Relative Morality and Basketball

Hello skeptics and science lovers,

Today I am going to be making an analogy between moral relativism and the NBA draft, to try to demonstrate how almost nothing can be absolutely immoral. But before I do this, I am going to have to explain the NBA draft to some of the less sporting readers.

In the NBA draft (wiki page here,, the 6 teams with the worst records for the whole season get put into a draft lottery. I’m not going to explain the exact way it happens, but the odds of a particular team getting drafted (which is determined by their win-record) happens in a descending order, with the worst team having a 25% chance of getting first pick, and the 6th worst team having a 0.5% chance of having first pick. The net total of all the odds is 100%.

I now need to talk about likeliness and unlikeliness. In mathematics, there is a scale of likelihood which ranges from ‘certain’ at 100% to ‘impossible’ at 0%, with 50% being the medium. Anything above 50% on the scale is considered ‘likely’, and anything below 50% being considered ‘unlikely’. That’s basic chance in mathematics. This is just a very crude scale though, which is important in moral relativism. Luckily though, we can apply a more knowledgeable process to find out odds. Instead of putting things into two categories, likely and unlikely, we put them on a spectrum. Once they are on this spectrum we can choose the ‘most likely’ option. It’s not necessarily ‘likely’ but it is the ‘most likely’.

Lets apply this crude chance to the NBA draft. Overall, it is ‘unlikely’ that the worst team will get the first pick, as their odds are only 25%. But it is still considered the most likely option, because it is more than any of the other possibilities. Because it is the most likely possibility, it is still considered ‘most likely’ that the worst team will get the first pick. This ‘most likely’ is important.

At this point you may be thinking “What does anything about this have to do with moral relativism?”. Well, its time to find out. If we exchange ‘likely’ with ‘moral’, and ‘unlikely’ with ‘immoral’, it is easy to see that chance and relative morality are quite similar, and it is also easy to see that absolute morality isn’t a very versatile option.

If we exchange ‘likelihood’ with ‘amount of pain caused’, you have a relative morality spectrum. at one end, you have things which are certainly moral, they cause absolutely no harm at all. At the other end, you have things which are definitely not moral, things which cause only harm.

Obviously, a lot less things fall at the ends of the spectrum in morality than they do in likelihood, but the analogy is the same. From this, we can also see that an absolute morality breaks down. In absolute morality, there is a clear division line between ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ things, which fall on either side of the spectrum.

If we apply the NBA draft to this situation, there is nothing ‘moral’ which can be done by somebody who employs absolute morality. Every single option results in something which is immoral to the absolute morality champion. If you use absolute morality, then what in the name of Zeus are you going to do? Curl up in a ball as your brain goes in to shut down? Doing nothing is the answer whenever I ask a Christian about the ‘killing 1 to save 100’ problem.

If we use moral relativism, there is an easy way out of the situation. We pick the 25% option, because it causes much less harm than the 0.5% option. In moral relativism, there is no ‘right or wrong’, like there is only ‘likely or unlikely’ in crude chance. We can apply the more knowledgeable option, and put our options onto the moral scale. By taking the 25% option, it is not necessarily ‘right’, but it is the ‘most moral’ of all the choices, so it is the choice to take.

By applying the spectrum of chance, instead of two pigeonholes, to morality, we get moral relativism. Moral relativism is a much better option than absolute morality, because it never runs into any paradoxes under any situation, there is always some way which causes less harm than another.

The Madden Curse

Hello skeptics,

Today’s post is about the Madden curse associated with NFL, and some possible mechanisms for it, if any, but first, a little background on Madden and the Madden curse. Madden is one of the most popular sports games sold in the world, it is the official video game of the NFL and is produced every year by EA sports™. The game is named after the great John Madden, who is a hall of fame player and coach, as well as a commentator, one of the most famous players ever. It has been sold since 1993 on various platforms and has sold over 85 million copies. Every year, a succesful player from the previous year is selected to be shown on the front of the box, on the disk, the cover screen, everywhere. It is a big deal to be on the Madden cover, both for good and bad reasons.

