Sports Are Science

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.

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I don't think I can agree with the statement

"The team that wins will not necessarily be the best athletes, but they will certainly be the best scientists"

Can you provide any evidence that the winning team isn't sometimes the more talented one? The way the article is written, it leads one to believe that a group of intelligent and well-coached high school students ought to beat a professional football team.

By Michael Richmond (not verified) on 02 Feb 2014 #permalink

No disagreement with your main argument. Two points, though: (1) I consider the ultraviolence (and corresponding safety issues) to be sadly central to the game, not "ancillary." (2) I suspect that many players and fans are happy to ignore the emerging data on the long-term effects of football on the brain. This ignorance is not itself a great example of scientific thinking.

By Greg Crowther (not verified) on 02 Feb 2014 #permalink

Can you provide any evidence that the winning team isn’t sometimes the more talented one?

I don't think I ruled that out. I said they won't necessarily be the best athletes, and think there are plenty of examples where teams that were regarded as less talented came out ahead-- my Giants in 2007 and 2011, for example.

There are also lots of examples, though, where the more talented team comes out on top. But I would say that those talented teams also excel at scientific thinking.

Of course, it often ends up being hard to define "talent" in a way that isn't circular...

(1) I consider the ultraviolence (and corresponding safety issues) to be sadly central to the game, not “ancillary.”

That was a case of opting for concise over precise-- probably not the best word choice, but I was writing quickly. I think some degree of violence is inherent in football, but the modern NFL game is more ultraviolent than it needs to be-- far too many flying shoulder blocks, etc. (as a former rugby player, watching the sorry excuse for tackling that dominates in the modern NFL is really annoying). You could get rid of a lot of that stuff, and make the game safer without altering its essential core.

I also agree that fans aren't always down with science, both in ignoring stuff about head injuries, and also in their embrace of a lot of ideas with basically no statistical validity. But that's very definitely separate from the game itself, and I was trying to focus on the playing.

Wow, Chomsky just made me want to go out and be a sports fan. Which is an impressive display of douchebaggery on his part, really.

That said, I think you're reaching a bit too far in several directions. Even your carefully phrased claim that the winning team necessarily has the best scientists isn't necessarily true: I think it's easy to imagine teams of sufficiently disparate talent that the best science in the world won't help. I think it's also easy to imagine factors outside the ability to model that could decide a game. Even the team with the worse scientists and/or players can still get lucky.

Which is a thin wedge to make a stronger point: I think you're claiming too much under the umbrella of "science." Often-- not always, but often enough for me to notice-- what you describe is not what I think of as specifically "science," but more generally what I would call "intelligence." (Or at least a form of intelligence; I don't want to make the same overreach.)

There are a lot of things going on in sports that damage the science model: At a trivial level, rarely do you get the chance to really repeat an experiment, because the conditions for each play are nearly unique. That doesn't prevent you from doing statistical analyses, but it's sure as hell a complicating factor.

Much more importantly, though, whoever "lost" the experiment is very highly motivated not to let the experiment repeat itself, but rather to vary their tactic. This is, to my mind, a much bigger issue with claiming that sports are science: Science usually claims no agency on the part of the universe, and when dealing with studies like sociology and psychology, one has to carefully control for the agency of the subjects-- misdirect them, conceal the study, conceal the true point of the study, etc.

In a sports match, you simply cannot do that: It is common knowledge that both sides are thinking about the other side as agents, modelling each other as deeply as possible, ad obfuscating their own strategic agency as much as is practical.

I can agree with the weak claims that this process involves science, uses science, is science-like, etc. But the strong claim, that this is science, is too much for me because it turns "science as process" into a synonym for "rational intelligence," or perhaps "game theory," which I don't think it is.

By John Novak (not verified) on 02 Feb 2014 #permalink

I will cop to phrasing this rather strongly, because I'm not above the occasional nod in the direction of click-bait. I have a blog to run and books to sell...

I agree that insuperable talent disparities are possible, and you sometimes see that in college football or games involving the most hapless NFL franchises. That's almost never the case at the championship level, though, and I was writing with tonight's Super Bowl in mind. I'm not sure anybody would give a really clear advantage to one team or the other on the basis of "talent" (scare quotes because it's a pretty nebulous term).

As to the issue of "intelligence," that term is at least as nebulous as "talent." To the extent that you can call the stuff I'm talking about merely intelligence, though, that's a fair cop. In fact, it's pretty much the whole point of the book: that the process of science is inextricably bound up with what we think of as human intelligence. Most things involving intelligent human action are using the scientific process at some level, even if they don't appear "scientific" at first glance.

