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March Madness

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year has come and gone. No, not Christmas, the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. This year was the best ever, seeing my Louisville Cardinals bring home the championship for the first time in twenty-seven years. It was a story that could have been written by a Hollywood studio: a coach looking for redemption after a great personal failing, leading a team to triumph over seven other schools, ailing family members and the most infamous injury in college basketball history.

With no help from the refs, of course.

Both the final against Michigan and the Elite Eight game against Duke were plagued by terrible officiating. Admittedly, the style of play in the old Big East was a bit more physical than in other conferences, but it seemed the refs were determined to wear out their whistles. One of the more egregious examples can be found during the title game, when a pass attempt by Chane Behanan was blocked by Michigan's McGary sticking out his leg and kicking the ball, right in front of the ref. No whistle. The ref had one flipping job, and he blew it. Despite bad calls, the ball never lies, the ball makes it right, Louisville won. I may not believe in alien abductions or hauntings, but I do believe in basketball.

A headline in the Onion once quipped, "New Study Finds Majority of Bullshit Calls Go To Other Team." There's not a sports-fan that feels there isn't some truth to that (and for Manchester City there is: a 2012 survey found 73.7% of all bad calls that season went against them (1)). Ask any given fan about any given game in any given sport and you are sure to hear a litany of blown calls. The length of said litany is indirectly proportional to the team's fortunes on the day in question. Here we have trained observers screwing up time and again. Trained observers with only one job, to watch the action, to make the correct calls.

One flipping job!

Often in the UFO research community, the "trained observer" status is treated almost as a superpower, an exaggeration of the credibility of the witness. When such a status is mentioned, often in the same breath as the witness being an astronaut, pilot, law enforcement or military personnel, there is an implicit demand we accept the claim without question. It is said being a trained observer makes it unlikely such a witness would make a mistake in reporting what they saw, that such claims should hold more weight. At least one book has been written operating based on this species of the appeal-to-authority fallacy (2). Yet, the above anecdote about referees should demonstrate that despite being "trained observers," any such observer is still a human being, fallible and prone as the rest of us.

Anecdotes, however, do not equate to evidence or reasoned arguments. Consider this instead: A recent study of radiologists found 83% failed to see a glaring anomaly when interpreting CT scans for signs of cancer (3). In this case, a phenomenon known as inattentional blindness was the culprit; the radiologists may have been so focused on looking for cancer they overlooked a dancing gorilla in the images.

Premier League referees fare better; the earlier mentioned soccer study found out of 674 calls made by the officials that season, 179 were wrong. While that equates to only 26% being wrong, that percentage still carried consequences. If those calls made been made the correct way, Manchester United would have won the title, not City.

While refs and radiologists may be trained observers, they do make mistakes of observation, often and grave.

This is not to say the eyewitness testimony from trained observers should be dismissed out of hand. On the contrary, as with all such testimony, it can be a basis for further investigation. But without corroborating empirical evidence, a trained observer's claims do not rise above the level of anecdote. Regardless of their authority, it does not make their claims any more or less real than that of any other witness.

1. Manchester United have cause for complaint, as unique survey highlights Premier League errors -- telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/manchester-united/9258810/Manchester-United-have-cause-for-complaint-as-unique-survey-highlights-Premier-League-errors.html

2. Leslie Kean, UFOS: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record -- ufosontherecord.com/leslie-kean/

3. Gorilla in the Bronchi -- theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/gorilla-in-the-bronchi/