Unless you’ve been marooned on a desert island for the last couple of weeks– or, you know, foreign— you’re probably at least dimly aware that the Super Bowl is this evening. This is the pinnacle of the football season, and also the cue for lots of people to take to social media proclaiming their contempt for the Super Bowl, NFL football, or just sports in general. This can occasionally be sort of amusing, as with Kyle Whelliston’s “Last Man” game, but usually, it’s just kind of tedious. The AV Club has pretty much the only necessary response, namely that Nobody Cares That You Don’t Care About the Super Bowl.
The public disdain for sports takes a lot of predictable forms– you can’t get through February without somebody dragging out professional wet blanket Noam Chomsky to claim that organized athletics is inherently fascist. The core of the anti-sports argument is generally pretty similar, namely that athletes are unthinking imbeciles and fans are worse. Sadly, snide comments about the intelligence of people who watch or play sports are particularly common from scientists, apparently because we’re doomed to play out tired nerds-vs.-jocks stereotypes for all time.
It’s particularly sad to hear this from scientists, though, because at a very deep level, sports are science. In fact, there are very few activities as ruthlessly and immediately scientific as head-to-head team sports.
I’m not just talking about the fact that there’s a lot of physics involved in the game of football– though as an AMO guy, I’ll use the “featured image” to plug former DAMOP chair Tim Gay’s book on the physics of football (excerpt). And I don’t even mean the stat-geekery that surrounds modern sports, even though the average yelling-head show on ESPN will demonstrate a greater level of statistical sophistication than most of what you’ll find on CNN. I’m talking about the process of science.
This is, as you probably know, the whole point of my next book: Science is best understood as a process, not a collection of facts, and it’s a process that’s used in all sorts of everyday activities. Including sports of all kinds.
Head-to-head team sports– by which I mean games like football (either kind), basketball, rugby, baseball, etc. where you take the field and compete directly against another player, as opposed to individual sports where you compete against a clock (most racing sports), pre-determined external standard (golf, target shooting), or an arbitrary and possibly corrupt judging process (gymnastics, figure skating)– are among the most scientific of all common activities. Every play of every game recapitulates the process of science in miniature– each player goes into the play with a theory of what will happen, and immediately puts that theory to an objective test. Each player has a pre-determined plan based on a mental model of what their opponent is going to do– if I go this way, he’ll do this, then I can cut back this way, and catch the ball– and they have to refine that on the fly. And between plays, further refinements are made based on what just happened, setting up the next plan, and so on.
That’s science, right there. Science is a process of looking at the world, thinking of a model of how things work, testing that model by experiment and observation, and telling everyone the outcome. Team sports hit all those elements: players carefully observe everything that their opponents do, and develop mental models to predict that behavior. Then they put those models to the test, and refine as needed. And the whole process takes place out in public view, where everybody can see the results.
Far from the stupid and unscientific muddle that it’s often portrayed as, the Super Bowl is a grand display of science in action. The team that wins will not necessarily be the best athletes, but they will certainly be the best scientists— the ones with the keenest observations, most accurate mental models, and most successful refinements in response to new experimental tests.
This is not to say that there aren’t dumb elements to the whole spectacle– the commentary, for example, and the halftime show. And there are plenty of ancillary things to hate about the game– the ultraviolence, the league’s cavalier approach to player safety, the ludicrous sums of money sloshing around. All those things are fair targets for criticism.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s stupid just because it involves large, sweaty men in tight pants. What goes on on the field, on the sidelines, and in the locker rooms tonight will be one of the most spectacular displays of scientific thinking in action that you’ll see all year. We should celebrate it as such.