Wednesday, July 19, 2006

About two months ago, while attending a conference on networks at Indiana University Bloomington (see photos on another of my blogs), I visited with psychology professor Steven "Jim" Sherman, whom I have known for over 20 years. I first met Jim in the spring of 1984, while visiting IUB on a trip to look at potential places to go to graduate school (I ultimately chose the University of Michigan).

I would occasionally see Jim at conferences over the years, and then out of the blue, I got a call from him some time in the fall of 2002. Jim invited me to a small, informal conference he was co-organizing on statistics and sports decision-making to be held in March 2003 in Scottsdale, Arizona (to enable conference attendees to attend spring training if they wanted!). A photo of the participants in that gathering is shown below.

Jim is shown front and center in the shorts, flanked to his right by University of Chicago professor Richard Thaler, the other co-organizer. Right behind Jim is Cornell's Tom Gilovich, who was the lead author on the 1985 article that introduced hot hand research. Right behind Tom (skipping the gap in the third row), is me, at the center of the back row. To my right is legendary baseball analyst Bill James, and in front of Bill, to his right, is fellow baseball expert Rob Neyer.

Anyway, back to my visit with Jim in May 2006. As I was entering his office for our meeting, I noticed he had a letter Scotch-taped to his door. The letter, dating back more than 20 years, was from former Indiana men's basketball coach Bob Knight, now, of course, the coach where I'm located, Texas Tech University. And the letter pertained to, of all things, the hot hand. As it turns out, Jim had sent Coach Knight a copy of the aforementioned mid-1980s article by Gilovich and colleagues, and Knight had sent this reply...

The letter has been on Sherman's door for over 20 years, for all passersby to see. Given the letter's status as an historic artifact (sometimes spelled artefact) in the annals of hot hand research, I asked Jim if we could make a copy of it for posting on my website, and he agreed. (I figured that most people probably wouldn't want their signature broadcast to the world, so I blocked out Coach Knight's.)

Coach Knight's skepticism of hot hand research -- the general finding of which is that making one or more shots in a row does not tend to raise a shooter's likelihood of making the next shot -- has been reported previously, in this Wikipedia entry on the "Clustering Illusion" (of which I am not the author). Still, I thought it would be neat to display a copy of the original letter. By the way, Boston Celtic coaching great Red Auerbach has also expressed skepticism.

Knight is absolutely right about the multitude of factors that determine whether a basketball shot will go in or not. Many researchers have voiced similar concerns, such as the possibility that the inability to detect streakiness could stem from players who just made a shot being guarded more closely the next time, or feeling more confident and shooting from farther away. In an attempt to eliminate as many extraneous factors as possible, researchers have used controlled shooting exercises, such as the NBA three-point shooting contest the night before the All-Star Game. Still, little evidence of streakiness has been observed (see the Koehler & Conley [2003] paper at the following site).

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