June 30, 2010
Is cheerleading a sport?
In the seminar that I teach that deals with scientific revolutions, one of the difficult questions that we grapple with is how to distinguish science from non-science. In other words, if we have two boxes, one labeled 'science' and the other 'non-science', can we establish some criteria that will enable us to take any given theory and determine which of the two boxes it should be put into? To be able to do so requires us to establish the existence of both necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be considered science.
If we have only necessary conditions, then any theory that does NOT meet those criteria is definitely not science so it goes into the non-science box. But if it does meet just necessary criteria, all we can say about it is that it may or may not be science. i.e., we do not know which box to put it into. So for example, the commonly accepted idea that scientific theories are materialistic and generate predictions that can be tested are necessary conditions. This is why any theories involving supernatural entities or that are untestable tend to be immediately classified as non-science. But all theories that are materialistic and testable may not be science. For example, the idea that soccer fans are intrinsically rowdier than football fans is not a scientific theory (in the usual sense we use the words) although the methods of scientific investigations (such as statistical analysis and correlations) may be used in seeing if it is in fact a true statement.
Similarly, if we have criteria for sufficiency and a theory meets those criteria, then it goes into the box marked science. But if it does not meet the criteria, it may or may not be science, so again we do not know which box to put it into. As an example, if we say that a theory is science if it has been cited as the reason why its inventors were awarded a Nobel prize, then quantum theory would be scientific without a doubt. But what about the theory of relativity? It has not been cited in Nobel awards so by our rules we cannot definitely say if it is or is not science.
This is why we need BOTH necessary and sufficient conditions to be able to make unambiguous statements that theory A is science while theory B is not science..
One would think that it might be easy to simply make a list of necessary conditions and say that if a theory meets ALL of those necessary conditions, then that is sufficient. But it is not that simple. What complicates things is that any demarcation criterion that tries to distinguish science from non-science would have to be such that all theories that are commonly accepted as science (such as Newton's laws of motion) would meet the criteria and be included while those that are commonly thought to not be science (say astrology) are excluded. Trying to ensure that existing theories go into the correct boxes is where the difficulty arises because there are always difficult marginal cases.
Finding necessary and sufficient conditions for science has been so difficult that some have declared this problem to be either insoluble or not worth the effort to solve it.
In teaching these somewhat abstract concepts of necessary and scientific conditions, I try to give my students a more down-to-earth parallel by posing to them the question: Is cheerleading a sport? This usually generates a lively discussion and they soon realize that in order to answer this question, they need to arrive at necessary and sufficient conditions for what makes something a sport or non-sport and they quickly discover that it is hard, if not impossible, to do so. And the difficulty is exactly the same as that confronting demarcation criteria for science. While it is possible to make prescriptive lists of conditions for what constitutes a sport, what complicates things is that whatever conditions we arrive at should also be such that things that are commonly accepted as sports (say tennis and soccer) and those that are not (drinking a beer or taking a nap on the couch) fall, using those criteria, into the correct boxes. And there are some tough marginal cases, not just cheerleading. Is chess a sport? Is the card game bridge a sport? (Both have applied to be part of the Olympic games.) How about video games?
It turns out that my classroom discussion question of whether cheerleading is a sport is not a purely academic exercise. It is actually being argued before a federal judge in Connecticut. The reason is that Quinnipiac University has been accused of subverting the requirements of Title IX, the federal legislation that requires colleges to provide some level of equity in support of women's athletics. The university cut costs by classifying the high-numbers, low-cost, women-dominated cheerleading as a sport, enabling them to eliminate other women's sports (such a volleyball) that cost more per student. The women's volleyball team has challenged the university's classification of cheerleading as a sport and this is what has led to the lawsuit.
In arguing the case, we see the same necessary and sufficient arguments surfacing.
While physical effort and ability are a given for many of the high-level gymnasts who cheer, Title IX has specific criteria for what counts as a sport when it comes to equity in athletics: a program must have a defined season, a governing organization, and feature competition as its primary goal. Competitive cheer is not recognized by the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) as a sport. Nor does it have a governing body: two versions of organizations that have filled the role have been associated with Varsity Brands, Inc., a for-profit company that sells cheerleading gear and hosts up to 60 "national championships" a year. To amplify its case that competitive cheer can indeed count as a varsity sport, Quinnipiac has joined with seven other schools to form the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association, which is intended to be a new governing body for the sport. Four more schools need to sign on for it to be recognized as a legitimate governing body, and the sport itself to be seen as "emerging."
It looks like what Title IX has tried to specify are just necessary conditions which, as we have seen, can only definitely say if cheerleading is not a sport. It is not clear if it says that if an activity meets ALL the necessary conditions, then that is sufficient to make it a sport.
Whatever the outcome, Quinnipiac University should be ashamed of itself for trying to subvert the spirit of Title IX and eliminating women's volleyball.
But what I am really curious about is how the judge is going to arrive at a verdict. Will he be able to specify necessary and sufficient conditions and thus arrive at demarcation criteria, something that has so far eluded my students and me? If so, I will gladly say that you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
POST SCRIPT: Who is an atheist?