Concussion tests have become the favored response to these concerns for professional and amateur athletes, promising to bring a sense of reassurance in the face of a scary threat. But these tests aren’t offering answers; they’re merely offering numbers. And numbers do not automatically translate to useful information. Here, they may instead serve as a distraction by making decisions about letting athletes return to play seem more objective and certain than they really are.
The rationale for baseline concussion testing makes intuitive sense — you measure people’s neurocognitive skills at baseline, when they’re healthy. If they hit their heads, you test them again to measure whether their memory, reaction time or other cognitive skills have changed. A decreased score suggests that something is wrong, and you take a closer look at the athlete (and perhaps do more medical exams) before you give her the OK to return to activity. The problem is that the tests can’t tell us whether it’s safe for an athlete to get back in the game; they just offer something for teams and programs to show they’re serious about concussions. That something produces numbers, which makes it seem scientific. But the numbers may be giving a subjective decision — whether an athlete should return to play — a false veneer of objectivity.