If sports were reported like science

By Phil Plait | June 18, 2010 11:59 am

This is simply a thing of beauty: what if sports news were reported like science?

HOST: In sports news, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti today heavily criticised a controversial offside decision which denied Didier Drogba a late equaliser, leaving Chelsea with a 1-all draw against Sunderland.
INTERCOM: Wait. Hold it. What was all that sports jargon?
HOST: It’s just what’s in the script. All I did was read it – I’ve got no idea what it’s really on about.

Ha! It’s really a wonderful writeup. If only they had added a line saying "Referees are baffled" then it would’ve been perfect.

Tip o’ the red flag to Swoopy. Mmmmmm, Swoopy™.

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Comments (42)

  1. Patrick

    Off topic a bit Phil, but I was reading the August 2004 Sky and Telescope letters to the editor (under the guise of working. I was supposed to be reading old reviews of my company’s products, but how cool is it that S&T is required reading for work). They were mostly in regard to your article in May 2004 “Bad Astronomy” .

    I have never seen so many responses to one article before, and they were hilarious in their cognitive dissonance. It was like comments on this blog, but in glossy print.

  2. Wow. That is exactly what its like. Although its not exactly fair to say we should report science in highly technical terms. Although the rest is spot on.
    Science is so deeply technical, that anyone with a HS science education or even a BS in science would not be able follow a technical conversation.
    In fact a PhD in physics might have a hard time following a microbiologist.
    However, if we would all just recognize this inability, and stop polluting the air with our uninformed noise, we might be able to move forward on so many issues.
    And if the media would have qualified science reporters rather putting fully ignorant reporters and pundits on it….

  3. Gus Snarp

    Actually, I really need soccer dumbed down like that for me. I have no idea what they are doing or what the announcers are talking about beyond “put the ball in the net, no hands”. I can handle more technical science reporting, but if someone would simplify soccer this way, maybe I’d get it. In fact, I now know what “offside” means in soccer thanks to this bit of satire.

  4. Shoeshine Boy

    If it involved a NASA project, they would have to include the cost.

    “In sports news, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti (whose salary is $10M) today heavily criticised…”

  5. lol @shoeshine boy. That’s a perfect point. the public is usually up in arms about a science department getting 15 million dollars over 5 years but don’t bat an eye at buying a ticket to support and watch a team with a 150 million dollar a year pay roll.

  6. This particular example is even more apropos, given the US being denied an outright win for basically the same thing

  7. JimG

    They’re already closer than you think. I’m a reporter who’s never had any interest in sports, and on the rare occasions I’ve had to proofread sports pages, the insider sports talk has baffled me. Yet the sportswriters and regular copy editors tell me that the sports fans understand. Maybe the problem is that there aren’t enough “science fans” in on the lingo.

  8. Leon

    “If only they had added a line saying “Referees are baffled” then it would’ve been perfect.”

    Or better yet, if they began the sportscast announcing in big letters (or a loud voice) that “this decision challenges the field of soccer!!!”

  9. hhEb09'1

    I’m confused. If the equaliser was denied, how’d they end up in a draw?

  10. Gary Ansorge

    One of my hobbies is poetry. Good poets must choose the exact language for their audience, so they will have a decent chance of understanding ones meaning. In order to do this, the average half way decent poet has a working vocabulary of roughly a third of a million words, though our audience may understand barely 25,000. Now, if I write a poem to appeal to scientists, I will use language they comprehend. If I write a poem for dopers,,,well, you get the picture.

    Sports reporters play to a large, sports oriented audience. Science reporters play to a much more limited audience and though there are many people marginally interested in science, most are unacquainted with our specialized slang. The job of a talented reporter is to translate that slang into a more or less comprehensible, generalized tongue. The average(American) high school graduate only understands about 25,000 words of English so the reporter has to comprehend a great deal more and be able to boil it down into those limits.

    Too bad the average reporter is barely more competent than our high school grads.

    Gary 7

  11. KC

    LOL @ shoeshine boy!

    They’d also include the construction costs of the stadium, as well as the ticket prices…

    …and then blame the President when the home team loses.

