindicated Dean and other masters of the mound. He did it with the aid of several Washington Senator pitchers and a wind tunnel he built in 1918 for pioneering research on aviation aerodynamics. Four decades later, the then-retired Briggs demonstrated that a thrown ball can curve up to 17 1/2 inches over the 60 feet 6 inches that separate pitcher and batter. The unraveling of the mystery of the curve–the ball’s spin, rather than speed, causes it to break–captured national interest and was reported in papers from coast to coast. For posterity, Briggs published the results of his work in the American Journal of Physics.

Blair’s next example of scientists getting things wrong so therefore they must be wrong about global warming involves me:

I sometimes correspond with a computer scientist who fancies himself an expert on statistics and such. In 2004 he actually bet me $50 that Democrat candidate John Kerry would win that year’s US election. Imagine — a bright, scientific-minded fellow, presumably aware Kerry needed to win at least one southern state to claim the presidency, betting real money on a Democrat victory.

I must confess that I was not aware that Kerry had to win at least one southern state to claim the presidency. In my universe Kerry would have won if he won Ohio. Perhaps that’s a southern state in Blair’s universe. More to the point, I didn’t claim that there was a scientific consensus that Kerry would win, so this isn’t relevant.

Blair then tells us:

Global warming, on the other hand, is merely predicted.

No, it has happened and more is predicted. Just like scientists predict that a spinning ball will curve tomorrow.

And not particularly accurately. British newspapers earlier this year were excited by the prospect of a searingly hot summer, thus proving global warming was on course to destroy us all. A few weeks later — and to bring this column full-circle to a cricketing conclusion — England defeated the West Indies in the second Test at Headingley on a day the BBC reported was the coldest on record for a Test match in the UK; the last Windies wicket fell as temperatures dropped to 7.4c.

Err, one cold day in spring does not prove that the summer won’t be hot. And the scientists aren’t predicting that there will be no more cold days as a result of global warming, just that there will be less of them.


  1. #1 SmellyTerror
    June 2, 2007

    Damn it, I missed the stupidity tag, and came in looking for something about pinata tactics. Oh well, seeing you beat the candy out of an idiot was just as fun.

  2. #2 coturnixc
    June 2, 2007

    Curve balls also can be seen in soccer. I could not find it on YouTube, but the TV slow-motion shot of the goal (I think against Spain) at the 1990 World Cup by Stojkovic (YUG) was a perfect example. It was a corner shot and the ball curved into the field and then out again into the goal.

  3. #3 natural cynic
    June 2, 2007

    I could also remind coturnix of the term “Bend it Lile Beckham”. One of the things that is noticeable about a curve ball is that it also drops faster than expected. Beckham’s free kick goal in the last WC seems to show that. Corner kicks show curving even better.

    An absolutely obvious example of how much a baseball can curve to the side is a fly ball hit down the foul line. Some of it is illusion because the batter hits the ball in front of the plate, however there is a pronounced curve towads foul territory. A hit along the foul line will be made with the bat perpernicular to the line and the ball will rebound from the bat with a counterclockwise spin along the left field line and a clockwise spin along the right field line [as seen from above].

  4. #4 grammar nazi
    June 2, 2007

    “… just that there will be less of them.”

    You mean “fewer of them”.

  5. #5 frankis
    June 2, 2007

    Grammar nazi (aka Tim Blair I’m pretty certain), see if you can figure out how Tim’s use of “less” could in fact be quite grammatically correct. Would it make grammatical sense for instance to say something like “today was less cold than yesterday”?

  6. #6 mark
    June 3, 2007

    Gosh, Blair’s column is a terrible piece of writing. Arguments need to be more than just a series of tenuous analogies and glaring non-sequiturs. To go from an urban myth about cricket balls to climatology shows someone who can’t distinguish intellectually between journalistic rhetorical devices and rational, empirical argument. And that’s the thing – Blair doesn’t even know that he is appropriating a misunderstanding of Thomas Kuhn’s critique of science and ending up as anti-science, anti-rational and anti-modern. Blair is another right-wing postmodernist. Indeed, he’s a real Foucaultian. Knowledge is just a function of power, not an objective process of rational inquiry into empricial reality.

  7. #7 Ian Gould
    June 3, 2007

    You could use the exact same “logic” to disprove evolution; the bacterial theory of disease and the existence of atoms.

    Perhaps those will be Tim B.’s next targets.

  8. #8 Rob
    June 3, 2007

    For those not familiar with baseball, curveballs don’t actually curve horizontally, they curve vertically. They are thrown to stay level for about 59 feet before they drop quickly over that last foot. Sliders are the ones that break horizontally.

  9. #9 Alex
    June 3, 2007

    For those unfamiliar with cricket, the ones that are supposedly scientifically impossible are swingers, which curve laterally through the air. (As opposed to seamers, fast or medium pace balls that change direction laterally on striking the ground, or spinners, slow but rapidly spinning balls that strike the ground and deviate laterally due to the spin.)

