In Praise of the Fair Weather Fan

It’s no surprise that sports is a field where we encounter moralistic scolding, because sports are a part of life, and moralistic scolds are a fact of life. Examples from the media are well-known. Tut-tutting about professionalism and respect for the game, the concept of amateurism, the Winnipeg Jets dress code. Or, you know, grandstanding about streets filling with blood. It takes all kinds. But moralistic sport-scolds are not just in the media. They’re also all around us, in the fanbases themselves (fact of life, remember?). Fanbases police what it means to be a “real fan” in a highly moralistic fashion. And so bandwagoning, (or glory hunting for the Europeans) has got a bad reputation.

There is some restraint, because bandwagoners might just be newly initiated fans that will stick with their team. And No less an authority than Bill Simmons “only watches hockey in the playoffs.” If THE Sports Guy is okay with being a bandwagon fan, that should, in theory, immediately quiet the moralizers. You’re not gonna out-sports the Sports Guy. And yet, a niggling doubt remains. We wonder whether fair weather fans are like fair weather friends. Well, we should stop doing that, because bandwagoning is not immoral, and, also, it’s actually fantastic. That’s part of the reason it’s disliked, of course. You can say it’s the Puritan heritage of hating any appearance of hedonism. Or you can say it comes from the Catholic belief in the nobility of suffering. Take your pick. In either case, the mechanism is the same, and it’s plain to see that it shouldn’t apply to sports. But though disliking bandwagoners for religious reasons is misguided in itself, it’s doubly unfortunate because bandwagoning makes the team you cheer for better, as well.

Sea! Who? Sea! Hawks!

I believe this to be true, because I have compared the real fan experience with the bandwagon experience personally. I am a “real” fan of the Vancouver Canucks, and a “bandwagon” fan of the Seattle Seahawks. Last year, I started caring about the Seahawks right about the time of their game with the 49ers, and followed that up with joining around 80 extremely drunk, high, loud and happy people (with all four qualities increasing as the night wore on) watching the Seahawks demolish Denver in the rec room of some kind of modern condo complex. I then went to downtown Seattle and yelled “whoo!” and high-fived people. I got very hoarse and developed a sore throat, but it’s okay, because later I had some delicious throat-soothing soup. Also, that was over a year ago, and the expiration date for whining about being slightly physically uncomfortable is definitely under a year. The point is, I watched two games, and they were both filled with positive emotions because the Seahawks won. Maybe I was on my way to becoming a fan.

To become a respectable sports fan, I would have then had to learn about the team. Follow its ups and downs. Learn about the Percy Harvin controversy, agonize about the game against Dallas.

I didn’t do any of that.

In fact, I didn’t watch a single Seahawks game until the Superbowl. And then, conveniently, I jumped right back on the bandwagon. I dressed in blue and green. I filled out a Superbowl bingo card (Car ad which you can’t tell is a car ad until the last five seconds? Check! Announcers saying “unbelievable” for something that was highly believable? Check!) I bet money. I cheered when the Seahawks scored. I cheered every televised instance of Marshawn Lynch or Richard Sherman. I whooped and hollered when Jermaine Kearse made that ridiculous catch. And then, when a short slant to Ricardo Lockette was intercepted, well, I was pretty disappointed. But then, I saw people staring into walls, going for long nighttime walks, throwing things, drinking away the pain with shitty vodka, or worse. Some dude destroyed his TV to just to make a viral youtube video. And me? I was fine. Whereas, if the Canucks had a 2 minute five on three in overtime and then unexpectedly gave up a shorthanded Stanley Cup winning goal… well, then I would not be fine. Hell, when the Canucks lost to the Sharks in the first round of a series they were never gonna win, I wasn’t fine.

Part of the disdain of bandwagoners might have to do with this. You get to partake in all the good, and shake off all the bad. But such a good deal can’t come for free, so the price of admission might be some ribbing. And to this component of anti-bandwagoning, I say fair enough.

