“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”Red Sanders
This is a wise truth that has often been poorly interpreted. I despise some of the results that this sports quote has had in American culture. It has fostered a culture of bad sportsmanship in some places: an acceptance, even a dictum, that the ends justify the means – up to and including cheating, provided you can get away with it.
Winning every time is an impossible standard. In any competitive event, someone will win a particular game, and someone else will lose. Every participant will be on the losing side some of the time. Learning to lose gracefully despite a great effort is an essential aspect of sportsmanship that must be taught and learned, because it sure as hell isn’t part of human nature.
But there is wisdom here. The quote originates with a football coach. Football is a sport where there is a lot of everything – to even have a chance of winning, you have to do everything right. Not just performance on the field, but strategic choices made before and during the game, and mundane but essential elements like getting the right personnel on the field for each play. What? We’re punting? I thought it was third down!
You can do everything right and still lose. And that’s what I interpret the quote to really mean. You have to do everything to compete. But people will only judge you to be successful if you win.
To give a recent example, the Kansas City Chiefs won this year’s Superbowl. It was only a few months ago, though it seems much longer in pandemic time. The Chiefs dominated the Superbowl, but they nearly didn’t make it past the AFC Championship game.
The Tennessee Titans dominated the early part of the AFC Championship game. They had done everything right. They had peaked at the right time as a team in the overly long and brutal NFL season. They had an excellent game plan, just as they had had in handily defeating the highly favored New England Patriots on the way to the Championship game. Their defense admirably contained the high octane Chiefs offense. It looked like they were going to the Superbowl.
Then one key injury occurred. The Titans lost the only defender who could match up one on one with tight end Travis Kelce. This had an immediate impact on the game, as they Chiefs quickly realized they could successfully throw to Kelce over and over after not having been able to do so at all. The Titans were obliged to double-cover, which opened up other opportunities. The Chief’s offense went from impotent to unstoppable.
I remember this small detail because Kelce is a local boy. He attended the same high school as my daughters, playing on the same field they would (only shortly later) march on with the marching band during half times. If it weren’t for this happenstance of local interest, I probably wouldn’t have noticed this detail of the game, much less remember it.
The bigger point is that the Titans did everything right as a team. They lost anyway. All most people will remember is that the Chiefs won the Superbowl, not that the Titans almost made it there. Hence the quote:
“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
The hallmark of science is predictive power. This is what distinguishes it from other forms of knowledge. The gold standard is a prediction that is made and published in advance of the experiment that tests it. This eliminates the ability to hedge: either we get it right in advance, or we don’t.
The importance of such a prediction depends on how surprising it is. Predicting that the sun will rise tomorrow is not exactly a bold prediction, is it? If instead we have a new idea that changes how we think about how the world works, and makes a prediction that is distinct from current wisdom, then that’s very important. Judging how important a particular prediction may be is inevitably subjective.
It is rare that we actually meet the gold standard of a priori prediction, but it does happen. A prominent example is the prediction of gravitational lensing by General Relativity. Einstein pointed out that his theory predicted twice the light-bending that Newtonian theory did. Eddington organized an expedition to measure this effect during a solar eclipse, and claimed to confirm Einstein’s prediction within a few years of it having been made. This is reputed to have had a strong impact that led to widespread acceptance of the new theory. Some of that was undoubtedly due to Eddington’s cheerleading: it does not suffice merely to make a successful prediction, that it has happened needs to become widely known.
It is impossible to anticipate every conceivable experimental result and publish a prediction for it in advance. So there is another situation: does a theory predict what is observed? This has several standards. The highest standard deserves a silver medal. This happens when you work out the prediction of a theory, and you find that it gives exactly what is observed, with very little leeway. If you had had the opportunity to make the prediction in advance, it would have risen to the gold standard.
Einstein provides another example of a silver-standard prediction. A long standing problem in planetary dynamics was the excess precession of the perihelion of Mercury. The orientation of the elliptical orbit of Mercury changes slowly, with the major axis of the ellipse pivoting by 574 arcseconds per century. That’s a tiny rate of angular change, but we’ve been keeping very accurate records of where the planets are for a very long time, so it was well measured. Indeed, it was recognized early that precession would be cause by torques from other planets: it isn’t just Mercury going around the sun; the rest of the solar system matters too. Planetary torques are responsible for most of the effect, but not all. By 1859, Urbain Le Verrier had worked out that the torques from known planets should only amount to 532 arcseconds per century. [I am grossly oversimplifying some fascinating history. Go read up on it!] The point is that there was an excess, unexplained precession of 43 arcseconds per century. This discrepancy was known, known to be serious, and had no satisfactory explanation for many decades before Einstein came on the scene. No way he could go back in time and make a prediction before he was born! But when he worked out the implications of his new theory for this problem, the right answer fell straight out. It explained an ancient and terrible problem without any sort of fiddling: it had to be so.
The data for the precession of the perihelion of Mercury were far superior to the first gravitational lensing measurements made by Eddington and his colleagues. The precession was long known and accurately measured, the post facto prediction clean and irresolute. So in this case, the silver standard was perhaps better than the gold standard. Hence the question once posed to me by a philosopher of science: why we should care if the prediction came in advance of the observation? If X is a consequence of a theory, and X is observed, what difference does it make which came first?
In principle, none. In practice, it depends. I made the hedge above of “very little leeway.” If there is zero leeway, then silver is just as good as gold. There is no leeway to fudge it, so the order doesn’t matter.
It is rare that there is no leeway to fudge it. Theorists love to explore arcane facets of their ideas. They are exceedingly clever at finding ways to “explain” observations that their theory did not predict, even those that seem impossible for their theory to explain. So the standard by which such a post-facto “prediction” must be judged depends on the flexibility of the theory, and the extent to which one indulges said flexibility. If it is simply a matter of fitting for some small number of unknown parameters that are perhaps unknowable in advance, then I would award that a bronze medal. If instead one must strain to twist the theory to make it work out, then that merits at best an asterisk: “we fit* it!” can quickly become “*we’re fudging it!” That’s why truly a priori prediction is the gold standard. There is no way to go back in time and fudge it.
An important corollary is that if a theory gets its predictions right in advance, then we are obliged to acknowledge the efficacy of that theory. The success of a priori predictions is the strongest possible sign that the successful theory is a step in the right direction. This is how we try to maintain objectivity in science: it is how we know when to suck it up and say “OK, my favorite theory got this wrong, but this other theory I don’t like got its prediction exactly right. I need to re-think this.” This ethos has been part of science for as long as I can remember, and a good deal longer than that. I have heard some argue that this is somehow outdated and that we should give up this ethos. This is stupid. If we give up the principle of objectivity, science would quickly degenerate into a numerological form of religion: my theory is always right! and I can bend the numbers to make it seem so.
Hence the hallmark of science is predictive power. Can a theory be applied to predict real phenomena? It doesn’t matter whether the prediction is made in advance or not – with the giant caveat that “predictions” not be massaged to fit the facts. There is always a temptation to massage one’s favorite theory – and obfuscate the extent to which one is doing so. Consequently, truly a priori prediction must necessarily remain the gold standard in science. The power to make such predictions is fundamental.
Predictive power in science isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.