  12. Chris

    Reminds me of people complaining that in Obama’s Tuesday speech about the oil spill he was talking at a 10th grade level and it was over the heads of many in the audience. Really? That is just sad.

  13. Szwagier

    @Chris.

    Indeed. The linguist’s linguists over at Language Log have today thoroughly urinated all over that sort of analysis.

    One of the commenters on the piece, Jack Lynch, related the following story:

    For a lark I once ran the first sentence of Milton’s Paradise Lost through some software that estimates “reading level.” Different tests give you very different numbers. I was delighted, though, to see that one of them said PL was appropriate for (something like) 187th graders.

    So much for reading levels. To us linguists, they’re generally about as accurate as astrology.*

    *Note desperate attempt to stay on topic.

  14. Luis

    - Moving on to science news, a crowd of thousands gathered in front of Cornell’s physics building to celebrate that Dr. Stevenson has been awarded a NSF grant. We have our reporter Nick O’Hare ready to report back. Good evening Nick, for what I see from here, that’s quite a party they are throwing!
    – That’s right, Nick, people here are going crazy. Let’s not forget that Dr. Stevenson is one of the assistant professors with the largest and most loyal fan base in the country, and that shows. Here we have one of them. Sir, are you happy that Dr. Stevenson finally got this publication?
    – Hell yeah! I mean, history had a debt with him since his work on quark spins got rejected for PhysRevD. We all knew, though, that was going to come back, and this project on symmetry breaking is gonna be f***ing awesome!
    -Thank you sir! Indeed, many commentators agree that, with this grant in his pocket, Dr. Stevenson stands a good chance of getting tenure, something that only 5 other people have managed to do at Cornell since 1994.
    – Thank you, Nick, but I’m going to cut you there because we have Dr Stevenson live from his lab. Good evening, doc!
    – Good evening, Mark.
    – So, tell us, how did the grant application go.
    – Well, first we had an idea, and then we wrote a proof-of-concept paper which we used as a basis for the grant. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy because NSF reviewers are a tough bunch and if you make even a tiny mistake like screwing a triple integral, then boom! you are out. But the postdocs did a good job of doublechecking everything and we were able to resist until the end.
    – Dr Stevenson, some of your fans are even talking about you being in line for a Nobel Prize.
    – Well, yes, that’s the dream we all have when we are kids, isn’t it? To be there at the top getting your Nobel medal. It would be a nice way of topping my career, but now me and my team have to concentrate on our day-to-day work.
    – Thank you very much for you time, Dr. Stevenson
    – Thanks to you, Mark.
    – In other news, Ed Witten’s scandal takes a surprising turn —as you remember, Witten was suspended from publishing in the next ten issues of Science after he spat on Brian Greene’s face during String Theory World Conference 2010. However, new video footage from a fan attending the event reveals that Witten was reacting to a shameful taunt by Greene, who called Witten’s mother, and I quote “a woman so dumb she can’t distinguish a proton from a neutrino”.

  15. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    @ #9. hhEb09’1:

    I’m confused. If the equaliser was denied, how’d they end up in a draw?

    That would be the aggregate score: if Chelsea lost 1 – 0 to Sunderland in the last match, but won
    1 – 0 against Sunderland in the previous match of a two-legged tie, then the aggregate score would be 1 – 1 (a draw).

    Also, for those who are still confused about the “offside” rule, see: Offside (association football).
    :cool:

  16. Steve in Dublin

    That would be the aggregate score: if Chelsea lost 1 – 0 to Sunderland in the last match, but won 1 – 0 against Sunderland in the previous match of a two-legged tie, then the aggregate score would be 1 – 1 (a draw).

    Ivanman, that’s stretching it a bit, don’t you think? Most people would assume that commentary was in the context of a single match. You’re nothing but a football apologist ;-)

    But seriously, that first sentence by the HOST threw me too. Doesn’t help the author’s cause much, unless… it was intentional? Still, a good piece overall that shows what happens when buffoonsunqualified people are given equal time.

