On KCRW’S To the Point, the topic is “Can we keep getting faster, better, stronger?” Olympic athletes keep breaking new records and it’s hard to imagine that humans could get any better, and yet we do. When will this slow down? How can we predict the answer?
Warren Olney: Can we answer this question: Can we reach or are we reaching the limits of human potential?
Peter Weyand: Well, the speculative nature of the question makes it one that’s difficult if not impossible to answer with the scientific method. So, there are lots of different analyses that one can do, to project what an ultimate performance might be in a 100 meter race or 200 meter race or performances in other sports, but the uncertainties are inevitably huge on those projections, because we’re stepping out of conditions that we can control and know into an arena where there’s a multitude of variables that can potentially affect performance, and there’s no way to predict what all of those conditions are going to be, individually, much less how they’ll come together. So while there are lots and lots of scientific analyses that come up with a number, that say “This is the fastest that a person can run,” the uncertainties are extremely large
WO: So, the scientific method requires that you have a controlled situation, and there’s nothing controlled about athletic competition.
PW: That’s a great comment. So what happens is for those of us who are experimental scientists, yes we control everything that we can, because we tend to approach things by isolating individual variables, changing one to see the effect on another, but that’s not possible in these field situations where there are all these variables. Now there are other scientific methods available to address those things, and there’s a very good statistical approach that was published by Mark Denny back in 2008 where he does put out numbers for all the standard Olympic running events for men and women and present numbers for absolute limits based on a statistical method, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and that’s probably the best analysis of that nature that’s out there.
But no matter whether you approach it statistically or with a physiological or biomechanical model, your output is only as certain as your assumptions are sound, and those assumptions are inevitably very large.