Rocket Science: Intense Scrutiny of Lin Invalidates Analysis

A lot of eyes will be watching the Knicks play Jeremy Lin and the Houston Rockets tonight.  A lot of people want Lin to play well; a lot of people want Lin to play terribly.  Regardless of how you want the night, and the season, to work out for Lin, there’s something that you should know: the intense scrutiny of Lin will pretty much invalidate the statistical analysis of his play – tonight and all season.

That’s because of something called “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle”.  Heisenberg, one of the great physicists of all time, discovered that measuring the movement of certain subatomic particles made it impossible to see them while seeing them made it impossible to accurately determine their movement.

What it boils down to is this: measuring something changes the thing that you’re measuring.  And, as I’ll show here with some non-quantum physics examples, this affects us in everyday life, not just at the subatomic level.

Many people who are reading this will not like to have their bosses looking over their shoulder while they’re working.  It stresses them out and they either make uncommon mistakes or do their work more slowly.  Measuring (the boss looking over the shoulder) changes what’s being measured (the employee’s work efficiency and/or speed).

For further proof, let’s go to an early master of this principle, Eddie Haskell of “Leave It To Beaver”.  Eddie was forever making snide remarks to or about Beaver Cleaver.  When he suddenly realized that Mr. or Mrs. Cleaver was watching him, Eddie would drastically reword his remarks.  One of hundreds of examples of this shows up on IMDB:


Eddie Haskell: Wally, if your dumb brother tags along, I’m gonna – oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Cleaver. I was just telling Wallace how pleasant it would be for Theodore to accompany us to the movies.


Being measured by Mr. or Mrs. Cleaver certainly changed what was being measured – what Eddie was saying.

Not only is Lin being measured by the fans and by advanced statistical analysis, he’s being measured by the media.  Any of these can change how well he, or anyone else, performs.

A few games ago, Ray Allen held the ball at the end of a quarter instead of heaving a 3 quarter court shot.  Why?  Probably because it’s almost a certain miss and would drop his 3-point percentage.  I’m sure Ray would have heaved it if the Heat were behind by a few points and it was the end of the 4th quarter but that wasn’t the case.  So why hurt your percentages if you don’t have to?

A few years ago, it became apparent that then-Knicks player Nate Robinson played phenomenally well when Will Ferrell was sitting courtside.  Robinson loves Ferrell and he repeatedly shot the lights out when Ferrell showed up.  The best personnel move the Knicks could have made that year was to hire Ferrell to attend all the games.  Robinson went for high point totals at astonishing percentages when Ferrell was courtside but fell to Earth dramatically when he wasn’t.

As far as the media having an impact, it’s no coincidence that Gabrielle Douglas, one of the heroes of the US Olympic Women’s Gymnastics team this summer, was terrible for the remainder of the Olympics after an interview session with reporters.  One reporter (a Knicks beat writer wouldn’t you know) asked her about her parents’ divorce and her father being behind in child support.  The questions seemed to rattle Douglas enough that she didn’t recover before finishing all her events.  Her very poor performance showed that.

If Lin tries too hard tonight, he’ll play poorly.  If he stays within himself and does as much as he needs to do (and no more), he’ll play well.  It’s very much like a Chinese finger puzzle (shown below).

You put your fingers into both ends of the woven tube.  If you pull too hard or fast, the tube contracts in width while it expands in length and your fingers are trapped.  But if you slowly and gently pull your fingers away, you’ll escape the tube.  This puzzle is a great example that I’ve been using for decades (so anyone who thinks I’m using it because of Lin being Taiwanese-American, feel free to back off…)

Nothing will be resolved tonight.  If Lin is great, it may be because of the extra scrutiny.  If Lin is horrible, it may be because of the extra scrutiny.  If a Knicks defender doesn’t keep up with Lin and Lin scores points you think he shouldn’t have been able to score, it may be because Lin beat him.  Or it may be because he doesn’t want to look like he’s headhunting Lin by leveling him. 

Measuring affects everyone’s performance and so much has been made about this game and about Lin leaving the Knicks that there’s no way to guarantee that what we see tonight is what would happen in a closed gym with no fans and the Knicks and Rockets playing a full 48.  Although we may not walk away tonight knowing anything for certain, there are two things we can be sure of: one team will win and we can choose to enjoy the game.  Give my best to Heisenberg…

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