The Madden curse pertains to that video game. The Madden curse is the belief that any player who is shown on the front of Madden NFL is going to have an injury or suffer some other terrible outcomes. While it is true that about half of the athletes on the cover have experienced downfalls of some sort, this is due mainly to a few reasons.

The first, and often most talked about reason why there appears to be a madden curse, is regression to the mean. Any player who features on the cover of madden has probably had the best season of their career, they got picked out of thousands of players, so they have had a pretty stellar year. It is expected therefore that the player probably won’t go as well the next year. If you break the passing yards record one year, odds are against doing it again next year.
We see this in all sports, when Usain Bolt broke the record for the 100 m sprint, nobody expected him to break it again the next time he ran. He didn’t. But nobody attributed this to the fact that he got in all of the papers the next day, they just said, “Well, you can’t expect him to break 2 records in a row”, and that was that. So we can’t just say it’s just regression to the mean, there must be something else psychological going on.

What makes the Madden curse different from Usain Bolt is that there is a lot of time and talk. When Usain Bolt broke the 100 m sprint record, it wasn’t long before his next run, a few days, maybe. That’s not enough time for a lot of hype to spread. In football, on the other hand, there is a break of about 5 months between the madden box being announced and the start of the season, and then another six months of playing time after that. That’s a long time for people to talk about the madden box, and a lot more time for the player to get injured or have a re-drawn contract or get cut or have a bed game of some sort. So there is huge magnification going on there. But there could still be more.

It could be that players are getting jealous of the madden cover superstar. Football is a rough, contact sport, and injuries do happen. There is also room for some bounty or targeting of players to go on, as we saw with the bounty system scandal surrounding the saints recently, so players could easily be going out for specific players to injure, or protect. If it’s a quarterback, then more linebackers will blitz him, he will be rushed with his throws more, he will get sacked or knocked down more often, and he won’t have a s good a game. If it’s a receiver, they will get double coverage manned up on them, so they will catch less passes, and get tackled more. If it’s a running back, linebackers will blitz. If it’s a defensive back, then quarterbacks will throw away from them so as not to get picked off, and they will be assigned better blockers.

The madden curse is yet another one of those superstitions which could have some possible real mechanisms, but which is really just a myth which continues on in society today.

Sports Superstition

Hello there, skeptical brothers-in-arms,

Today I am going to be blogging about some of the superstitions in sports, some of their implications, and how people continue to believe their superstitious rituals actually affect their game. I will start by listing some of the common superstitions held by professional sports people.
In baseball, when a pitcher is hot, nobody is allowed to talk to him. During play-off runs or winning streaks, many sportsmen wear the same socks or underwear, without washing them, for every game. Sportsmen often have lucky charms or rituals of some sort, and there are plenty of performance enhancing jewelery options out there for any sportsperson, from wrist bands to necklaces.

That list is just a list of superstitions, I’m not writing to you all today to tell you that superstitious beliefs are ridiculous, all of my readers should know that all ready. I’m going to tell you why some people persist with their beliefs, and how they can see evidence when there really is none.

One of the most influential effects on sport superstition is, you guessed it, the placebo effect. Studies have been done on the Power band, one of the most famous performance enhancing items around (before its many law-suits), has had tests done on it. The results of which showed that a person could reach almost 5 centimeters closer to the ground, upon the wearing of a Power Balance band. Now, to any unscientific layman, this would sound like an astounding proof of the power of the Power Balance band. But, if you are familiar with the scientific method, you will know that tests must be blinded. These tests where not blinded, the test subjects knew wether or not they were wearing the Power Balance band, and they knew the hypothesis, that Power Balance bands will show an increased effect.
Any scientist looking at these results would say Wow, the placebo effect is really that strong! This effect is also known of in other sports, where players and coaches have their own rituals. If you can put yourself in the mindset of a player, who, for the last 5 years of his playing career, has always gotten up out of bed on the right side, every game day, and then one day, he accidentally gets out of bed on the left side. If I knew that was one of my rituals, I would start to get anxious, and nervous. Anybody can figure out that a baseball pitcher who is more worried about what side of the bed he got out of this morning than whether to throw a fastball or a splitter, is not going to play as well, he is not focusing on the game.

