A clear and obvious error

At the end of last year, the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was accused of calling Prime Minister, Theresa May, a “stupid woman”. He insisted that he said “stupid people” and not “stupid woman”. As the leader of a party with a large number of women MPs and supposedly an understanding of the link between language and hate, the use of words is important.

To determine the truth, a number of lip reading experts were employed, to look at the footage. However, no diffinitive answer was found, as their views differed. Some argued fervently for him having said “woman”, whilst others were sure he said “people”, with both sides citing expert knowledge in the way the lips are shaped, when making different sounds. I had a look and, in my inexpert opinion, thought he clearly said “people”. As this was a politically sensitive issue, perhaps the lip readers were influenced by their opinion of Corbyn. They would, of course, argue not, but is it possible to be entirely neutral?

Something that has been much talked about in football circles is VAR (Video Assistant Referee). It was used for the first time in the World cup in Russia and is on its way to the Premier League in 2019-20. The FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, was sure it was the right thing “good for football, good for referees and good for the World Cup. It will make the World Cup fairer. If there is a big mistake it will be corrected“, he said.
There are grey areas but the most important competition in the world cannot afford to be decided by a potential mistake

However, in the world cup final, after the use of VAR, it could be argued that neither of France’s two first-half goals should have counted. The penalty decision, from my view at least, was a very poor decision. There was no doubt the ball hit Ivan Perisic’s hand but the referee had initially decided that there was no offence (e.g. ball to hand). It was only when the VAR operator asked him to review it, that he changed his mind.

In theory, a referees on field decision can only be questioned by VAR if there is a “clear and obvious error”. Therefore, once the referee hears that they should review the decision, the suggestion is that “a clear and obvious error” has been made. Former Premier League referee, Keith Hacket, thought the pressure, he was put under, forced the change of mind. He wrote that as the referee “is being asked to have another look, he assumes he has made a mistake and the chance of him overturning his original call is enormous”.

A few years ago I did some training in NLP (Neuro linguistic programming). The trainer was interested in how neutral we are in judging events. He illustrated his thoughts with an anecdote about a time he attended a “spiritualist” conference. He said he attended as an open minded sceptic, but was there others there who were both true believers and dedicated sceptics. In the first session of the day (after filling in a questionaire about their views) they were all asked to focus on a flower pot in the corner of the room and focus their minds on getting it to rise off the floor. After a few minutes of chanting and breathing the plant pot started to slowly rise into the air, hovered for a moment and then gently rested back on the floor. There was a break after this and, as people went for their coffees, they were asked to write down what they saw.

In the next session the organisers explained to everyone what had happened. They said that the plant pot had risen in the air, but did so due to a strong magnetic force. They also said that, from the initial questionnaire, they could say the room was equally made up of believers, the open minded and committed sceptics. From the second questionnaire (saying what people saw), the answers we’re diverse. A number of people said that the plant pot did not move, whilst others claimed that it shone with a red aura and some suggested that it even flew across the ceiling.

The point here is that our firmly held views colour the way we see things. Often we find evidence, in what we see, to back up our opinions rather than viewing something neutrally. In this example, people from both sides (the scientifically minded sceptics and the true believers of spiritualism) were unable to just say what happened, without making sense of it from their strongly held views of the world.

Therefore, the use of VAR, which is due to be introduced to the Premier League from 2019-20 is still going to rely on the opinion of a person who, no matter how much they believe they are being neutral and fair, cannot fully be. They will view a hand ball incident or a trip in the box with an already held subconscious view about diving and cheating. They will already believe that a tug on the shirt is serious or not. They will have experienced being pushed or tripped in their own lives. No matter how neutral they are being, they will deep down already have a view about these things (as has always been the complaint of small clubs at Old Trafford, where they believe that referees find it hard to ignore the crowd and the history of the club).

Therefore VAR is not going to eradicate controversy or accusations of injustice. There will, no doubt, be some “clear errors” (e.g. was it offside?) that can be cleared up, but there will be many circumstances in which, no matter how many times you watch the screen, different people will see it differently. That is because we look at everything from our own perspective and then find the evidence to justify our decision.

It is the same with lip readers expressing a view on what Jeremy Corbyn said. He is a controversial figure who inspires both loyalty and derision and everything he says has an element of controversy. So people, depending on their view of him, will believe anything that is reported about him. However, no matter how much we believe that people are able to view things neutrally and without bias, it is not possible.

VAR attempts to eradicate human error, but football is at its essence human. It is not a science. Chance is a vital component (football is between 10% – 50% luck, depending on who you read). If you wish to take away human error, then don’t go to a football match, play FIFA on your X Box or PlayStation instead. Football, as well as politics, are “human” endeavours, littered with mistakes and chance and both are all the better for it.

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