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Michael Shermer in the 1984 Race Across America, crossing from Arizona into Utah through the Virgin River Gorge.

Michael Shermer in the 1984 Race Across America, crossing from Arizona into Utah through the Virgin River Gorge.

Life’s Score

ABOVE: The author in the 1984 Race Across America (RAAM), crossing from Arizona into Utah through the Virgin River Gorge.

Among cycling aficionados of my generation, Peter Yates’ and Steve Tesich’s 1979 film Breaking Away was a welcome vehicle to convey the elegance and complex strategy of our sport to an American audience largely oblivious to its beauty and nuances. Of course, like most sports films, it was a metaphor for something deeper, in this case a coming of age story of a young man struggling to break away from the provincialism of family and friends, along with a morality tale about how everyone lies a little and some people cheat a lot.

In Knowing the Score, King’s College philosopher David Papineau uses specific sports as metaphors for and lessons about many of the most important and contentious issues in philosophy and life. In his chapters on cycling, for example, he confesses his ignorance while watching the 2012 Olympic road race as to why four women cyclists from different countries would work together after their break away from the peloton. Papineau finds an answer in game theory, the analysis of competition and cooperation between rational actors in a conflict situation. The prisoner’s dilemma model is the most famous example: you and another prisoner are arrested for a crime with the following options: (1) If both of you remain silent then you each receive one year in jail; (2) If you confess but the other person does not, then you go free and he gets three years; (3) If the other prisoner confesses and you don’t, then you receive the three-year penalty while he goes free; (4) If you both confess then you each get two years. What should you do? Research shows that when the game is played just once, or over a fixed number of rounds without the players being allowed to communicate, defection (confessing) is the common strategy. But when the game is played over an unknown number of rounds the most common strategy is “tit-for-tat,” where you begin by cooperating and then do whatever the other player does. Even more cooperation can be induced in a “Many Person Dilemma” in which one player interacts with several other players, and in which players are allowed to accumulate experience with the other players in order to establish trust. Here cooperation trumps competition, selflessness overcomes selfishness.

We can see how this plays out in a road race. Cyclists drafting one another provide a significant savings in energy (as much as 40 percent) and increase in speed, so solo breakaways are very unusual and almost always fail. Drafting in the middle of the pack the entire race is very efficient, but then you have to sprint for the win against a hundred other competitors, some of who specialize in sprinting. Ideal is a small breakaway with, say, four riders, allowing for efficient enough drafting to conserve energy and maintain speed, and you only have to beat three others to win. So it pays for each of the four racers to cooperate with one another until the very end. If one rider “defects” in the game theoretic model and refuses to take a pull at the front, the others will punish her by various means, verbally or otherwise. Occasionally what happens in the final kilometer is that everyone in the break away refuses to pull through in order to conserve energy for the sprint and the group gets caught by the hard-charging peloton, an example of selfishness overcoming selflessness to the detriment of all. Knowing this can happen discourages early collective defection and keeps the provisional mutualism going.

Such conflicts between self-interest and group-interest are common, in sports and in life. Cold War strategies between the US and USSR are examples of game theoretic models that worked to prevent nuclear holocaust, as are the strategic moves today by the US, China, and South Korea to contain North Korea’s nuclear weapons program while recognizing it’s desire for defense. Like nations, humans are autonomous selfish beings who are also altruistic social creatures, so finding the right balance between these competing motives lurks behind most interactions. Individual European nations desiring autonomy versus the collective benefits of being in the EU is an example of these tensions, as is US economic nationalism versus the advantages of international trade. Climate change is a collective action problem that must contend with breakaway nations like China and India who need cheap fossil fuel energy to become fully industrial economic powerhouses. Who are we in the peloton of developed nations to tell the developing nations in the breakaway to slow down?

Michael Shermer the 1983 Race Across America (RAAM) between Prescott and Flagstaff, Arizona (listening to music via headphones on a Sony Walkman).

The author in the 1983 Race Across America between Prescott and Flagstaff, Arizona (listening to music via headphones on a “Sony Walkman”).

