Soccer as a science experiment

You know you are doing science when you are wearing a lab coat, using big words like ‘hypothesis’ and ‘experimental controls’, and when there are lots of beakers of bubbling fluids around. But, the basic ideas behind scientific thinking are actually quite simple and they have been a part of regular people’s lives since well before people started talking about science formally.

To illustrate that point, consider soccer. Here is a thoroughly fictional account of the history of soccer using the science jargon we all loved so much from school.

Two friends from neighbouring villages met up for their weekly tea and began to argue about whose village had the most athletic people.

“Harry from our village can pull trees out of the ground with his bare hands,” claimed Alice from village A.

“Susan from our village runs so fast she can run across the lake before she sinks!” claimed Bob from village B.

As the discussion went back and forth, the claims made by Alice and Bob got further and further from reality. They were both just saying things that would help them win the argument without really caring if they were true or not.

Although they may not have understood these words, both eventually realized that they couldn’t settle this argument with unverified anecdotes. They should find a meaningful way to compare the athleticism of their respective villages. What they need is a science experiment!

They sit down together and design a game that requires the kind of athleticism that each of them thinks is most important. The idea is that the most athletic village will be correlated with the village who wins the game. If they design their game well, the correlation will be strong and winning the soccer match will be a good measure of athleticism.

They sit and think hard about what a good goal for their game is. Bob soon realizes that if the only rule is to get the ball in the net, there are ways to do that without using athleticism. So, he invents the concept of experimental controls. They write in the rules that you aren’t allowed to attack the other players and you can’t use your hands to get the ball in the net. These controls are designed to help the experimenters from getting fooled about which team is the most athletic. These controls will be enforced by officials watching the game from on the field. Suppose the full set of rules they come up with correspond to what we know as soccer.

Alice and Bob head to the lab to perform their experiment.

After the game, Bob is upset after losing. “That’s not fair. Tony got injured and we had the sun in our eyes. We should do best of 3!”

Bob has stumbled on the idea of repeatability (perhaps he could also stumble onto experimental controls for injuries and sun in eyes). Maybe the experiment was influenced by something besides athleticism. So, that brings up doubt that the experiment can be repeated to obtain the same results. Since Alice is confident of her hypothesis (that her team will win because they are the better athletes), she is certain the experiment is repeatable. She agrees to play best of 3.

Village A is victorious once more. Bob is embarrassed, but realizes that you can’t measure something as complicated as athleticism with just one kind of measurement. You should find lots of ways to measure athleticism and then figure out some way to add up all those measurements. In this sense, the olympics are a better measurement of athleticism for a nation than is the World Cup.

As the argument continues, the experiments get better and better. Alice and Bob learn a great deal about exactly what is meant by ‘athleticism’ in the process. Eventually, there is enough evidence supporting one of the villages that no one in the world would doubt which village has the superior athletes. So, knowledge has increased about which village is stronger and faster. But, knowledge has also increased about how to measure ‘athleticism’ properly. When we do science, we learn something about nature, but we also learn something about how to do science better in the future.

Sports are just one way we exercise scientific thinking. Tests in school are another kind of science experiment. They are measurements of student learning. An election is a science experiment designed to measure popular will or political legitimacy. All of these kinds of experiments share many of the core ideas behind more familiar kinds of science: experimental controls, hypothesis testing, measurements, careful design. So, when you cut through the silly jargon that scientists use, the concepts are already familiar to all of us.

All of these example experiments can be done with varrying amouts of precision, accuracy and carefulness. Sometimes they are done quite poorly, because science does not come naturally to us. But, the same can even be true with science experiments. At the end of the day, they are all just attempts to make a measurement in order to evaluate a claim. ‘Science’ refers to a set of values and practices that help us to do that well when other people would prefer to do it poorly.

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