Science Denial and Sports

Headline: Bill Deny: Science GuyNow, we all know that air pressure is a function of the atmospheric conditions, it’s a function of that. So, if there’s activity in the ball relative to the rubbing process[…] So the atmospheric conditions as well as the true equilibrium of the football is critical to the measurement. …

The situation is the preparation of the ball caused the ball to I would say be artificially high in PSI when it was set at the regulated level and it reached its equilibrium at some point later on, an hour or two hours into the game whatever it was. That level was below what it was set in this climatic condition. I think that’s exactly what happened. And I think anybody that wants to do those experiments should go ahead and do them themselves. Don’t take my word for it. I’m telling you, we are trying to get to an answer to this and that’s what we have.”

That was New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick trying to drop some science on reporters to explain why his team’s balls seemed deflated in a key playoff game. Examination of the balls, and reviews of statistics from past games, suggested that the team was intentionally letting out the air to make the balls easier to catch, a charge Belichick denied (and which was surely not a factor in New England’s victory in the Super Bowl).

Various people, including NCSE Advisory Council member Bill Nye (you know, The Science Guy) argued that Belichick’s explanation “didn’t make any sense.” (Nye also connected the issue to climate change in a video for Funny or Die.) The New York Post even labeled Belichick “Bill Deny: Science Guy.”

Setting aside the NFL’s sad history of industrial-scale science denial to protect itself against charges related to the damage caused by players’ concussions, this isn’t the first outbreak of science denial in sports talk lately.

Just a couple weeks ago, ESPN commentators Dave Pasch and Bill Walton got into a gentle squabble over evolution and “intelligent design.” Walton gave Pasch a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, quipping, “I want to make sure you believe in evolution.” Pasch replied, “I don’t,” and later trotted out the long-ago-debunked creationist concept of “intelligent design” to explain his rejection of evolution.

And last fall, retired pitcher and current ESPN commentator Curt Schilling made a splash with an extended rant on Twitter about why he thinks evolution is wrong. He claimed that “every experiment to test it [evolution] has failed,” and issued this challenge: “Every living creature came from one cell? Show me the fossils of the beings that became humans, before they were humans…” He even deployed the classic “Hey clown, why don’t apes still evolve into humans if that was the path? Why doesn’t ANY…creature evolve into another creature entirely, if we all came from one organism?”

Many of Schilling’s fans jumped in to push back, most prominently sportswriter (and former MLB scout) Keith Law. He got the science right, and tossed in a few good one-liners along the way, including: “Seriously, if someone says evolution is wrong because there aren’t fossils between monkeys and men, find a monkey and hit him with it.”

Law, like Schilling, works for ESPN, and shortly after that extended exchange, ESPN ordered Law to stay off Twitter for a few days. The sports network insisted that the suspension was unrelated to that exchange, but Law marked his return to Twitter with a snarky invocation of Galileo’s apocryphal remark before the Inquisition:

Schilling isn’t the only athlete-turned-commentator to drag up creationism. Just days earlier, NFL Network host and retired quarterback Kurt Warner set the stage. As Deadspin explains, “Warner decided to tie in his anti-evolution ‘science’ views this morning as part of a way to explain how Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has adapted to NFL defenses.” He opened a scripted segment by saying, “as you might imagine, I’m not fully buying the evolutionary theory where one species transforms into another,” but endorsed the idea of adaptation within a species (such as, in his view, NFL quarterbacks; he doesn’t address the population-genetic complexities this would entail). While he and his fans scrimmaged over the issue on Twitter, it appears no one was disciplined.

On one hand, we hardly expect retired athletes to serve as scientific experts, but these exchanges highlight a dangerous dynamic. Science is often seen as something that only matters to unathletic nerds, while people who do physical work can ignore it. But evolution is indeed vital to understand topics from evolving football strategies (evolutionary game theory), Schilling’s shoulder injuries (anthropology and sports medicine), his successful cancer treatment (evolutionary medicine), or the disease which took the life of his hero Lou Gehrig (like this conference on Bringing Ideas of Evolution and Development to the Fight Against ALS). And athletes serve as key cultural gatekeepers for what views are acceptable for people like them (and the people who like them). When teams and the leagues twist science to protect themselves against scandal, and players recite absurd anti-science claims, it makes it that much harder to overcome the shocking gaps in science literacy between science and the public.