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9:40am, April 8, 2011
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Science not in the zone
It makes no sense to analyze basketball shooting streaks (“In the zone,” SN: 2/12/11, p. 26) as though they were similar to slot machines or video games, which are supposed to be random. Basketball shooting, and other sports activities, are definitely not random events.
Walt Gray, Richland, Wash.

I was very surprised to hear the model that statisticians use to try to measure “streaks” in basketball. I would say that it is clearly wrong, and throws away very important information about time. Humans do not see streaks as mere repetition. They see them as rapid repetition. Throwing away the time information loses half the ball game, as it were.
Bruce Ewing, Eugene, Ore.

Based on my participation in sports (many decades ago), I believe there is a mind-body symbiosis that temporarily allows the player to concentrate on the play at hand and blot out distractions that often adversely influence the outcome. This has nothing to do with statistical clumps or patterns. It is peculiar to the human brain and its effectiveness in controlling the muscles involved. Quite often it is characterized by players as being “loose” or “dialed in” — their actions become instinctive and they no longer have to think as much about the moves involved. They are in a “zone.”

This is the same phenomenon involved when a field goal kicker, for example, can make every kick in practice but may miss in a game due to becoming “tight” when the kick has great importance. The 3-point shot contest associated with the NBA All-Star game is another example where one often sees shooters becoming dialed in (or not). A similar effect may be present when sports teams manage to develop extraordinary winning streaks. Success breeds success, as they say, and the collective team spirit becomes focused on the next game and thereby achieves better performance.
George Sutherland, Sammamish, Wash.

I have played competitive basketball for most of my 50-plus adult years, so I read Bruce Bower’s piece on the “hot hand” with great interest. I believe the problem with the research into performance streaks is that they have been done from the outside looking in. As an athlete who has been “in the zone” occasionally, I can testify that the phenomenon does indeed exist. This state can continue for part or all of a single game, but in my experience, it does not, unfortunately, stay around for subsequent games.
John Dee German, via e-mail

Strong placebo
The study described in “Possible relief for an irritable bowel” (SN: 1/29/11, p. 9) found that 41 percent of those receiving rifaximin for irritable bowel syndrome improved, while 32 percent of those on a placebo improved. The article then discusses pros and cons of the drug and possible FDA licensing. It seems to me that the real story here is that the placebo is 78 percent as effective as the drug being tested, not a ringing endorsement for the drug. Either the psychological effect of taking any pill is very significant for this condition, or there is some ingredient in the placebo that is unexpectedly effective against IBS.
Clark Waite, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

The study authors offered no explanation for the placebo effect in this trial. They did note that adverse effects were roughly equal in the two groups. Placebo effects are common in medical trials; this one was just greater than usual. —Nathan Seppa

Dumbing down vs. easier learning
As quoted, Conrad Wolfram (“Scientific Observations,” SN: 1/29/11, p. 4) stated that math problems used in educational classes are “dumbed-down” and involve lots of calculations, and therefore are not “real world” mathematics. As an educator of mathematics I frequently hear this criticism. While true to some degree, we should remember that most science experiments done in classrooms are vastly simpler than those done in “real world” labs; most classroom computer programming is far less complex than that of most business/industrial software; and most literature read by our grammar and high school students is more structured and works on far fewer levels than modern award-winning fiction (works by David Mitchell and William Gibson, for example). “Dumbed-down” artificial problems and models can help reinforce key math concepts without overwhelming students with complexity. Calculations are used as a way to learn how to manipulate more abstract expressions. Overreliance on software to perform math operations in class can impede the learning of abstraction skills.
Jerry Malczewski, Lancaster, N.Y.

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