All of these rituals that sportsmen perform, might actually have an effect, but it is not how they think. Instead of warding of evil spirits, they are really just providing a comforting motion to perform to themselves, when there are 50 000 plus fans screaming yours and your teams names. These rituals provide something to calm the body down, in the nervous and high adrenaline sports arenas of today. Psychology has strange effects on humans.

Penalty Shoot-Out, By the Numbers


I recently was engaged in a debate with a friend of mine, over which position is more important in a game of soccer, the goal-keeper, or the on-field players. This argument worked through things like the fact that the goalkeeper walked on to the field followed only by the captain at the start of the game, the fact that the goalkeeper is the last player left in a drop-out over-time situation, and that goalkeepers have been the only position to be unchanged for almost 150 years in the sport which is association football. Eventually, it got to the penalty shoot-out, the most pure goalkeeper vs striker situation. Obviously, my pro-striker debater did have the fact that most penalty shoot-outs end up with scores of at least 3 goals to each team. 85%, over four-fifths of penalty shots go in, so you must ask, “What makes the odds so stacked in the favor of the striker?” I’ll attempt to answer this question, and how to combat it if you are a goalkeeper, in this post.

The area of a goal is about 192 ft², and the area of a goalkeeper, if you give dimensions of 1 foot wide by 6 foot tall, that’s 6 ft². about 1/32 of the size of the goal… so actually, this initial number of 85% almost seems impressive. But obviously, the goalkeeper does not just stand in the goal at a random spot, and expect the striker to also kick to a random spot in the goal. Lets figure out how fast the reactions have to be for a goalkeeper.

An average penalty shot goes at about 100 kph (60 mph), so if you do the maths, that works out to about 0.4 seconds, or 400 milliseconds from kick to goal line. The speedy end of the reaction time for humans (which you would expect a goalkeeper to have) is 100 milliseconds. You can’t get the direction of the ball from the first 100 – 150 milliseconds of flight, so this gives about 150 – 200 milliseconds to get to where ever the ball has been kicked. This is extremely hard, so we have to be able to find a better way of saving penalty shots, but first, a bit of interesting findings on penalty shots which may help make things easier for the goalkeeper or the striker.

It has been found that goalkeepers will dive to the right more when their team is behind on the scoreboard, and strikers will kick more at the goalkeeper when their team is behind on the scoreboard. This could give the goalkeeper or striker an advantage if they were to know about the habits of their opposition, but any good soccer player will be studied up on things like these, so it becomes an infinite regression of:-
I know that he will kick to the right, but maybe he knows that I know that he will kick to the right, but now I know that he knows that I know that he will kick to the right etc.
So it is best to just rule out picking a side based on psychology, and look for some biometric ways to predict the direction of a kick.

A study has been done in Canada, looking at this problem. The looked at the following variables :- the penalty taker’s starting position, angle of approach to the ball, lean of the penalty taker, the placement of the non-kicking foot, or the contact of the kicking foot on the ball. They found that the cue which had the sweetest combination of both accuracy and reaction time was the angle of the non-kicking foot. This gave the goalkeeper an extra 200 milliseconds of time before the kick, allowing for almost half a second (which feels like a million years when the trophy is on the line, I swear) to move towards the direction if the ball. The placement of the foot gave an 80% accuracy at predicting the kick.

That’s great, but as a goalkeeper, I want to squeeze as much as I can out of the research, and luckily, research in England has found just that. They attached eye-tracking goggles to strikers and followed the eye-movement before and leading up to the kick. They found that strikers who stared down the goalkeeper kicked a lot more of their shots straight towards the goalkeeper than those who looked at the ground or to either side of the goalkeeper, so this suggests that a goalkeeper who finds their eyes locked with a striker should expect a kick coming closer to them than those strikers who didn’t engage eye-contact with the goalkeeper.

So what we can find these studies is that just guessing or reacting after the kick is just not going to cut it, and the best way to predict the direction of a kick is to look at the planting foot, and the direction which it is pointed at. I’ll leave it at that, and give you a customary quote from Max Planck, “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Max Planck, a German Physicist of some note.