  17. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    @Steve in Dublin,

    Now don’t get me started on trying to explain — especially to Americans — how a football (soccer) team can win on “away goals” after losing the second match of a two-legged tie! :-)

    (It’s a funny old game!)

  18. Steve in Dublin

    Ivanman, you’re right. That is a stone best left unturned.

    Back on topic. Further to my previous comment, it’s not so much ‘unqualified’ people that cause trouble when it comes to the public’s perception of a complicated issue, but rather the outliers, or marginalised scientists. There’s always some crank willing to buck the consensus just to get his/her 15 minutes of fame, and it’s these people – who seemingly present a valid argument from authority – being given equal airtime by the media that are the problem.

  19. 'neathCobaltSkies

    I always thought it would be fun to challenge a sportscaster to cover a Messier marathon. You can get a sense of what that would be like from ASTRONOMY HACKS by Thompson & Thompson.

  20. lookylou

    I guess I don’t get it: sports IS reported EXACTLY like that. I’m only a very casual soccer fan (soccer is the most un-American of sports (and I’m sure that’s seen as a feature, not a bug throughout most of the world) as good play so often goes completely unawarded) and I understand 90% of that (the equalizer did have me baffled). Was the point to ridicule those that say that science reporting is too full of jargon? (actually, it’s not, good science writing generally has much LESS jargon than good sports writing).

  21. Timmy

    Now don’t get me started on trying to explain — especially to Americans — how a football (soccer) team can win on “away goals” after losing the second match of a two-legged tie!

    Is there such a thing as “here goals” ?

  22. Grand Lunar

    Thankfully, we have “Popular Science”, ‘Discover’, and of course vairous blogs, like this one, to translate science so that others can really get what is being said.

    If only the media took notes of this….

  23. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    Timmy (#21):

    Is there such a thing as “here goals”?

    No, the correct term is “home goals”.

  24. Hi. I’m the guy who wrote this, and the answer to the “equaliser” point is that I screwed up there. Fixed now.

    The whole thing was written in about 20 minutes, so there are probably a few other whopping great technical errors.

  25. Pi-needles

    Classic! :-D

    & for the record, *I* don’t understand what the blazes the “offside rule” is & a lot of other sports jargon. Goal, however I do just about grasp the concept of. ;-)

    So I’m with (#3.) Gus Snarp there.

    @11. KC Says:

    LOL @ [4] shoeshine boy! They’d also include the construction costs of the stadium, as well as the ticket price …and then blame the President when the home team loses.

    It always amazes and puzzles me why people are so happy about sports stars & managers / coaches etc .. (especially those who don’t physically risk their lives eg. mountaineers, race car drivers, extreme sporters) getting paid such colossal amounts of money for doing something thatr is supposed to be done just for the fun and joy of it.

    Sports is essentially about playing games either as compeditive series (another form of game in itself) or for health & lifestyle reasons. Which is fine, there are sports I like too.

    BUT why does it get so much attention and so much money & grants especially at the elite level?

    What does a nation really get out of, say, Olympic medals and is it really, honestly worth quite so much funding?

    Plus why is it seemingly a heresy and considered to be so rude to ask the above question when science has to beg and justify every last penny based on how this will directly help people?

    @14. Luis : Thanks. LOL IF only .. :-)

  26. I don’t get it. That IS how soccer is reported…. Do people think that’s technical talk?

  27. Pi-needles

    Oh & what I wrote in # 24 about funding sports also applies to the money spent on the arts area equally as much if not more.

    [rant on] Especially when so much of “modern art” is, lets face it, rubbish designed just to shock or be obscure and inaccessible to the “uncultured” majority.

    Putting on plays or movies and painting portraits and art festivals and suchlike other things is great – I appreciate these myself. :-)

    But is (esp. the govt) spending so much on what amounts to people’s recreation and hobbies *really* a good use of (esp. taxpayers) money?

    I’m NOT saying arts and sport shouldn’t get *any* funding – these areas are good and do add to our pleasures in life and our culture. However, I would question the *amount* that gets spent on them sometimes especially versus other more necessary or useful things and areas eg. science, hospitals, social welfare etc.. :-(

    Is it really worth millions of dollars to get some player who can kick a ball into a net or into a small hole in a game?

