Science Speaks: Electronic Refs Are Bad for Society

By Melissa Lafsky | June 13, 2008 9:48 am

tennisIt’s been a tough time for professional sports referees, what with recent charges of playoff-fixing, not to mention the gradual encroachment of electronic judging aids that may one day render the human version obsolete. But while it’s true that computerized refs won’t display racial bias, bet on games, or favor particular players/teams, they may not be 100 percent accurate, either. Several pro athletes (and many fans) have publicly objected to flaws in the technology, and now researchers at the Cardiff School of Social Sciences are backing up their protests with scientific evidence.

The research team, led by Dr. Robert Evans and professor Harry Collins, examined Hawk-Eye, the computerized officiating tool that’s commonly used in tennis to track the path of the ball. They noted that Hawk-Eye’s reported average error is 3.6mm—an interesting stat when you consider that the machine reported a ball hit by Rafael Nadal in the 2007 Wimbledon finals as being 1 mm inside the baseline, despite the fact that the umpire, the fans, and (most vociferously) Roger Federer thought it was out. The researchers’ analysis then showed that, in some occasions, Hawk-Eye’s errors can be even larger than 3.6mm—meaning there’s a good chance we should have trusted our eyes in that controversial call.

As such, Collins and Evans conclude that devices like Hawk-Eye don’t always get it right and “should not be relied on as the definitive decision maker,” but instead should be “used to correct or reduce human random errors, which come from lapses of concentration, an obscured view or very fast action—but the fact that the machine can also make mistakes should always be clear.”

Collins even argues that giving total power to Hawk-Eye and its electro-reffing ilk could harm us as a society, by “caus[ing] viewers to overestimate the ability of any technological devices to resolve disagreement among humans.” Seems like we’ve got plenty of evidence already to prove that theory.

  • Arthur Hill

    Afraid that machines will further reduce human existence to merely watching the machines and other humans (those who actually can do something other than be spectators) perform? Willing to accept error from mankind in order to avoid the realization that man is flawed and makes countless more mistakes than his own inventions? Worried that, unlike our inventions, which we constantly improve, often to the point of being statistically faultless, mankind has reached the peak of his abilities and is found wanting? There is a term for those who find fault with those (things) that out perform them and that want the superior done away with, or at least bridled, so as to bring it down to their level of mediocrity. They are known as liberals, the destroyers of advancement, the protectors of human failure, and the anathema of success.

    The author fails to even consider the fact that the machine WILL, OVERTIME, BE IMPROVED TO THE POINT OF BEING ERRORLESS WHILE MAN WILL NOT.

  • Robert Cantu

    Whenever we watch a sport, the general public accepts when a player makes a mistake. The tennis ball is returned into the net, a dropped pass, a flubbed ground ball, a missed putt, etc. We allow for these mistakes because players are human and will not have a perfect game. Yet, when it comes to referees, the general public expects perfection on every call. Because referees are human and can make mistakes, the solution in some sports was to see if electronic refs could do a better job. It is interesting to see even electronic refs are not perfect. But when they make a mistake, who or where do you aim your frustration at? A machine?

    Eventually, electronic refs may become perfect. But when that happens as it is happening now, we lose some of the humanity of competition; we lose some of the bonding with the sport. Sometimes part of the game is to hassle the referees about a close call (though with good sportsmanship). If it all became electronic refs, I think it would take away from the game. I say leave the human referees in, even though it includes a small amount of missed calls.

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