Science Bureau: The Pilot

You don’t have to have a PhD to follow sports in the 21st century - but it doesn’t hurt.
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You don’t have to have a PhD to follow sports in the 21st century - but it doesn’t hurt. Post-Moneyball, a working knowledge of probability, statistical significance, and normalization is critical to avoid dropping McCarverisms while discussing a game.

But sabermetrics is only one way that scientific rigor can be applied to the games we play and watch. Dozens of articles are published every day in esoteric scientific journals on sports, ranging from grisly injury case studies to economic analyses to psychological hypotheses testing whether intangibles can be made tangible. Every couple weeks in the Science Bureau, licensed scienticians Dr. Lawyer Indian Chief and Rob Mitchum will excavate the most interesting findings from this deep quarry, reporting on what the scientific method can reveal about the world of sports beyond the naked eye.

“Effects of event valence on long-term memory for two baseball championship games” (Psychological Science, 2011)
One of the most undisputable pheneomena in psychology is the negativity bias, or the “bad is stronger than good” effect. One cockroach can spoil a bowl of Lucky Charms, but no matter how many Lucky Charms you pour on a bowl of cockroaches, they’ll never seem very edible. This effect also tends to manifest in memory. We remember our tough days over our better ones and our bad luck over our good luck. Except, apparently, when it comes to baseball.  This paper surveyed almost 1,600 baseball fans about the AL championship game in 2003 when the Yankees won and in 2004 when the Red Sox won. The researchers asked participants about details of the game such as the winning pitcher, the location of the game, and the game’s score, and when it came to Red Sox fans, they remembered the 2004 game far more vividly and accurately whereas Yankees fans remembered 2003 much better. This finding results from differences in rehearsal of positive events. That is, although bad is stronger than good, people tend to engage in more mental replay of positive events (such as one’s team winning the championship game) compared to negative ones. Of course an alternative explanation unaccounted for in this study is the motivated forgetting of horrible baseball events, such as I did in pretending the 2011 Minnesota Twins season did not exist. (Dr. LIC) 

“Sports drug testing: Analytical aspects of selected cases of suspected, purported, and proven urine manipulation” (Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis, In Press) 
History has shown that athletes can get real creative when it comes to cheating on their drug tests - let us never, ever, forget the Whizzinator. This paper is a sort of break-room bulletin-board sampler of the weirdest and most unusual cases encountered down at the Center for Preventive Doping Research in Germany, complete with the CSI-style detective work that ensued for each case. When the lab received several urine samples “of noticeable coloration, particularly green and raspberry/crimson red,” the team went all mass spectrometer on that shit, looking for illegal chemical compounds and finding only beetroot juice (not illegal) and chem-lab mainstay methylene blue (suspicious, but not explicitly against the rules). More suspicious was the “physically unremarkable” urine sample that ended up containing high levels of a chemical called hordenine, derived from barley. Yep, it was not urine, but beer - non-alcoholic beer to be specific. Sadly, due to privacy laws, we may never know who tried to O’Douls their way out of a pee test. (RM)

“The hot (invisible?) hand: Can time sequence patterns of success/failure in sports be modeled as repeated random independent trials?” (PloS One, October, 2011) 
Had enough of the hot hand debate? Is it real or is it an illusion? This paper attempts to beat the phenomenon to death with a statistical bat (boom…mixed metaphor). The original hot hand research by Tom Gilovich and colleagues assessed free throw and field goal data from the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over one or two seasons.  This more recent paper examines all NBA free throws over five NBA seasons from 2005-2009. The punchline of this research is that the probability of a made free throw after a make is greater than the probability of a made free throw after a miss. HOT HAND, right? Or maybe players just go through good periods and bad periods…the authors cannot say for sure, but for the first time with NBA data, there appears to be solid evidence of non-random “streaks” of success. Extra props for the self-effacing sentence at the end of the paper, “In retrospect, it seems like a very long journey to walk through just in order to notice that human subjects have good periods and bad periods and that the time sequence results can not be produced from a binomial independent repeated trials with a constant probability of success.” Rare humility in science! (Dr. LIC) 

“Personality and injury risk among professional hockey players.” (Injury and Violence, July 2009) 
Think science is for four-eyed twerps? Feast your eyes upon the journal Injury and Violence, which I can only assume is sponsored by Red Bull and/or Roadrunner Records. In a 2009 issue, psychologists from University of Alabama-Birmingham tackled the team sport that is most cool with casual violence, ice hockey, in an examination of whether a player’s personality predicted his chances of injury during a season. Eighteen players from the now-defunct minor-league hockey team the Alabama Slammers (fans, please remember to drink responsibly) were studied, with the researchers assessing traits such as thrill-seeking, disinhibition, extroversion, and negative affect. The strongest correlation hits for number of injuries ended up being boredom susceptibility and sensation seeking, so, basically players with the mentality of toddlers. Meanwhile severity of injury was associated with a trait called neutral perceptual sensitivity - those who “may experience the subjective feelings of pain more readily and therefore might be more likely to perceive and report the injury as severe.” Jay Cutler should probably stay off the ice. (RM)


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