    Is it really worth millions to have a cow cut in half, preserved in chemicals and stuck in an art gallery alongside a working blender containing live goldfish and abstract paintings that somewhere between 90 to 99% of the population can’t understand and don’t appreciate?

    What does this sort of spending say about what we value and what sort of society we are? [/rant off.]

    @ 25. Matt Roman: Yes. ;-)

  28. JB of Brisbane

    I find swimming has its own jargon. For example:

    “I expect him to medal in the two hundred fly at this meet…”

    Okay, “two hundred fly” I get, but since when was “medal” a verb? Oh, and they use the word “meet” to describe everything from a local club carnival to the Olympic Games!

  29. Anchor

    Phil, the complete headline from the ‘Public Outreach Department’ would be:

    “Study: Referees are Baffled more than Previously Thought.”

  30. Szwagier

    @ lookylou #20

    I think the most telling line in the spoof is:

    HOST: It’s just what’s in the script. All I did was read it – I’ve got no idea what it’s really on about.

    You’re pretty much right, though. The problem is not the jargon per se; the problem is science writers in the MSM who either don’t understand or don’t want to understand what they’re writing about. Ben Goldacre’s site is full of examples of this. On a related note, I’m a linguist, and the reporting on language-related matters can be even poorer – even amongst blogging science writers, unfortunately – than science reporting.

    @ Pi-needles #26

    I know you had a rant on, but really:

    Especially when so much of “modern art” is, lets face it, rubbish designed just to shock or be obscure and inaccessible to the “uncultured” majority.

    Let me rephrase that. “Especially when so much of ‘modern science’ is, let’s face it, rubbish designed just to shock or be obscure and inaccessible to the ‘uncultured’ majority.”

    Do you see what I’m getting at? Those two statements are equivalent in terms of ignorance and bias, and they’re equivalently false. This is not the place to get into a discussion of contemporary art, but if you really believe what you just wrote, as opposed to being snarky for the fun of it, then you and I need a serious discussion. :)

  31. MB

    @Luis (#14): That’s a win! If only it were so…

  32. Nigel Depledge

    Gary Ansorge (10) said:

    Sports reporters play to a large, sports oriented audience. Science reporters play to a much more limited audience and though there are many people marginally interested in science, most are unacquainted with our specialized slang. The job of a talented reporter is to translate that slang into a more or less comprehensible, generalized tongue. The average(American) high school graduate only understands about 25,000 words of English so the reporter has to comprehend a great deal more and be able to boil it down into those limits.

    Maybe this is a fair point (although I guess one could argue about the loss of quality in aiming at the lowest common denominator).

    However, the article Phil links to is merely an illustration of a real phenomenon. The Times does not dumb down its art and literature pages for the benefit of people who don’t have a BA in a relevant discipline. And yet it feels the need to dumb down science when it deigns to mention it.

    I don’t know if this tells us more about science reporting or about the reporting on arts and literature. In science, not all opinions are equal (reality arbitrates), whereas in art and literature, who’s to say if one opinion is more or less valid than another?

  33. Nigel Depledge

    Szwagier (13) said:

    One of the commenters on the piece, Jack Lynch, related the following story:

    For a lark I once ran the first sentence of Milton’s Paradise Lost through some software that estimates “reading level.” Different tests give you very different numbers. I was delighted, though, to see that one of them said PL was appropriate for (something like) 187th graders.

    So much for reading levels. To us linguists, they’re generally about as accurate as astrology.*

    Hmmm … In my (albeit limited) experience, reading level tests are only applicable if you take a decent-sized paragraph at least. The bigger the sample, the more accurate they can be.

  34. Nigel Depledge

    @ Luis (14): LOLZ!

    * Sigh * If only . . .

