Scientist finds ‘glaring omission’ in Deflategate report
On Wednesday, attorney Ted Wells released a 243-page report detailing his investigation into the New England Patriots’ so-called Deflategate scandal, but according to one scientist, there’s a "glaring omission" in the research that led Wells to determine that it’s "more probable than not" that the team deliberately released air from the team’s game balls at January’s AFC title game.
Dale Syphers is a physics professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and has conducted experiments of his own to determine whether it’s possible for the air pressure of a football to be influenced by the ball’s environment.
In Syphers’ tests, he found that the internal pressure of a football decreased when a wet ball is moved into a warm, dry area — a locker room, for example — but the Wells report did not reach the same conclusion. That, Syphers says, is because the scientists consulted for the Wells report did not fully investigate the ways and degrees to which a football can get wet.
"The glaring omission is how they handled the wet football," said Syphers, who has taught physics at Bowdoin for 28 years. "There’s a point in the report where they look at what the effect would be in bringing a football from 48 degrees to 70 degrees and the effect that would have if it were dry and if it were a wet football. One of the things that their data doesn’t show is it shows no evaporative cooling — cooling due to the evaporation of the water. And that is counter to what my experiments showed."
Syphers said it’s the only scientific flaw he found in the report, but noted that it’s a significant one that had the potential to impact the validity of the entire experiment, especially considering that it was raining heavily during the game in question.
"Their report says that there’s no combination of effects that they investigated that could explain the pressure difference, and so there had to be something else going on, other than environmental factors," Syphers said. "My problem with that is that they left out a key environmental factor, and that’s how wet those footballs were and the effect of evaporative cooling. And the fact that they don’t do that well and didn’t see that potentially totally changes the conclusions."
As the internal temperature of an item decreases, the amount of air pressure within decreases with it. It’s the reason your car sometimes tells you your tire pressure is low on the first cold morning of the year. The internal temperature of football, for example, can be changed as a result of evaporative cooling, a process Syphers compares to sweat on your body.
My problem with that is that they left out a key environmental factor, and that’s how wet those footballs were and the effect of evaporative cooling. And the fact that they don’t do that well and didn’t see that potentially totally changes the conclusions.
"If you have a wet thing and you bring it into a dry environment, the water evaporates, and when water evaporates, it cools the object off," Syphers said. "A function of sweating is that as the water evaporates from us, it cools our bodies down. It happens to every single body that’s wet, and (the Wells report) shows no difference (in the football) when they bring it in."
In the experiments conducted by scientific consulting firm Exponent for the Wells report, "a ‘wet’ football was one in which a hand held spray bottle was used to spray a football with water every 15 minutes during the period simulating the first half of game play." The footballs were then toweled off each time they were sprayed.
In Syphers’ experiments, he rolled a ball in a pan of water. He says he did that "so that water got absorbed into the seams of the football and was also on the surface," and believes that, alone, could be the difference between his findings and the report’s.
"(When a player is) tackled with a football on a field, (the ball) gets forced into the wet grass and (the effect on the ball) is going to be entirely different than spraying it with a light mist from a spray bottle and then toweling it off," Syphers said.
Syphers is clear to point out that his findings don’t necessarily mean that the Wells report is wrong, but simply, that they could have done more and may have arrived at a different conclusion had they done so.
"The problem that they address in many places in this report is how to approximate conditions on the field, conditions in the locker room, and so forth — all the various things that you don’t know exactly," Syphers said. "(With) humidity of the rooms, they took a variation of parameters and temperature in a humidity-controlled environment and looked at that, and that was great. It’s exactly what they should have done. The one place where they didn’t do that was a wet football. They just used one technique."
If he were grading the Wells report like one of his students’ papers, however, Syphers says it would have to be an incomplete.
"I would grade everything else they did — there are little pieces they did of the sciences, and most of them I would give an A," Syphers said. "(The way they tested the wet footballs) I would give a D to, and because it’s such a lynchpin for the final conclusion, rather than grade the whole thing, I would send them back and say, ‘No, you’ve got to do this right. This is wrong.’
"If this were a professional paper being submitted to a journal, as a reviewer, I would tell them, ‘You did not do this part correctly and it cannot be published until you address these concerns and do that right.’"
And while Syphers admits he’s a Patriots fan — he is from Maine, after all — he insists that neither his scientific method nor his grading policy is influenced by whom he roots for on the field.
"When I’m a scientist, I’m a scientist," Syphers said. "I can go into the rest of the rest of the report, the technical part of that report, and tell you what a good job they did on A, B, C, D, E and F. They did exactly what they should do and I agree with the conclusions. I’m a little surprised about one of (the processes), but I accept their result because they detailed how it was done."
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.