Bandwagoning and Character

The additional disdain for the fair weather fan, though, the one that comes from valuing loyalty, is not reasonable. Those that say bandwagoners are being like those terrible people who stopped loving and cherishing as soon as their partners got sick, poor or … uhh, bad, I guess? I mean, now we have to be reminded every time someone gets married, so it must be pretty important. Abandoning a team every time it’s not the best, the theory goes, is like being one of those shitty friends in “Nobody wants you when you’re down and out.”

Except it’s not. A team is not a person – you’re not hurting its feelings being venal. Maybe sports teams had that connection with the community at some point in history, but nowadays it seems quaint. You’re not going to meet your team on the sidewalk begging for change with a reproachful eye. But the bigger issue is that by sticking with a team through thick and thin, you’re not helping the team get better. By corporate logic, the absolutely reverse is true. Of course, the players are probably going to be trying to win regardless, but to a large extent it’s up to the owners to invest in making the team good, and up to the general managers to fulfill that mission. There are only two possible motivations for a team’s front office to do everything for possible for team success. The owner’s hubris, and the bottom line. How else, then, than by rewarding the team when they’re good and punishing them when they’re bad, can you, as a fan, make the team better? Maple Leafs fans throw jerseys – trying to play to the hubris of… Rogers and Bell, I guess? But throwing jerseys is weak. A corporation like Rogers isn’t going to mind that you threw a jersey – to the contrary. It’s great for jersey sales: you’re probably just going to go and buy another one. On the other hand, not buying a jersey in the first place, not buying merchandise and not going to watch the team – all that – does affect the bottom line. In other words, being a fair weather fan motivates your team to be good to try to keep you. So if you love something, let it go.

The Trials and Tribulations of the True Fan

But the true fans who suffer through the disappointments and the rebuilds, won’t their patience be rewarded when their team triumphs? Maybe, but maybe not. This is another place where convention has failed to catch up with modernity, at least in North American professional sports. In a 30+ team league, there are bound to be lifelong fans who never see their team win anything. And given the inherent advantages some teams have, it might be even worse for fans of some teams – generations without winning. Being a true fan may mean you become the sad-sack spectacle that is the fanbase of the Chicago Cubs. And when, a century or so later, that victory does happen? The pitiable misery of a Cubs fan immediately turns into aggrieved douchiness that is the hallmark of the worst kind of sports fan: those Red Sox people.

Another reason bandwagoners are looked down upon is that they act like they know what they’re talking about. To fans who actually know what they’re talking about when they talk about sports, this is highly annoying. But looked at from a broader perspective, it’s fantastic, because there is suddenly this shared feeling of community. What happened in Seattle was that nearly everyone started talking Seahawks to random people they met. Black, white, old, young. Sitting on the bus, and going through the aisles in the grocery store, Seahawks conversations spontaneously sprang into being. The Seattle Times devoted its front page to a Super Bowl related topic for two straight weeks. Is that myopic, and a colossal journalistic failure? Of course it is! But it was also part of this brief glimpse of a small community that has come together for a common purpose – something that big cities generally lack and are always trying to create. It was an exciting time. And it was bandwagon fans that made it happen. I couldn’t tell, because I don’t actually know anything about football, but it sure sounded like they didn’t know what they were talking about. But when asked why sports should matter in a world where there is so much more going on that is so much more consequential, one answer I can give is that sports are about building a community. And if we really care about using sports to build community, the fellow feeling that comes from a town full of bandwagoners is huge and wonderful.

And Yet And Yet

So does that mean that I should stop being a fan of the Vancouver Canucks until there’s a bandwagon I can hop on? For me, as I suspect is the case for most fans, “should” doesn’t enter into it – if you’re actually a fan of a team, it’s hard to turn off. And, of course, though I’ve been minimizing it in this post, real fans gain something, too. I watched the highlights of the Seattle-Green Bay game, but that’s nothing like seeing the game itself would have been. The greatest feeling I ever felt as a sports fan was watching the Burrows “dragon-slaying” goal. In a bar in Seattle. By myself. Surrounded by Hawks fans. I remember the tension, the goosebumps, and the feeling of every part of my body seemingly disconnected and even kind of numb. I remember the drunk phone conversation with Zuuko afterwards. If I was a bandwagon fan, I wouldn’t have even tuned in until the Stanley Cup final.  Is that goal worth slogging through 5-1 regular season losses to San Jose with Luca Sbisa playing top-4 minutes and his performance being referred to gently in the Smylosphere as “surprisingly unterrible”? I don’t know. Maybe. It’s not totally up to me. But what I do know is that I’m not going to get on a high horse if someone decides it isn’t. And you shouldn’t either.

