At the British Open golf tournament today, conditions are much tougher in the afternoon than they were in the morning, as a heavy wind has kicked up. Players switch starting times between the Thursday and Friday rounds, so if the pattern had been the same each day things would even out, but it happens the conditions were roughly the same all day Thursday. So the players on the course right now are at a distinct disadvantage. Would we say that this is “unfair”?

I wouldn’t be surprised to hear someone use that word, but I think as the words are commonly used we would call this “unlucky” rather than “unfair.” Now, naturally, substantial luck factors are considered undesirable in a competition, but not nearly as undesirable as rules that favor some competitors a priori, for instance if higher-ranked golfers were allowed to choose their tee times. Luck vs. unfairness is analogous to the error/bias distinction in statistics, where bias is considered more serious (but excessive error can also render a model useless.)

Within the realm of luck, I think competitors are most willing to accept luck that is clearly an “act of God,” as here. That is, when the tee times were posted last week, thanks to the Thursday/Friday flip everyone had equal expectation. So the luck can’t be traced to lots drawn by the organizers, but solely to random weather patterns. The form of “luck” in sports that draws the most ire, if luck it is, is poor officiating. Now, I happen to think that most officials are reasonably unbiased and make mostly random errors, but just as in statistics one can never prove lack of bias (it’s the null hypothesis!) So competitors and fans are left with no conclusive evidence as to whether they have suffered from error or bias. In such cases, I think there is a cognitive bias towards, well, perceiving bias. This is part of a general tendency to overexplain and overinfer from random events.