    The traditional explanation for swing is that it’s to do with one side of the ball being kept smooth and the other rough, with the seam vertical at delivery and the smooth side on the outside of the desired curve. Hence differential drag, hence swing.

    However, I’ve always been sceptical about this – can it really make that much difference? – and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that spin through the air was responsible.

  10. #10 z
    June 3, 2007

    Half a millenium into the “enlightenment” and the concept of refering to primary sources still hasn’t penetrated. It is with no small measure of heavy-heartedness that I note that historically, enlightenment, knowledge, etc. of the physical world in the scientific sense has both waxed and waned over the centuries, rather than marching forward monotonically; and I fear we are living through an era which demonstrates how said knowledge, and in fact the very concept of scientific inquiry and objective methodology, can be lost.

    Of course, lucky for all of us, faith-based morality has made such steady progress over the past 5000 years that we can well afford to rely on it instead, rather than this silly “science” stuff.

  11. #11 Sam Q
    June 3, 2007

    Grammar “nazis” are irritating.

    Here’s a good article on the origins of that dumb rule.

  12. #12 mark
    June 3, 2007

    Amen to that, z.

  13. #13 Steve Bloom
    June 3, 2007

    I can’t answer the question posed at the start of the post, but what does seem clear is that as Tim B. spins up it become harder and harder to distinguish between his head and his butt. Come to think of it, though, that’s also a bit of an issue when he’s at rest.

  14. #14 Dano
    June 4, 2007

    I second z’s missive. Reminds me of Vonnegut: Mother earth: we could have saved her but we were too damned cheap and lazy.



  15. #15 Adam
    June 4, 2007

    Alex, my recollection is that it is also the angle of the seam that helps. The ball is delivered with the seam slightly off centre, so there’s a ridge on one side or the other two. The ball looked to swing when I used to bowl it (all those years ago) but I couldn’t say it *wasn’t* an optical illusion. It certainly looks to swing in test matches too, in slow motion.

    I always thought the “myth” part was the difference that cloud cover was supposed to make? In that cloudier conditions help the ball move more than in sunny conditions.

    I could of course look it up,…

  16. #16 Dano
    June 4, 2007

    I used to be a baseball pitcher. My ball seemed to move more in humid conditions, & clouds generally indicate more humidity in the air. I also liked to pitch with the wind in my face, too.



  17. #17 Pieter B
    June 4, 2007

    I remember the 1959 study somewhat — IIRC, it was reported in Sports Illustrated under the title “The Hell it Don’t Curve.”

    I also take some issue with Dano’s recollection; again IIRC, higher humidity makes the air less dense, not more, so his breaking stuff should not have worked as well — however, cooler air is more dense, so the “cloud effect” on his curve could be due to that. That pitching into the wind will result in more lively action is of course a given.

  18. #18 oconnellc
    June 4, 2007

    I think part of the problem is using athletes individual “feelings” about something… Take the use of a corked bat. That has been studied several times and proven that a ball doesn’t spend enough time in contact with the bat for it to make a difference. However, hitters try again and again… How many batters have sworn that a fastball actually rose? However, on a humid day, a pitcher may be able to “warm up” better and therefore have “better stuff”. So, his curve might actually curve more on a humid day.

  19. #19 Dano
    June 4, 2007

    The ‘warming up’ better is absolutely right. It’s also about how much pressure you can apply with one finger and grip the ball. It’s easier to grip a ball on a humid day. But the rest isn’t well-served by The Google.

    Regardless of kinesiology and comfort, balls do curve and balls do rise.

    Since your ball rises and curves by a particular amount, you endeavor to outguess the hitter so s/he can’t look for something to be prepared to have a better chance for good contact.

    To this end, you throw your fastball with pressure with one or the other finger to make it ‘tail’, or you throw your fastball such that 2 or 4 seams show – 4 seams makes it rise. My 4-seam fastball was not thrown from ~chest or below without a better chance of bad things happening (a hint for baseball players), and my 2-seam was the opposite and my best pitch when thrown gripping the 2 seams either way and either using pressure on my middle finger for a tail or dragging my thumb for a sink.

    My point? Google doesn’t have a wisdom button.



  20. #20 Bill O'Slatter
    June 4, 2007

    The sad thing is is that this constitutes proof in Blair’s world. I think the best way of understanding Blair is a boofheaded 12 year old with advanced writing skills. His opposition to the idea of human caused globlal warming is that it might require cars to slow down or even worse abolish the car as we know it. ( That would be bad , man)

  21. #21 Kilo
    June 9, 2007

    Cricket balls swing due to a difference in wind resistance when new, and if you are exceptionally skilled, weight when old.
    There is no sideways spinning involved in fast bowling in cricket, so any familiarity with the game would tell you that’s irrelevant.

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