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Moving the Goal Post: A Parable of Psi, by Robert Perry

In 1950's Alabama, the state championship game in high school football has just concluded between the reigning champions, Plantation High, and dark horse team Fieldhand High. In the final seconds of the game, the kicker for Fieldhand kicked a 55-yard field goal that should have won the game. But this field goal was disallowed by the referee. What follows is the tense discussion between the head coach of Fieldhand and the referee.

Coach: How could you disallow that? The kick was good!

Referee: It would have been good enough for an ordinary field goal, but not an extraordinary one.

I beg your pardon?

This is a big game. Your boy's kick, were it allowed, would overturn a twenty-five year tradition of Plantation High being the state champions, upon which much of the morale of this fair town is based. The team's defeat could easily upset the social order. With the very fabric of our society at stake, we have to be absolutely sure such a defeat is deserved. And in this case it's highly unlikely that it is. After all, a Negro team has never won the state championship.

But we've only been allowed to compete in the state championship for the last two years. Before that, we could only play other Negro high schools.

Yes, and there were very good reasons for that, which must be taken into account now. Besides, everyone knows that a Negro boy just can't kick the ball as far as our boys can.

But he just did.

Well, that's the thing. We can't be sure that he really did. For instance, it could have been a mass hallucination. Psychologists have documented such things. You know-mass hysteria and all. The mind is very tricky and crowds are highly unpredictable.

But everyone saw the ball going over the crossbar. And why would fans for the opposing team hallucinate the ball going over? Aren't hallucinations a product of what people wish for and expect?

Mass hysteria is apparently a very infectious thing. Also, you aren't taking into account unconscious desires and expectations, which can be opposite to the conscious ones. Further, we do have some parents in the crowd who are willing to testify that the ball in fact did not go over the crossbar. Yet even if we grant, for the moment, that it did go over, it could have been unfairly helped by freak air currents above the field, maybe a small twister. There have been reports of strange winds in neighboring towns tonight.

I've never heard of such a thing being invoked in a football game.

Again, this is an extraordinary situation, calling for nothing but the highest standards. Moreover, in addition to what I've already offered, there is always the possibility of cheating.

How do you cheat on a field goal?

Well, your boy could have attached a small rocket to his shoe, adding greater force to his kick, or maybe substituted a ball that was filled with helium, causing it to fly higher. We don't know exactly how it might have been pulled off, but a couple of the Plantation High parents are professional magicians and they have assured us that they can provide detailed explanations for exactly how such a thing could have been done.

But do you have a shred of evidence for this? Or, for that matter, for your theories about mass hallucination or freak winds?

I admit that those explanations do not seem very likely. But however unlikely they may be, they are surely more likely than the notion of the twenty-five year champs being beaten by a Negro team by way of an impossible 55-yard field goal.

OK, if I could find a way to show that your three possible explanations did not occur, would the kick be allowed then?

Nice try, but there will always be the possibility of explanations we haven't yet thought of. The fact remains that the odds of your team and your kicker doing what they are claimed to have done are so infinitesimally small that even unlikely unknown explanations are far more likely.

But our kicker has kicked several 55-yard field goals in practice. That's why we went for the field goal in this situation.

But we have no evidence for those other kicks. They were not done under controlled conditions and we have no unbiased witnesses for them.

OK, he kicked a 52-yard field goal in a game earlier in this season. What about that?

Well, given that we have no real evidence that he actually possesses this claimed ability, I think we're forced to conclude that that kick must have a more conventional explanation as well.

Would any kick in this situation have been allowed?

Of course. This is a fair game; we're interested only in the truth here. We have made some calculations and come to the conclusion that if the ball had cleared the crossbar by 30 feet, it would have been allowed.

30 feet?! That is ridiculous! Does that mean the Plantation High's field goal in the first half will also be disallowed? It was nowhere near 30 feet over the bar.

You're not really listening, are you? That was an ordinary field goal. Your team's kick was an extraordinary one. Naturally, different standards apply.

But why weren't we told about any of this ahead of time?

The exact timing of when you were or weren't told doesn't alter the extreme improbability of what your boy supposedly did. And, as a matter of fact, we do have plans to initiate discussions about getting new rules in the books regarding extraordinary kicks. This unfortunate episode has taught us the importance of factoring in the prior probability of a particular field goal, given the kinds of factors you and I have just discussed. To act like those prior probabilities are not there is clearly not sound refereeing.

Speaking of refereeing, can I ask where you went to high school?

Why, here at Plantation, of course.

Right. So how do I appeal your decision to the state football commission?

Well, you could actually talk to them tonight. All five members of the commission are sitting over there in the Plantation bleachers. But I'll tell you, I've already talked to them and they agree with me.

The coach did go over and talk to the commission members, who backed up the referee and gently reminded him that coaches who make trouble sometimes have difficulty keeping their jobs. Having exhausted all his options, the coach walked off the field, defeated. At least, he said to himself, his team can win in the only court left, the court of public opinion. The next morning, the headlines read: PLANTATION HIGH STATE CHAMPS AGAIN! Last Minute Kick by Fieldhand Fails."