When Positive Science Meets Big Sport: Deflategate, by William Olson, Schaumburg, IL

Perhaps nowhere is the lunacy of big sport and the myth of positive science better evinced than in the Deflategate clowning. Fueled by the NFL’s reputation and the billions of dollars it flouts, the Wells Report, a 68-page scientific investigation of whether overpaid children swapped playing balls, hits the sweet spot.

From the start, the company that completed the report, Exponent, was criticized as a hired-gun of the NFL, with the initial outcry from fans. But NFL fans can be utter morons, the author of this blog included. More credible voices of dissent however soon emerged. An M.I.T. engineering professor’s lecture on the matter drew tens of thousands of viewers on YouTube, and a 16-page rebuttal to the Exponent report by the American Enterprise Institute was given instant and wide credibility, which reported, “It is therefore unlikely that the Patriots deflated the footballs.”

The problem has less to do with bias–that is, which team you root for, but rather science. The flimsy statistical models on which virtually all of science is premised on brands its results as necessarily probabilistic and always admits indeterminacy. Here’s a quote from Gabriel Ganot, one of the four Exponent executives to lead the Deflategate investigation: “When we released the report, I stood behind it 100 percent,” he said. “Having heard whatever everybody has said, and having reviewed the thoughts of the critics, I still stand behind it 100 percent.” It begs the question: Why would the thoughts of critics in any way discount the validity of the initial conclusions?

The results, and this is the refrain ad nauseum of positive science, is that the pressure differentials between the Patriots’ and Colts’ balls were statistically significant. But this too: Analysis of the gauges consumed 18 pages of the report, and concluded that the gauges used were different, but consistently different.

In the end, Exponent said that it could not “determine with absolute certainty” whether there had been tampering with New England’s balls.  Here is the most bold they could be: “We conclude that within the range of game characteristics most likely to have occurred on Game Day [italics added], we have identified no set of credible environmental or physical factors that completely accounts for the additional loss in air pressure exhibited by the Patriots game balls as compared to the loss in air pressure exhibited by the Colts game balls,” the report said.

No set of credible factors…completely accounts. There’s no end to the caveats in statistical science. At least the authors were clear that they did not employ any bogus scientific methods. John Pye, the scientist in charge of the report said, “The thing that I wanted to make sure came out when we were no longer quiet was that there’s real science here. There’s real engineering. We didn’t start from feelings. We started from facts — the facts that we had, which were complete to the degree that they were complete. And we took those as far as we thought science and engineering could take them. And then presented that.”

Complete to the degree they were complete.

Take it from an NFL fan who didn’t care the outcome of the Pats or Colts game: Positive science only clouds the issue.

William Olson


See also: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/sports/football/deflategate-new-england-patriots-nfl-science.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news



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