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Pull the goalie!

“I can’t hear your statistical analysis with these Stanley Cup rings in my ears”

Yesterday, Patrick Roy pulled the goalie with 11 minutes left in the game between the Avalanche and the Predators. The Avs were down by 3 and on the power play, so there was probably good justification for it, even though it didn’t work out. But when is pulling your goalie justified statistically? With the plethora of new stats available on NHL.com, and my physicist’s ability to make plausible assumptions that actually don’t correspond to reality at all, I decided to investigate.

Comparing Goals For and Shots Against

When your goalie’s pulled, every shot against is a goal, so to compare the likelihood of scoring versus getting scored against with an empty net, you can start with goals for and shots against statistics. Let’s take the Canucks as an example. According to NHL.com’s stats on 5-on-4 power play time (285 min) and goals (32), the Canucks have a PPGF rate of 6.74 goals/60 minutes. It’s harder to get a PPSA rate, but looking at Lack and Miller’s stats, they have together faced 36 shorthanded shots, while only giving up one shorthanded goal. The Canucks in total have given up two, from which I conclude that the second goal was an empty netter, and also (obviously) the only empty net shorthanded shot on goal the Canucks have given up. Thus, a total of 37 shots against in those same 285 minutes (assuming no shots against in 5-on-3 seems reasonable), for a rate of 7.79 shots against/60 minutes. These numbers are surprisingly close – pulling the goalie as a general strategy should clearly not be as tempting as it seems. They are, however, highly skewed in favour of going for an empty net. The difference in the real world is that (a) the man advantage you get is 6-on-5, which is considerably less of an advantage than 5-on-4, and (b) the opposing team is probably more likely to try to shoot at your net if it is empty.

We can also just count the number of goals for and goals against with the net pulled. It’s harder to get statistics on this, but from reading this kind of analysis, it seems that the ratio of empty net goals to goals with the goalie pulled for an extra attacker are anywhere from 2 : 1 to 3 : 1.

The Likelihood of Scoring at Even Strength

No matter the exact ratio, we know it will not be favourable, and so ideally, every team would like to score without pulling the goalie. But how likely are they to do that? To figure that out, we calculate the even strength goal scoring rate. For the Canucks, again using NHL.com stats and excluding power play and shorthanded time, I get around 2.41 goals/60 minutes (this is a slight overestimate because I didn’t factor in overtime).

So how likely are the Canucks to score in a given amount of time? To figure that out, we use the Poisson distribution

\!f(k; \lambda)= \Pr(X{=}k)= \frac{\lambda^k e^{-\lambda}}{k!},

where k is the number of goals for in a certain period of time, and λ the expected number of goals for. We have assumed that goals in hockey are approximately Poisson distributed because they are random, rare and (sort of) memoryless (this paper by Alan Ryder verifies that assumption). Thus, for example, the likelihood of the Canucks scoring exactly one goal in a period played entirely at even strength would be the above expression with k = 1 and λ = (2.41/3) = 0.80 (the amount of even strength goals the Canucks score in an average period) – about 36  %.