Regarding the repeatability, I would agree that sports don't allow the kind of clean, repeatable experiments that you see in physics or much of chemistry. But I don't think the changing of tactics complicates matters beyond what astronomers and geologists have to deal with. Or biologists who deal with macroscopic organisms, for that matter.

Yes, there are lots of factors involved in sports that you don't directly control. But that's true of all the observational sciences, too, and I don't think it weakens their status as science. And I'm not sure that needing to model the other side as agents is fundamentally different-- it's just adding a couple of extra parameters to the model.

I don't think "intelligence" is as nebulous as you claim. I'm not using it in the sense of IQ and intelligence tests, but in the more rigorously defined neighborhood of AI, game theory, and machine learning.

I do agree that in a broader sense, intelligence and science are very closely linked, but I still don't think you can claim the whole pie on that basis.

And my point about the inherent multi-agency of sports, which is the ultimate cause of the changing tactics, is still very strong in my opinion.

To put it in perspective, consider what the practice of science would look like if we believed that the basic object of study-- the universe-- was actively intelligent, actively trying to deceive you, and actively learning your behaviour as you were learning its behaviour. I posit that under that assumption, you would be extraordinarily lucky to end up with anything resembling the practice of science as you describe it.

Changing conditions like weather or position on the field is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. But studying another intelligence, which knows it is the subject of study even while it is studying you, changes the character entirely-- changes it sufficiently that I don't think generic "science" is the right descriptor any more.

By John Novak (not verified) on 02 Feb 2014 #permalink

"Head-to-head team sports" part seemed to forget there are such things as head-to-head individual sports: tennis, boxing, wrestling, squash, fencing, badminton - need I go on? Some of these things are done by non-professional adults every day, unlike say, football. Running or swimming aren't against some pre-determined standard or the clock either. How could there be such a big blind spot?
I have a theory.

Changing conditions like weather or position on the field is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. But studying another intelligence, which knows it is the subject of study even while it is studying you, changes the character entirely– changes it sufficiently that I don’t think generic “science” is the right descriptor any more.

I agree that if you were up against an omnipotent God who could change everything about the universe, then you would have a difficult time using the process of science to construct useful models of reality. Also, if wishes were horses, we'd all be eating steak.

In a football game, or any other sport, you're up against other humans who are bound by the same rules of physics and rules of the game that you are. In which case, all having a conscious agent on the other side does is increase the complexity of the problem slightly.

If conscious actors capable of changing strategy completely invalidated systematic scientific model-making, then it would be impossible for a computer to beat a human at chess. But instead it's impossible for humans to beat the best chess computers, because the humans who designed them are able to construct reliable models of the constrained circumstances that obtain in chess, and those models are perfectly able to cope with the shifting strategies and character study of a human opponent who knows very well what he's up against.

I know a little bit about some kinds of racing (bike and car.) Those are not just against the clock races, but against your opponents. They actually fit in really well with your thesis.

You have to a make a decision on what is the fastest line on the course you can take given the conditions, the state of your equipment , your personal state, and the positions of your competitors. Further, with bike racing, it is a team sport which requires everyone to calculate what is best for the leader, not necessarily themselves. The correct racing line for me is not the same as the one for you because of a whole host of variables, but in a bike race sometimes I need to take the best line to ensure the leader wins, not me personally.

What is interesting is that, in theory, the physics is straightforward. A freshman mechanics class is all that is required. But, no one actually knows the important variables (the coefficient of friction, the power to weight ratio), they can only guess. The best guessers usually win.

I meant to hit the team vs. individual thing in the previous comment, but was cut short by an epic SteelyKid freakout. I wasn't trying to exclude individual sports (whether head-to-head or more purely individual) from the category of scientific, just to say that the additional complexity of team sports add another element. This is quasi-adapted from a couple of chapters in the book-in-progress ("quasi" because it's not like I went back to that text and re-read it, but I recreated part of the argument from memory), and as a result sort of assumes the existence of additional material that has only been read by me and the telepathic aliens monitoring my progress. Apologies.

Clearly, I should give up trying to write quick blog posts and comments during moments when the kids are briefly quiet (the original post was banged out during The Pip's afternoon nap).

"The way the article is written, it leads one to believe that a group of intelligent and well-coached high school students ought to beat a professional football team."

I'd take it to mean the opposite. Out of curiosity I looked for youth records. Usain Bolt has the 100m dash record at 9.58, best under 18 is 10.19. Pulling out random weight lifting records, I found a 17 year leads youths for a particular lift/weight class at 216 kg, while the world record is at 218 kg.

For raw physical prowess, then, it seems to follow that some 17 year-olds should be better pure athletes than some professionals. I'd suggest it's exactly this mental element than takes development. I wouldn't expect a 17 year old safety to have the same ability to read and predict the path of a receiver, or correctly model exactly when to switch from covering one receiver to another based on expected behavior from your teammate, or when to tackle with which technique. By the same token there are brilliant 17 year olds, but I don't expect them to produce phd level work without years of additional practice.

