Every time Anna Scoblik of Abington Heights grabbed a rebound in a Feb. 12 game against Valley View, she knew just what to do. She passed it to teammate Rachel McDonald, who hit seven three-point shots — including five in a row in the first half. “She was on fire tonight,” said Scoblik, who didn’t have to rely on anyone else’s analysis to believe what she saw with her own eyes.
Ben Cohen, a sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal, had a similar experience when he was a self-described mediocre high school junior varsity basketball player. One day, he suddenly couldn’t miss. His teammates recognized it and fed him the ball, for they recognized that he had “the hot hand.” But as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone.
That led to Cohen’s quest to unravel the mystery of the hot hand in an array of disciplines beyond sports alone, including whether it even actually exists or is just a human tendency to find patterns in random events. The result is his engrossing book, “The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks.”
Cohen was not alone in his quest to discover the secrets of the hot hand. It turns out that it has been the subject of intensive investigation for decades by some of the world’s leading psychologists, statistics experts, mathematicians and others. And the question is far from limited to sports.
Cohen points out that courses on Shakespeare routinely say that he wrote two plays a year over a long period. But that was an average. He appears to have had the hot hand for a period of just a few months during which he published “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” Or how to explain Albert Einstein’s “year of miracles” in 1905? He produced not only his Nobel Prize-winning research on the photoelectric effect, but his theory of special relativity, a study of Brownian motion and the most famous equation in science, E=mc(squared) over the course of a few months.
Athletes and sports fans take the hot hand as a given. Cohen recalls Feb. 27, 2013 at Madison Square Garden, when Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors was cast into the role of principal scorer in a game against the New York Knicks because of another player’s suspension. He started cold but found the hot hand, scoring 54 points. He never looked back. Even today, if Curry misses a few shots, Warriors fans say he simply is conducting a “heat check,” looking for the hot hand.
Gamblers believe in the hot hand. Cohen notes that many casinos post electronic boards at roulette tables, listing the results of the most recent spins, even though the odds regarding each of 55 possible outcomes are exactly the same for every play.
Cohen delves into an extraordinary amount of scholarly research about the hot hand, or streaks in general, and finds some of the world’s foremost researchers in relevant fields seem to run hot and cold in their conclusions over time before reaching a broadly accepted consensus in the scientific community that the hot hand is a myth, the product of human beings’ natural tendency to seek order from randomness. The research had profound implications for everything from finance to sports.
Some iconoclasts — including Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, and two cheeky and persistent undergrads at Harvard who challenged the consensus — forced a reconsideration. The partial result is metrics-driven sports at every level and ongoing research.
“The Hot Hand” is a highly entertaining treatment of a subject that is more complicated than it appears at first blush, incorporating elements of science, history, and sports.
- Author: Ben Cohen
- Publisher: Harper Collins/Custom House
- Pages: 296
- Price: $32.50
Patrick McKenna has been associate editor of The Times-Tribune since July 1990. He is a member of the newspaper’s editorial board, a role in which he helps to formulate editorial policy. As editorial and op-ed editor, he is responsible for most of The Times-Tribune’s opinion content and the author of most of the newspaper’s editorials. A 1978 graduate of Penn State, Pat started at The Scranton Times in March 1978. He has won multiple statewide awards for editorial writing, and the national WIlliam Allen White Award for Editorial Excellence. Pat is a Scranton native and lives in Clarks Green.