Sports as a pedagogical tool

Roger Pielke Jr. has a post on using sports to examine “questions related to decision making, ethics, politics, prediction and more.”  To that list I would add epistemology, science policy, expertise, and maybe even the sociology of science.  I’ve advocated using sports analogies to explain science for a long time now (since at least January 17 of this year:)), and naturally I wish more people followed suit.  So I’m happy that Roger jumped on this thread.

Most Americans understand sports whether or not they are fans, and the framework can therefore be illuminating.  Delineating the relevant expertise in climate science would be easier if people realized that Freeman Dyson is to global warming as Michael Phelps is to basketball.  The New York Times wouldn’t have interviewed Phelps for insightful analysis about the NBA Finals, and they similarly should not have interviewed Dyson about climate change.  We can accept Dyson has crazy skills as long as we simultaneously recognize that it’s in a single sport.  It’s really not that hard of a concept.


  1. I think there is some inherent sexism in using sports as analogies when teaching and so does Herbert Lee (2007) who advocates using food as a pedagogical tool instead!

    1. Hey! Thanks for this. I wrestled with this issue before, and I’d like to hear more about it. Is it sexist because sports are so male-dominated? Because women on average don’t relate to sports as much (which itself might be a sexist assumption)? A bunch of other reasons? You’re always welcome to lecture and correct me, as I’m sure you know! Can you pass me the Herbert Lee paper?

      I’ll have to think about the food connection some more. While they are imperfect, I do think that sports analogies can be illuminating.

    2. Is this the paper you’re talking about:
      Lee (2007). Chocolate Chip Cookies as a Teaching Aid, The American Statistician, 61, 351-355.

  2. Oops, sorry for leaving you hanging. Yes, that’s the one. I can send the PDF over to you unless you already got a hold of it.
    I think that sports are definitely male-dominated in terms of those who play it, watch it, spend money on it, manage it, commentate on it, everything. That is not to say of course that women don’t/can’t/won’t participate because they obviously do but generally at a much smaller rate than men. Based on that, I think it is a problematic pedagogical tool to use sports b/c you those analogies will only work if the people you are teaching 1) understand the sports analogy AND draw the parallel to what you’re trying to teach and 2) can get excited about it thus transferring their excitement to the taught topic at hand. It is a big ask for people who aren’t sports-oriented and somewhat alienating. So then you are in the quandary of just exposing some people to the fact that 1) they are not getting the original concept, 2) they are not getting the cool and fun sports analogy, and 3) other people around them are. If we think about Sapna’s research for a moment here, then it may possibly remind them about their minority gender status and turn them off to whole fields.
    I applaud your effort in trying to find good pedagogical tools and sports may be a good one in some cases. I would just say be careful.

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