Comparing Likelihoods

Likelihood of the Canucks scoring the goals necessary to come back at even strength x: game time (seconds); y: probability. The black dashed line indicates a guess at the probability of scoring the first goal in an empty net situation

Figure 1: Likelihood of the Canucks scoring the goals necessary to come back at even strength x: game time (seconds); y: probability. The black dashed line indicates a guess at the probability of scoring the first goal in an empty net situation

In order to decide whether to pull the goalie, a coach must decide what is more likely – that the team can score at even strength, or that they’ll have the first goal in an empty net situation. To figure out the latter, we simply treat “goals in an empty net situation” as balls in a hat, and ask which is more likely to be picked out. So, if the ratio of empty netters to extra attacker goals is 3 : 1, then that (25 %) is also the probability that the team with the extra attacker scores first. (Is this reasonable? It sounds too simple, but I can’t see a problem with it at first glance. Someone with some knowledge of stats would be useful here). To figure out the former, we simply use the Poisson distribution (well, actually the Poisson distribution’s cumulative distribution function because in actuality we’d be fine with the Nucks scoring 2, or, say, 7 (if last year’s Islanders could do it in one period…), goals in whatever period of time we pick). Figure 1 shows the likelihood of scoring n goals in the remaining time for the Canucks at even strength. Whenever the Canucks are down by that amount of goals and that likelihood dips below the 25% mark we have set for likelihood of scoring first with an empty net, our analysis says that they should consider pulling the goalie. That means that if they are down by 1 goal, according to Fig. 1, they should consider pulling goalie with 7 minutes left. If down by 2, they should do so late in the 2nd, and if down by 3, late in the 1st. If they’re down by 4 or more, they should pull the goalie immediately regardless of the situation.

Problematic Assumptions

Do I actually think that this calculation is correct? No. There are some very obvious problems. The most clearly problematic assumption is that in calculating the Canucks ESGF/60 we neglected to consider the other team. After all, they’ll be trying to score, too.  So even if the Canucks are down by a goal, don’t pull the goalie, and proceed to score, this doesn’t guarantee that they will have tied the game. And what’s more, the quality of the other team clearly matters. A subtler problem is that the probability of extra attacker goals is inflated by the fact that if you only have the net empty for a short time, you can keep your best offensive forwards on the ice for that time. You may have a 25% chance of scoring first if you have the Sedins on all the time against the other team’s penalty killers. But when your four forwards are Higgins-Vey-Dorsett-McMillan or whatever, that probability reduces to something more like 2.5%. So of course this is not what a coach should actually do. But I wanted to point out that there is probably a way to figure out when to pull the goalie that’s an alternative to “let’s look at when we pulled the goalie before at this time in the game and whether we scored then,” and to point in the direction of what such a way could be.

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Sandwiches and Not Sandwiches

(The title is supposed to be a play on the title of this book, which is called “Men and Not Men” in English. I want to strongly recommend it, even though I don’t agree with it and didn’t even like it that much at the time. Still, it’s one of those books that stays with you and you think about.)

This is a sandwich. I want this sandwich. I am so hungry right now.

Okay, so a few days ago I was looking for news of Alex Edler’s potentially Canucks-whole-season-derailing injury, and so I got to listening to my favourite hockey podcast – the Pass it to Bulis podcast, of course. Surprisingly, the conversation turned to sandwiches, and more specifically, whether a hot dog is a sandwich. Actually, that wasn’t even remotely surprising, because (1) it’s right in the title and (2) Harrison and Daniel have a penchant for doing this kind of stuff. The proportion of hockey-related material in PITB podcasts is a solid 60% or so, I would guess. The debate went unresolved, but to help PITB, we are going to delve in and settle it now. Whether a hot dog is a sandwich or not (it obviously is) is not a hard question, but precisely what is and isn’t a sandwich is very hard. It’s also a very deep question, and to examine it properly, we will need sociology, law, cladistics, and linguistics. But it will all be worth it, because sandwiches are delicious, and so furthering our understanding of sandwiches is a positive good. Are you ready? We begin below the fold. Continue reading

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Songbook of Days: Rainy Day

I know, I live in Vancouver and/or Seattle. You could say that I could have picked any other day in the last four months or the next two to post this, but actually it’s not even remotely true. It’s been creepily warm and sunny lately, getting to +17. In fact, I wrote this post and then couldn’t post it for a while just cause it was sunny for so long. So, before we turn into a desert or something, I’m gonna seize the opportunity. Here is a list of rain-themed songs I like. Any suggestions?

