Basketball study refutes science methods

Postdoctoral associate Robert Warren used college basketball results to question the accuracy of existing theoretical models in ecology.
Postdoctoral associate Robert Warren used college basketball results to question the accuracy of existing theoretical models in ecology. Photo by Creative Commons.

It may not surprise many people that college basketball statistics have very little to do with life and death in the wild.

But ecologists do use theoretical models to study species diversity patterns — models which a Yale team has found are about as useful to ecological studies as basketball statistics.

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Research conducted by Robert Warren, postdoctoral associate for the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, has found that the theoretical models of species survival used widely among ecologists are useless. Warren and his team of researchers used college basketball statistics to argue that any large-scale set of statistics will produce an ecological pattern that does not apply to real-life communities.

The team looked at the win-loss records of 327 NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams from 2004-2008, a total of 20,000 games. Each team was treated as a species that is part of a college basketball community, similar to a jungle or river system. A team’s win or loss would be analogous to an individual’s survival or death. Warren said the basketball analogy was a very good fit for their experiment because it supported existing assumptions about ecological communities.

“Any community can only support so many individuals,” he said. “If you get more of one species you have to lose some of another species, so that makes the sports analogy actually work even better.”

Both Warren and David Skelly, School of Forestry professor and a contributing author, said they were surprised at how clear the patterns of basketball fit with the abundance of species in a community.

But the paper’s findings revealed that the exact same win-loss pattern appeared whether or not a basketball team’s outcomes were driven by random selection or by competitive exchange. The results supported the team’s hypothesis that scientists can’t infer anything from model-based theoretical patterns, Warren said.

“It’s kind of like looking at a cloud and interpreting it and saying it has meaning,” Warren said, adding that any large data set of numbers will generate the same pattern. “It’s just numbers [that have] nothing to do with ecology or college basketball.”

Skelly agreed, saying that the overarching message is that scientists can’t use theoretical models as a shortcut to explain species abundance distribution patterns. Instead, scientists may need to conduct their experiments by manipulating real-life communities, he said.

Warren said he and his team are the “jerks” who claim that ecologists are wasting valuable time and money overanalyzing these patterns and their significance to species diversity. This mindset is not new in the ecology world — the idea has existed for decades but few have adopted it, he said.

But other ecology experts said they still believe that theoretical patterns alongside field data help provide a clear picture of ecological patterns.

Brown University professor Mark Bertness said that field ecologists and experts in theoretical statistics rely on each other’s research to come up with stronger findings.

“Both things are complementary. … I don’t think it’s an either-or situation,” Maria Uriarte, assistant professor at Columbia University, said.

Warren came up with the idea for this project after spending six months searching for a cause to explain said ecological patterns.

Warren — a self-proclaimed “college basketball nut” — said he decided to use college basketball outcomes because of the way competition drives wins and losses in sports. He explained that a few good teams dominate the basketball community while many more bad teams struggle to improve, an occurrence that is seen in nature among competing species.

It was difficult to convince other scientists to pursue his idea, Warren said. Assistant forestry professor and co-author Mark Bradford said his close relationship with Warren motivated him to listen to an otherwise far-fetched idea.

“Rather than asking whether he was crazy … I smiled and said, ‘Okay, let’s hear this crazy idea,’” Bradford said.

But Yosefa Greenfield, captain of the Yale women’s basketball team, said she believes it is reasonable to link basketball and ecological diversity because dominant teams possess more successful traits, as dominant species do in the wild.

“The better teams usually have better coaches, better players, better facilities …” she said. “We have to adapt to who we are playing [and] use different strategies to play different teams in order to win.”

The paper, titled “Universal Ecological Patterns in College Basketball Communities,” will be published in the scientific journal PloS One later this month.

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