Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

The sociologist of science in me loves this

William Saletan has a piece in Slate looking at the (not very strong) dispute over whether Michael Phelps won the 100-meter butterfly, in which he edged out Serbian Milorad Cavic by 1/100 second. (Cavic, incidentally, was born in California, and went to UC-Berkeley. Like lots of Olympians, he seems to be as much a product of the U.S. as members of the U.S. Olympic squad.)

The problem, Saletan argues, is that in a race this tight, the uncertainties created by the way the scoreboard records times may make it impossible to determine who really won. The scoreboard, he contends,

doesn’t tell you which swimmer arrived, touched, or got his hand on the wall first. It tells you which swimmer, in the milliseconds after touching the wall, applied enough force to trigger an electronic touch pad.

[Cornel Marculescu, head of the world swimming federation, FINA] says there’s ”absolutely no doubt” who won, because the clock registered Phelps’ arrival first, and “the touch stops the clock.” Not true. A touch doesn’t stop the clock. The touch pad is designed to require a certain degree of force, because otherwise, slight pressure from the water would trigger it. “You can’t just put your fingertips on the pad, you really have to push it,” the race timekeeper explains. A FINA vice president says the crucial moment is “the instant of depression, of activation of the touch pad, not contact with the pad.”…

Technically, the question of who touched first doesn’t matter. FINA and the Olympics honchos agreed beforehand to use the touch pads; the touch pads require pressure; all swimmers and their coaches should know this…. I’m not saying the touch-pad system is fishy. It beats the heck out of the old stopwatch method, not to mention the mysteries of judging gymnastics. It’s the fairest, most precise system around. And that’s the point: Even the most precise system leaves a gray area. In this case, it’s the area between touching and pressing. Did Phelps beat Cavic to the wall? We’ll never know.

This is the kind of thing that sociologists of science are familiar with. Experiments, they argue, aren’t simply direct engagements with Nature, but with things that are proxies for natural phenomena. A neutrino experiment, to paraphrase Trevor Pinch’s book Confronting Nature, doesn’t generate a bowlful of neutrinos; it generates a set of signals that are translated into graphs that conform (or don’t) to theories about how neutrinos ought to behave.

We saw in the 2000 election that even something apparently as straightforward as counting votes was pretty complex, and that we normally weren’t aware of the complexity not because it didn’t exist, but because normally it didn’t seem to matter. And Saletan points to another example of how an instrument– in this case a touch pad– that’s intended to measure something in a straightforward way and eliminate ambiguity can, under certain circumstances, be revealed to be another proxy.


  1. Wow–great post! Very thought provoking, indeed. We never really think about the feedback from the world around us in that context.

    Along those lines, can’t you extend this concept a bit further into the realm of biology and perception? You know, by saying something like “how can we trust our own senses when they’re just nerves reacting to stimuli? What if they misfire or otherwise get something wrong?”

    Sorry, wanted to say more than just “Great post!” and I’m not sure that added anything to the conversation. 🙂

  2. Touch first or not, China and some sponsors needed Phelps’ 8 medals..I would be ashamed of myself if in this way I am celebrating something I did not won…BS is the story about touch first, toucher harder, press harder…common!

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