Raekwon – Rainy Dayz
Thom Yorke – And it Rained All Night*
Radiohead – Scatterbrain
Bonnie Prince Billy – Raining in Darling
Les Colocs – Dehors Novembre**
Led Zeppelin – The Rain Song
The Verve – Stormy Clouds
Arctic Monkeys – She’s Thunderstorms
Buck 65 – Riverbed Pt. II***
Lucinda Williams – It’s Gonna Rain
The Giving Tree Band – Cold Cold Rain
The Sleepy Jackson – Rain Falls for Wind
Jorge Ben – Chove Chuva
Caetano Veloso – Chuvas de Verao

* This list is very Radiohead-heavy because Radiohead is a very rainy band, I think. Certainly the last time I saw them was one of the rainiest days I remember.

** Doesn’t explicitly have anything about rain, rather sickness, but it’s just such a sad, rainy song I had to include it.

*** No matter how many mild-mannered CBC shows he hosts, Buck will always have a place in the hall of fame for “Raindrops seeping/into the letterbox as I’m sleeping/Makes it seem those who wrote me were weeping”

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2014 in Review: Quotes Part 2

continuing with quoting stuff

“Actually, I didn’t understand this point, it just seemed like a random stringing together of words, but, whatever cricket is like, it is not like the metric system” —Harry Brighouse on Ann Coulter’s dislike of soccer

“A healthy increase in crow numbers would make basic services like cawing loudly outside your bedroom window at six in the morning available to all” —Ian Frazier Tomorrow’s Bird

“There’s only two kinds of music: good, and bad” —Duke Ellington

“‘It’s the balls that get me,’ Vicky said. ‘They’re like kiwifruit gone bad'” —Elizabeth Berg The Party

Suzy: Was he a good dog?
Sam: Who is to say? But he didn’t deserve to die” —Moonrise Kingdom

“What if soy milk is just regular milk introducing itself in Spanish?” —A grocery store sign

“If this is Upper Silesia, one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like” —P.G. Wodehouse on Tost

“But this was no time for books. Through a chance connection I picked up a job in a chicken hatchery” —Loren Eiseley All the Strange Hours

“Быть может прежде губ уже родился шепот,
И в бездревесности кружилися листы.
И те, кому мы посвящаем опыт,
До опыта приобрели черты”
—О. Мандельштам ***

“Our conduct as states clings to a code of self-interest which science, like humanity, has long left behind” —J. Bronowski Science and Human Values

“If I steal from any person, there may be no harm done by the mere transfer of possession; he may not feel the loss, or it may even prevent him from using the money badly. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself dishonest. What hurts society is not that it should lose its property, but that it should become a den of thieves” —W.K. Clifford quoted in ibid.

“Гражданин Муравьев, почему вы живете в троллейбусе” —Учебник русского языка

“I asked him if he liked parachuting. He said that he found it most disagreeable, but thought that it might be a useful way of getting to places” —Fitzroy Maclean on David Sterling in Eastern Approaches

“This new relation will breeze in and out of our lives like a sort of extreme niece or nephew” —Meghan Daum Difference Maker

“The good news is that if you’re a child in Southwestern Kazakhstan or Northern Uzbekistan, you have access to a creepy, apocalyptic playground that your parents never did” —Liz Core on the Aral Sea

“Fuck’s sake a million dollars is a shitload of money. How can you possibly not have a bunch lying around after people just gave you a million dollars” —Steve Albini

“I’ve tried to ask you this in some daydreams that I’ve had
But you’re always busy being make-believe” —Arctic Monkeys Love is a Laserquest

“You cannot, it seems, let children run about in the streets. People who have seen them running wild in Russia say the sight is not a pleasant one” —Virginia Woolf A Room of One’s Own

“The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected” —G.K. Chesterton

“You can’t argue with 100%. Seriously, you can’t argue with a percentage. It’s not a sentient thing capable of communication” —Daniel Wagner on Shawn Matthias’ faceoff percentage

“Needless to say, as old people run the world, an enormous camouflage has been built up to hide the fact that only young people are attractive or important” … “If I had been asked to do this article about five years ago, it might have been worth reading” —F. Scott Fitzgerald What I think and feel at 25