Each chapter in Papineau’s engaging book deconstructs a philosophical problem along these lines. Political obligations in a society and professional fouls in an athletic contest; civil society and sporting eligibility; sporting nations and political geography (of which George Orwell once commented that sport “is war minus the shooting”); nature and nurture in athletic performance and life (gifted athletes have gifted children, but not equally so); Coase’s Theorem in economics applied to sports; Noam Chomsky and the nature of sports (the linguist “thinks sport is nothing but a capitalist trick,” as only a non-athletic egghead could conclude); to name but a few of the integrative topics. “It is tempting to confuse the insulation of sports with a lack of significance,” Papineau writes. “We are too quick to conclude, just because sports don’t matter to other things, that they don’t matter at all. But this doesn’t mean that it is not important and valuable in its own right.”

“Football is not a matter of life and death,” Papineau quotes the Liverpool soccer manager Bill Shankly. “It’s much more important than that.” That may be hyperbolic wit, but athletic contests are not just another form of play. They are the very embodiment of human striving that brings meaning to life. Most people want more than just a happy and contented existence. We want challenges to face and obstacles to overcome. Our ancestors got more of those from daily life than we do today, so all the more need we have for our artificial trials, and all the more importance of knowing the score. END

Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He co-founded the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle Race Across America in 1982 and competed in it five times. His next book is Heavens on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer.

This article was published on August 9, 2017.


17 responses to “Life’s Score”

  1. WillRE says:

    ew gros phelosehy

  2. William Cutler says:

    I was once at a seminar on developing constructive group behaviors, where “Prisoner’s dilemma with repeats” was used as an illustrative experience. The whole group was divided into teams of two, with each team paired against one other team as opponent. My team and our opponent team soon settled into the cooperative behavior described in the article, until the last round of play came up. My team partner and I decided, mischievously, to betray our opponents on that last round by shifting our play to the selfish option, assuming the opponent would continue the pattern of cooperation. However, the go-between facilitator who collected the choices made by us and our opponent in order to determine the outcome, messed up and told our opponents what we had done before they made their last-round choice. Thus the round was invalidated and we had to play over, but now our opponents knew we were snakes in the grass. So what choice should we make? Delicious dilemma!

  3. Loren Petrich says:

    Tzindaro’s comment (#1) reminds me of this:

    “Allston Wheat’s Crusade” is a good little joke. A right-winger sets out to prove that team sports are a tool of the Communist conspiracy since they tend to diminish the individual while glorifying the group. At one point, the author nicely parodies the Bircher prose style: “America is a country of team sports. We must see these sports for what they are. They are brainwashing stations for individualism. They are training schools for collectivism, socialism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism.”

    From “Citizen Ken” by Gore Vidal | The New York Review of Books ( ) (paywalled) reproduced by Gore Vidal in “Reflections upon a Sinking Ship”. A review of “The McLandress Dimension” by economist John Kenneth Galbraith, written in 1963.

  4. awc says:

    Playing competitve sport is very different than casual (scuba) than watching is and still different than a hardcore fan is.

    I could never identify with a fan. Noam’s analysis in context is fair although the motivation of the pro-sport franchise is not to create mindless fans that is an unintended consequence. The organization could care less.

  5. Dr. Sidethink says:

    College football has a criminal subculture among the recruiters of offering prospects dope booze and prostitutes.

    the price is too high as a good thing for the Football Heroes

    Viva cricket

    Dr S

  6. Barbara Harwood says:

    In any sport, whether as a team or individually, each competitor learns to do what he does best. As a member of a team, the glory may go to the person who scored the winning points, but every member did his part. Failure to make an important play gets a player noticed for all of the wrong reasons. As an individual, you must learn humility even in success because the next time you play, you could be defeated by the person whom you beat this time.
    Most team sports are variations on the art of war. Modern warfare uses a much larger playing field, but dispenses with most of the rules that were originally followed. There are, nevertheless, rules that must be followed if the people involved do not want to be tried for crimes against humanity. As in war, there is a much better relationship between people of varied ethnic and racial origins because you depend upon each other. Unlike war, fighting during a team sport is not usually tolerated.

  7. John Hazzard says:

    Bicycling teaches another societal lesson that there are drivers who think roads are for motor vehicles only and hit bicyclists on purpose. I remember in 1985 while the RAAM crossed NM someone ran over and killed one of the contestants on purpose and just drove off.

