Why can’t science be more like sports?

Perhaps the single most distressing turn in politics reflects an equally disturbing change in the public at large: the disregard for facts. Inflation is booming! The climate is cooling! Crime is soaring! Jobs are vanishing! Accompanying this is a numerical illiteracy: the temperature this winter where I live was colder than normal, so global warming must be hoax. The risk of dying in a terrorist attack is greater than the odds of dying in a car crash. (in fact, you are more likely to die overseas in a car crash than by terrorist attack, and even more likely to die in a bathtub accident). Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s old saying that “you are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts” now seems quite quaint.

And yet amidst all this mental fog we find a pastime, one utterly irrelevant to the world our children or grandchildren might live in, where these issues are singularly absent: sports. GG has never heard somebody claim that the Cubs really lost the World Series, that Babe Ruth didn’t hit 714 home runs.  What is more, die-hard fans are well-versed in the statistics of their games. None are more addicted than baseball fans, where OPS and WAR now clutter conversations still sprinkled with traditional statistics like batting average and earned run average. Just where are these people when we discuss climate change, environmental risks, government finance and the like? Why are we so obsessed and dedicated to something that matters so little and so cavalier about things that do?

You have to wonder if there was an much of a cult following of science as sports if things like p-hacking, shingling and plagiarism would long survive.  Would there still be a public debate about whether or not there was global warming, or would the debate focus on the amplification factor of methane loss from pipelines vs. gains from a shift away from coal? You could even imagine enthusiasts deriding the simplicity and misleading applications of the h-index in favor of some more complicated scoring for research impact.

What if there were fantasy leagues?  

Woo-hoo, my group of condensed-matter physicists beat yours to demonstrating Bose-Einstein behavior of molecular matter! Tough luck on your atmospheric group having used the wrong radiation coefficient for a CO2-rich atmosphere, better luck next time. See how that latest DNA analysis supports my team’s phylogeny of the relationship of archaea to prokaryotes to your group’s silly notions! See you at the Nobels, sucker!

Of course there would be barroom arguments kind of like those about managerial decisions in sports.  Can you believe that the State U group decided to sample the soil carbonates and not the lacustrine ones in that paleoclimate study? Why was that geodynamic model just using Newtonian rheology even though they were looking at the upper mantle? After all, that left their results to be overturned by SW Small State’s quick-and-dirty study. And then there was that mid-continent econ group that simply assumed a fiscal multiplier of 0.5–you could see from a mile away that that would lead to that response paper that ripped them to shreds on the observational evidence.

“You follow string theory?” “Nah, too slow moving, I’m more into evolutionary drivers of sexual dimorphism. Things there really move.” “True, but then if you really need action, the spectroscopic study of exoplanet atmospheres is getting hot and heavy what with the race to find free oxygen.”

Maybe NSF could manage the fantasy leagues and the associated betting markets, the vig going to research. And then maybe the athletic departments would let us scientists use their far cooler logos (CU’s official logo is, groan, an interlocking C and a U, while the sports teams get a far cooler buffalo).

Wouldn’t this be way cooler than arguing over whether a jock’s sweet tooth cost him two-tenths of a second in the 100 yard dash?

Well, you might say, science doesn’t work that way. There is a need for collaboration and patient deliberation where careful examination of evidence allows scientists to change their minds and develop new hypotheses. GG agrees, but isn’t sure the current system is achieving that anyways, so maybe we’d be better off formalizing competition and reaping some benefits from it.  After all, we’ve been there before: look up the bone wars between Marsh and Cope. Maybe it got a little too rough, but a lot of dinosaur bones got found mighty quick…

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