“Если ты не экспансируешь, то тебя экспансируют, хотя тут можно использовать и более грубое слово” —Валерий Скурлатов в интервью с “Русской Планетой”

“It’s weird how people hate getting older. People love mountains, and mountains are old as fuck. They are the oldest things there are” —Dan Deacon

“He sat carefully and shut his eyes. To have a really safe hiding place had always been one of his most serious ambitions” —Tove Jansson Moominpappa at Sea

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2014 in Review: Quotes Part 1

Much like 2013, 2014 was a year where I wrote stuff down. Some of that stuff was quotes

“(“страусиное”, подумал образованый мальчик Антон)” —А. Чудаков Ложится мгла на старые ступени

“She had only come to see him in Fontechiusa once, and they had quarrelled terribly, about politics, because she was against Stalin, and so was he, but from a different point of view; and also because she had left a woollen vest in the kitchen and he had inadvertently used it to clean his motorbike” —Natalia Ginzburg Family

“You can’t just drift through life and hope that love is just gonna flow into you like plankton into a whale’s fucking mouth!” —Jeanie on Louie

“В XV веке, вероятно, было так же скучно прирожденным программистам, одаренным велосипедистам или выдающимся кинооператорам; и страшно подумать, какой гадостью они занимались” —Д. Быков об Олеше в Советской литературе

“вот он списывает мысли щуки, совсем молодой, почти малька. “Я хочу съесть карася!” – думает щука. Вот она постарше, поопытнее – “Я хочу съесть карася!!!” А вот роскошная зрелость мощной особи: “ЯХОЧУСЪЕСТЬКАРАСЯЯХОЧУСЪЕСТЬКАРАСЯЯХОЧУСЪЕСТЬКАРАСЯ” ” —Д. Быков пересказывает сказку А. Шарова там же

“Ivan Gorchev, sailor on the freight ship Rangoon was not yet twenty-one when he won the Nobel Prize in physics. To win a scientific award at such a romantically young age is unprecedented, though some people might consider the means by which it was achieved a flaw. For Ivan Gorchev won the Nobel Prize in physics in a card game, called Macao.” —Eno Retjo, opening lines of The Fourteen Carat Roadster

“The three most important factors in my profession are brains, psychology, and a carefully groomed beard” —Eno Retjo ibid.

“A man said to the universe
‘Sir, I exist!’
‘However,’ replied the universe
‘the fact has not created in me
a sense of obligation'”
—Stephen Crane A Man Said to the Universe

“This is like being accused by the Pacific Ocean of containing too much water” —Scott Lemieux makes fun of Freddie de Boer

“The world today is made, it is powered by science; and for any man to abdicate an interest in science is to walk with open eyes toward slavery” —J. Bronowski Science and Human Values

“People were torn between the longing for the good taste of pork, and the fear of death. It was a time of waste and confusion” —Carson McCullers Ballad of the Sad Cafe

“It will be seen that at each point Burnham is predicting a continuation of the thing that is happening. Now the tendency to do this is not simply a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration, which one can correct by taking thought. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in cowardice, and partly in the worship of power, which is not fully separable from cowardice” —George Orwell James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution

“One friend from Northern Ireland said on Facebook that a relative had told him that the key to understanding any conflict is to work out who are the ‘Protestants’ and who are the ‘Catholics’” —Chris Bertram on how not to think about Ukraine

“who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you”
—E.E. Cummings since feeling is first

“This pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its farrow that so solid seem
Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme”
—W.B. Yeats Blood and the Moon

“Albert Camus was a goalie, and I feel pretty comfortable attributing the entire structure of existentialist thought to that fact” —Laurent Dubois on goalies

“Have you heard the expression ‘prevention is nine-tenths the cure’? Well in the case of suicide, it’s actually ten-tenths the cure ” —Damsels in Distress

“Ринулся в чащу, а там берлога
шел на медведя, а их там шесть –
Это почерк дьявола, а не Бога,
Это дьявол под маской Бога
Отнимает надежду там где надежда есть”
—Д. Быков Новая графология-2

 

 

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Unfalsifiable thoughts on falsifiability

To be able to tell science from other kinds of study, Karl Popper developed the idea that for a theory to be scientific, there ought to be an experimental way to show that the theory is false based on predictions it makes. He called this criterion “falsifiability” and claimed that it was central to science. To what extent that is true has been a subject of long debate, but the lack of falsifiability is also the basis of attacks on certain well-established scientific theories; the theory of evolution, for example. I think the people who attack evolution in this way make a good point.