Sports commentators don't tend to talk about talent versus intelligence, but they do talk about raw talent versus performance. There are plenty of players who have the tools to excel: great strength and speed, but who can't find success in actual play.

I have to admit to being dismissive of sportsfans, but thinking of the athletes I realise I can't blame them for making a living from their bodies, when I'm in favour of legalising prostitution.

Why not look at sports being science in a completely different way? As opposed to seeing it as a big overview of the scientific method, why not see it as physics in action? You have a 250 pound linebacker essentially running full speed at a 190 pound running back, yet the running back still wins. I think it's awesome to think that somehow the running back created more force than the linebacker even though he's smaller. Obviously he has more acceleration (most likely), but other factors like his leverage that he created have to play in. That's what really makes sports interesting.

By anonymous (not verified) on 09 Feb 2014 #permalink

I agree with what the writer said, because I'm taking physics 101 course. For example in Formula 1 races most of drivers tend to stay behind another car to prevent air resistance which will give the car more acceleration than the one in front of it. Also Cristiano Ronaldo "Real madrid soccer player" kick the ball with an angle of 60 degrees so the ball will reach a certain height to end up in the net which is similar to what we encounter in the projectile motion problems. Those are just two obvious examples showing the relationship between physics and modern sports.

By Mutaz Alsaif (not verified) on 11 Feb 2014 #permalink

I have to agree with Mutaz Alsaif. There is definitely a clear connection between physics and sports. Perhaps the players themselves are not aware of the actual physics of why they do something a certain way, like throw the ball at a roughly estimated angle with a certain initial velocity in order for it to reach the receiver (projectile motion), but they do it because it works. Understanding physics is just understanding how the world works. Football is a great example of such a sport. So many components of it may be drawn parallel into the study of physics. For example, it is best to have a player with a greater mass and lower acceleration for a lineman than a player with a smaller mass and a higher acceleration. The force may be the same, but the components of the force are different and make the player optimal for their position. Projectile motion, as mentioned above, appears many times in the game of football. Field goals are a great example of this. The kicker must line up his foot to kick the ball at the correct angle and have the correct amount of force to make the ball travel far enough to the field goal. Football, while it is the prime example for this article, is not the only sport in which physics is a major component. In fact, most, if not all, sports involve physics. With the Olympics currently taking place, it is easy to turn on the television and watch athletes master the "art of physics," if you will, in their particular sport.

By Rebecca Speer (not verified) on 11 Feb 2014 #permalink

I am currently enrolled in physics 101 and I could not agree more that sports are largely surrounded by scientific findings. I noticed a few people responded using soccer as a good example of this. I agree that it can be a pretty good example if for instance if you wanted to find the velocity of the soccer ball after it has been kicked from the ground. You could also find the projectile motion, as someone mentioned previously. I am a diver, and I know that this sport relates highly to physics. You could find your velocity right before you hit the water, depending on how high you dove from. We did a bunch of problems that were like this in unit one of physics 101. It also can be related to Newtons laws. A cool thing to do would be to figure out how much force the diver hits the water at. Figuring out these things would be very interesting for a diver, because the different amounts of force hitting the water will tell them whether or not to try a certain dive, or if they need to protect their wrist from the amount of impact. Another thing that is hugely related to physics is the diving board itself. Divers are required to jump straight up, however the board still pushes them away so that they don't land on top of it. The way the board is shaped is largely why this happens. It also has a fulcrum which will make the board bouncier or more stiff depending on what is necessary for the particular dive. This all has to do with physics!

By Jennifer Rey (not verified) on 12 Feb 2014 #permalink

Recently I have been learning in class about physics and in many ways how it pertains to this article. Sports have a ton of physics related bases and primarily in sports like baseball, football, basketball, soccer, tennis and curling. All of these have very prominent things in them that are the main point of the game and they are objects which you much affect with a force to get to do a certain thing. As you know already they all have balls, or a rock for curling, which when moved have many forces acting upon them. Currently we are learning about how forces act upon an object in different directions and are affected by friction. A prime example of this is curling. The object is to cast the rock as a certain speed to land it in the target area to score points. Whether you're trying to also take out another teams rock or not you must factor in things like friction. We learned that the applied forces have to overcome friction and when curling the friction can be changed multiple times. The reason that they sweep in front of the rock it to change the friction and cause the rock to move in a different way at a different speed and velocity. In our recent learning we have been able to find how the friction will affect the force and how to overcome it with a higher force and when you may not be able to overcome it. This always pertains to sports and in most ways to curling.

By James HIckey (not verified) on 12 Feb 2014 #permalink