  8. Mary Goetsch says:

    The Prisoner’s Dilemma” also came out as an AI version of the group/individual choice as “Newcomb’s Paradox.” Besides choosing to cooperate, one was faced with the idea that the Artificial Controller ultimately decides the game. The game becomes out-guessing this computer. One may as well throw dice, flip a coin. Winning is largely due to chance here again. Never mind all the math equations! I remember a Gardner column in Scientific American about this in the early 1970’s. The psychology of a game will be debated until the end of time.

  9. Ed Kreusser says:

    “For when the One Great Scorer comes
    To mark against your name,
    He writes – not that you won or lost –
    But HOW you played the Game.” ….. Grantland Rice

    “Winning’s not the main thing,
    It’s the ONLY THING!” ….. Vince Lombardi

    “You just keep pushing.
    You just keep pushing.
    I made every mistake that could be made
    But, I just kept pushing!” ….. René Descartes

    Lots of wiggle room for choice in these wise, inspirational sayings. For me, an individual sport taught me to analyze and correct weaknesses and, I was often pleasantly surprised how well I came out when I gave it my all! This was my great life-lesson!!!

  10. Richard says:

    A major sport like British football has an almost religious fanaticism to it. Fans use players and teams as proxies for their own competitive instincts and allow discussions about their teams to virtually dominate their social interactions. They happily pay to attend the games of their heroes and periodically get into fights to uphold their honour.
    It is somewhat contradictory that the vast majority of fans appear to support socialist Labour government but are happy for their heroes to earn phenomenal wages and become “filthy rich” whereas others who do so in other ways are often criticised…strange.

  11. Pete says:

    Interesting that Shermer should advocate or at least pose the option of drafting. Maybe it was/is permitted in these ultra long races but I’ve seen people thrown out of the Ironman for drafting.

    • Chuck says:

      Road racing and Ironman simply have different rules. Professional road racing is nominally a team sport even though a single winner is recognized at the end. Triathlon is strictly an individual sport and hence the different rules. In triathlon a racer can fined penalized for drafting during the swim as well.

  12. Mitch says:

    Come now Mr. Shermer. Professor Chomsky does not think sports a “trick” and you well know that. Professional sports is part of the machine that serves to dumb down the populace with jingoism and non-rational anger; makes them easier to manipulate. He’s not referring to playing catch with a buddy.

    • Senkusi says:

      Come now, Mr. Mike: A (close) reading of the article will reveal that the reference to Chomsky is the book’s author’s, not Shermer’s.

  13. Nick says:

    An interesting idea, however perhaps those that chose to play team sports may need the interaction with others as with all tribes, and rely on them in order to feel wanted and appreciated by the other members of the group.
    Where individual sports (I did Judo but also played rugby) allows you to not be reliant on others therefore you win or lose on your own merits. perhaps making you a stronger individual but less sociable. The best Individual sportsman I have known are not good with relationships with others because they concentrate 100% on them selves and see their needs before those of others. Yet team players tend to be more sociable and in general will work together for the greater good of the team and be less selfish.
    I feel then that sport allows participants to take up a sport dependent upon their skill and personality. In general sports men and women make better members of society at all levels because their experiences with their chosen field both good and bad make them better rounded humans.

  14. Tzindaro says:

    Organized team sports like baseball, football, or basketball are nothing but a way to socialize kids into following arbitrary rules, obeying orders from the coach, and doing what is best for the team instead of what is best for themselves. This makes them later become good conscripts, good obedient workers, good obedient soldiers, and good obedient law abiding citizens. They foster pointless feelings of loyalty to one faction of the species at the expense of the rest. In short, these so-called “sports” are a good training ground for fascism and it’s twin, collectivism.

    In contrast, individualistic sports, such as swimming, racing, track and field events, etc., serve to make people more independent and able to best serve their own interests instead of being brainwashed into following the herd. We need more individualism and less collectivism. Junk team activities that modern populations have been brainwashed into thinking of as “sports” should be abolished.

    • Mike Lane says:

      Sorry Charlie, that’s total nonsense. I can see clearly where the “indoctrination” engrams have taken hold. My guess is that if you ever have loved playing any sport……….. well, I’m supposing you haven’t been a “good sport” or learned much from others in the process. Good sportsmanship is what is needed as well as some humility in all aspects of life and that should be the central lesson of all human endeavors; co-operation with mutual respect.
      Your comment sounds like the same kind of labeling and institutionalized thinking you seem to be railing against. Paradoxically not so unique or individual. Lighten up man!

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