Scientists Might Not Know Hot Hand When They See It

By Siegfried, Tom | Science News, February 12, 2011 | Go to article overview

Scientists Might Not Know Hot Hand When They See It


Siegfried, Tom, Science News


Numbers never tell the whole story, even about sports. Numbers seldom tell the whole story about science, either. Consider the controversy regarding the hot-hand phenomenon in basketball. As Bruce Bower reports on Page 26 of this issue, humans may have been programmed by evolution to perceive clumps (or streaks) that are actually just statistical fluctuations. So some scientists believe that basketball players never really have a hot hand--any long run of successful shots is just one of those streaks that occasionally happen by chance.

Some scientific studies of the hot-hand effect have been unable to show that it is anything more than randomness in disguise. Fans and players, on the other hand, continue to insist that it exists. Perhaps basketball experts have been fooled by their evolution-based predispositions. Or maybe the scientists don't know what they're talking about.

In hot-hand studies, scientists examine propositions such as "making one shot increases the likelihood of making the next" as a definition of a hot hand. Or data are examined for streaks of consecutive made shots, or for sets of shots where a high percentage are made. A 1985 analysis along those lines found no reason to suspect anything other than chance variations in shooting performance. …

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