  35. Szwagier

    @Nigel #33

    OT: You’re right, of course. It does need to be longer than a sentence. Actually, though, the problem with these readability scores, as Mark Liberman wrote in the comments on the LL blog I linked to, is this:

    Word length is an important factor in the calculation of so-called readability indices, like the Automated Readability Index, which is just a linear combination of letters per word and words per sentence, minus a constant offset. Most of these indices are amazingly simple-minded — they don’t even consider word frequency statistics, much less anything about syntactic or semantic complexity, and as a result, it’s easy to construct texts that would test many “grades” away from their nominal index, if you actually checked how well kids of different ages were able to understand them. And (though I haven’t seen much work on this) the application of these indices to real-world materials has a high enough variance, relative to actually measured readability, that I don’t believe that they tell us much about speeches like those under discussion here. (If in fact they tell us anything much useful about anything).

    He also says, in response to a question about sentence length:

    The index calculations depend only on the mean values, not on any other properties of the distributions, for sentence length as well as other variables. So a text where all the sentences are twenty words long wi[ll] score the same as one where half the sentences are 2 words long and half of them are 38 words long; or any other distribution whose mean is the same.

    I have little experience of readability indices either, but I’m willing to take Liberman’s word on it. He’s right about an awful lot of language-related things.

    Back on topic. Excuse the interruption.

  36. I think Knell is aiming too low talking about soccer – he should write an article on cricket! Though I too find some of the soccer rules incomprehensible, especially after some of the umpiring blunders made at the world cup last night.

    For a slightly higher level of science journalism, log into the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and listen to The Science Show, Ockham’s Razor and the Health Report. Highly accessible stuff without too much dumbing down.

    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/
    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/healthreport/
    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/ockhamsrazor/

  37. Gonzo

    I wonder what would happen if sports were reported in any way other than the way it actually is. Sports reporting was probably a bad comparison as sports reporters are little more than PR mouth pieces for the organizations they cover. Reading sports reporting really isn’t much more enlightening than most science coverage.

  38. Andy Fleming

    Football?? Urghh! Overpaid ‘celebrities’ and their awful WAGs. Now cricket really is a GREAT game, and we’re just off to see Durham v Yorkshire in the T20! Hopefully there’ll be plenty of boundaries, extras and no middle order collapses with plenty of batsmen ‘in’ and ‘not out’…. Sorry about the jargon, but I’m a hypocrit!!!!

  39. Nigel Depledge

    There is perhaps a broader point to be made, too.

    Not only is science news all too often dumbed down to the point where it almost becomes wrong (and never mind errors in the reporting on top of that!), but media figures all too often convey the impression that it doesn’t matter that they don’t understand it.

  40. Magnum

    This post could have become a World Cup discussion thread, but didn’t. Bad Astronomy commenters failed :oops:

    37. Gonzo
    Sports reporting might be like that in the US, but pick up a newspaper anywhere else in the world and you’ll see a different story.

  41. #25 said

    No. Sport is a form of theatre with the advantage that there is a new script at every showing. Now let us talk about cricket – baseball for the thinking man. Or to get the chronology right -cricket – the game that was dumbed down to create baseball. :-)

  42. Revolutions happen in sport, as well as science.

    Have you seen what’s currently happening with the French team?
    They’re staging a revolt. They don’t like the trainer, and they don’t like the way that the trainer has been briefing the press about them. So they’re refusing to turn up for training until one of their guys who got booted out for being rude to the trainer (after the trainer leaked the story to the press) gets reinstated.

    As for the implication that rules in football are set … well, a few years ago they were thinking of changing some of the timings. I think they’ve changed the rules on sporting strip a few times, and this year they’re trying out a new ball with different aerodynamics. It’s not been particularly well received, but at least they’re showing a willingness to try new things.

    And it’s not too long ago that the football community decided that it was indefensible that its referees were essentially volunteers … multi-million-pound decisions were being made on the basis of referees’ judgements, and there were limits to how far we could hold those referees to account when they got things badly wrong, because they weren’t being properly paid for their work.

    So football referees are now paid “professionals”, whereas scientific referees, although they may hold professional positions in the field, are still essentially operating as amateurs. In that respect, football has arguably moved ahead of science in trying to make its quality control systems more accountable.

    (and in football, the idea that anonymous committees could decide whether a goal was scored or not, and you weren’t allowed to find out who made the decision, would be unthinkable – people would consider it an open invitation for bias or worse).

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