When biologists are asked what would cause them to pronounce evolution false, the canonical answer (supposedly first given by JBS Haldane) is a pre-cambrian rabbit. But honestly, even that might not be enough. If we found a fossil rabbit that seemed older than all other life on earth, would that really outweigh everything we know that causes us to believe in evolution? I think not. Instead, we’d spend a lot of time trying to figure out how a pre-cambrian rabbit could have come to be, or, more likely, what kind of mistakes we could have made to think that something is a pre-cambrian rabbit when it actually wasn’t.

What we wouldn’t do is throw out the entire edifice of evolution. Because by this point, it’s more than a theory: it’s a framework for thinking about things and for arranging almost all of our knowledge about biology. You might as well ask what sort of information would invalidate the theory of chemical elements existing. It’s not imaginable, because, again, we are not dealing with individual facts or theories but with ways of thinking and arranging information. That does not make that way of thinking unscientific – it’s just that the criterion for testing individual predictions and huge frameworks might be different.

Some would go even further. Sean Carroll wrote that the idea of falsifiability ought to be retired entirely. He wrote with reference to string theory, which he claims is scientific though not it does not make falsifiable predictions. There was immediate outcry from Carroll’s colleagues, who pointed out just how useful falsifiability has been, and also that the actual criterion philosophers of science talk about when they want to show that science needs a connection with the empirical world is more nuanced.

I agree with much of what Carroll’s critics say. But I do think that a less rigid viewpoint is again useful. Hypotheses that we don’t think are falsifiable or connected to empirical results right now may still be worth putting forward. That is because falsifiability is not a quality that remains the same for ever. For now, I know of no predictions of string theory that everyone agrees are testable. But that may be changing.

I am thinking specifically of the work of people such as Nima Arkani-Hamed to calculate phenomenology questions using string theory tools. Those of us without a string theory background may still not understand what an amplituhedron is, but we can judge it by whether it’s a useful mathematical tool for figuring out how subatomic particles scatter off each other, say at the Large Hadron Collider.

…And it isn’t. At least not yet. But it looks like it might be in the future. And this kind of move from non-testable to testable has a great pedigree because we are not always well equipped to know where science will go. We can easily imagine detectors that are just like what we have, but slightly more sensitive. It is difficult to imagine scientific instruments that do something totally different than what we already have.

For an example of a formerly unfalsifiable idea that is now being tested, we can turn to the world of physical anthropology. Around 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, the amount of cultural artefacts associated with humans increases dramatically. This is usually called the Upper Paleolithic Explosion, and is a huge mystery because it happens about 100,000 years later than the emergence of biologically modern humans does. It’s as if modern humans evolved, then didn’t really do anything new for about 100,000 years, and then suddenly came up with much more complex tools, sewing, burial, art and even music, all at once.

Biologist and anthropologist Richard Klein saw the pattern and came up with an idea: what if it was a single sudden and rapidly spreading genetic mutation that brought about behavioural modernity? There were other explanations offered for the Upper Paleolithic Explosion: the stress of meeting another species of human (Biologically Modern Humans meeting Neanderthals in Europe), a pattern of selective preservation, luck in what turns up in archaeological digs, the emergence of trade, etc. Klein’s theory was completely untestable at the time he put it forward. But now, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for genetics are sequencing archaic homo sapiens genes and can hope to figure out what the difference between them and us is – and whether that difference is something that changed very swiftly 40,000 – 50,000 years ago. If falsifiability came to Richard Klein’s theory, why not to other theories we currently don’t think can be tested? Once again, less absolute rigidity in thinking about scientific theories seems helpful to me.

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