Method to March Madness

By David Swanson

(In which I scientifically prove the outcome of the NCAA tournament, sort of.)

Maybe they should call it ESP and drop the N. Apparently it’s possible — at least in basketball — to predict the future with significant, though far from perfect, accuracy, by being very familiar with the type of event being predicted, and without necessarily understanding how you do it. A recent study by neuroscientists, of which I have only read this summary and similar summaries, but which you can link through and read in full for $32, found that experts on basketball could predict with better than average accuracy whether a shot would go in by viewing the shooter release the ball, but skilled players of basketball could predict with 70 percent accuracy even before the shooter released the ball.

One lesson here is the expertise to be found in those engaging in, rather than commenting on, an activity — at least a physical activity. But more lessons might possibly exist in the examination of HOW players are able to predict. It’s tempting to imagine that shooters telegraph through their body language their own confidence that a shot will sink. But such a display of confidence might take a form not unique to basketball, not requiring the discerning eye of a basketball player, and if the confidence had any basis it would be connected to how the player shot the ball. It’s tempting also to assume that a player’s judgment incorporates the full scene, the position and distance of the basket, the movement and speed of the shooter, the bend in the shooter’s legs, the focus in the shooter’s eyes, etc. I can’t rule out either of those interpretations and doubt that neuroscientists can. But the evidence they found apparently points to something else, a tell-tale little sign that the shooter gives off which can be read in isolation: the position of the shooter’s pinky.

When the players watched shooters and made predictions, there was activity in the area of their brains that controls the movement of their own pinky fingers, specifically the muscle that pulls the pinky out from the other fingers. This suggests that players, at least the professional Italian players in this study (who probably resemble NBA players as much as high school players resemble college) watch a shooter’s pinky in order to predict a shot’s success. It is, as far as I know, universally accepted that the pinky actually is critical in the shooting of a basketball, at least for most, if not all, shooters. So, this would suggest that players are watching a subtle but real indicator of a shot’s likelihood to sink, in addition – presumably – to all the other indicators that we all know about. And, in fact, there’s no indication that the players were themselves aware that they were doing this.

Now, the position of the pinky, in addition to determining the control and spin of the shot, may also correlate with better arm position and overall position of the five fingers. It may be that the experiment only showed right-handed shooters from the right, whereas other views would have yielded different results. And, of course, in a real game a defender is also aware of an individual shooter’s history and technique, allowing perhaps for more accurate predictions. The point is, I think, that — at least when dealing with split-seconds (not days or years) and simple events with only two possible outcomes — we can feel like we mysteriously see the future and be right.

Now, assuming that the position of a pinky is a highly accurate predictor of shooting ability, and that skilled players know this on some level, have they also learned to get their pinkies into the right position when they shoot? If they haven’t, will they now? And, particularly if they haven’t, are they able to predict the success of their own shots on the basis of where they put their own pinkies? That is, can their brains tell them their shot is going to miss on the basis of a key shooting technique that their same brains are not aware enough to employ?

I ask this because, of course, it would be wonderful to be able in the future to better predict many types of things still further in the future, even complex things involving masses of people and sociological trends. But, sadly, short-term and superficial reactions to things like 30-second television commercials will always be easier to predict than the reaction of a population to an innovative and book-length argument. And our society is already suffering, possibly dying, from a surfeit of prediction and a lack of effort to change expected outcomes.

Nonetheless, I can state with a high degree of certainty, based on intense physical training, combined with a tolerance for admitting the obvious, that the University of Virginia will NOT win the NCAA championship this year, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan will never accept a foreign occupation, we will never be glad we gave Wall Street trillions of our children’s dollars, the private health insurance companies will never permit the creation of a decent healthcare system as long as they exist, and if Bush and Cheney do not go to prison for their crimes our nation will be ruled by people even more criminal and abusive than they were — long before the University of Virginia does win the NCAA championship.