Anti-doping and the evidence card

Is it fair to ask for a little fairness when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs?

In general, yes. But a lot of devils lurk in the details.

Blame Luke Thomas for this post. The outstanding MMA analyst loves to raise tough questions about drug testing, so this morning, he retweeted an interesting series from Roger Pielke Jr., a Colorado environmental science professor who isn’t afraid to go against the grain — he’s been labeled a “climate misinformer” by Skeptical Science and wrote about his “unhappy life as a climate heretic” for The Wall Street Journal. He’s actually not a climate-change “denier,” and he’s the son of a scientist who has some complaints about being painted as a “denier” when he quite clearly is not. He is also, like me, a Guardian contributor.

(Ideally, when we in the media seek “balance” in climate change reporting, we’d quit looking for “deniers” vs. “everyone else” and demonstrate the spectrum of legitimate climate change science — “not that big a deal” on one extreme, Pielke Sr. somewhere in the middle, and “holy crap we’re all gonna die” on the other extreme. But I digress.)

That said, maybe Pielke Jr. was simply wrong, and when called out on it, he played the “victim of political correctness” card. This exchange certainly offers considerable evidence to support that conclusion, though like a lot of evidence, it’s incomplete. Maybe it’s not his fault he wound up as a poster boy for the “Yeah, I TOLD you all this ‘global warming’ stuff was crap” crowd, but he seemed to be reveling in the attention to a degree. (I’ve been accused of that sort of thing when I’ve gone against the orthodoxy in women’s soccer, too, but I’ve hopefully made it quite clear that I’m not on the side of the “don’t give gay women rights” people.)

So it appears Pielke has turned his attention to issues in sports, where we could use a bit of healthy skepticism. Sounds good. Maybe he can take whatever lessons he learned from his experience in climate debates and apply them here.

His series of tweets on anti-doping, taken from a presentation he gave in Norway, raises some strong points but also shows the pitfalls of setting too high a bar for evidence. Pielke wants everything to be black and white. I’m not sure that’s possible, in climate change or in anti-doping. (Or in criminal justice — where “the CSI effect” is a headache for prosecutors who can’t deliver the “aha!” moments that their fictional counterparts can.) Humans will never be omnipotent, nor will we be able to anticipate every eventuality. There comes a time in which we simply have to assess the information we have and make the best decision we can.

So are we splitting hairs because bad decisions are being made? Or do we just enjoy splitting hairs? (I admit — I’m sometimes overly pedantic myself.)

Let’s take a look, starting here with a clever (and apt) cartoon:

He’s clearly not anti anti-doping, which some in the MMA community are. (Not Luke Thomas, who simply takes a skeptical stance, but some MMA fans wax nostalgic for the days of steroid-sculpted bodies colliding in PRIDE.)

He raises a good point in passing with the meme of old white guys laughing at the concept of each country testing its own athletes. I wish he’d gone into more detail on that, because it’s certainly a issue — at least until athletes compete outside their home countries and start getting tested by other agencies. Check out the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency site, and you can see how often athletes are being tested. (Katie Ledecky, the most dominant female athlete today, has already been tested 11 times this year.) Jamaica, on the other hand, is considerably less comprehensive. Being tested by your home country’s independent agency is an improvement over the days of the inherently conflicted sports federations doing it themselves (“Why, yes — we’ll happily disqualify our top medal contenders!”), but we still have inherent inequalities between the mammoth agencies in big, rich countries and the agencies in smaller countries with less money to spend on pee tests.

But Pielke’s main argument — one absolutely worth weighing — is that drug testing and its sanctions are too arbitrary. They’re not “evidence-based.”

 

One good example: the Prohibited List himself is governed by a process ripe for abuse. That’s a sound argument that bears repeating.

But the flaw here is that he often sees malice where others would simply see limitations. Classic example:

It’s the same problem we see in a lot of media criticism. “Oh, you guys wrote that bad story about New Hanover High School because you all went to Hoggard,” a caller to the Star-News once told our sports staff — none of whom had gone to high school anywhere in Wilmington.

Here’s the problem: Drug testing is not simple.

I once tried to explain this to a fellow journalist. His response: “Yeah, I think zero tolerance is the only way to avoid all that.” In other words, let’s avoid the muddy water by just making everything cut-and-dried.

That’s simply not going to work.

For one thing, we’re going to have cases of substances taken accidentally. Human beings can’t write a code that takes every possibility into account. Suppose we have an Olympic competition in which all the food was cooked with trace amounts of clenbuterol? We’re going to have to apply sound guidelines from the Code and precedent built through case law.

Then we get the stunning proclamation from Pielke — “Education. Doesn’t. Work.” If I were in one of Pielke’s classes at Colorado, I’d be tempted to write that on my final exam and walk out of the room.

He’s basing that on a quote from a WADA survey several years ago. Check the summary, and you find this: “Anti-doping education is a relatively young research field with few examples of best practice.”

Also noteworthy from this study: It’s based on efforts to combat bullying, alcohol, tobacco and social drug use. If Pielke is really suggesting education is useless in all of these efforts, we’re going to need to see much more evidence. (I actually couldn’t find the quote he cites in the report — I’m guessing it was included with some supplemental material that’s no longer there? I’m not going to conclude anything from WADA’s labyrinth of a website.)

In other words — it seems rather odd to accuse anti-doping efforts of not being “evidence-based” and then jump to a whopper of a conclusion based on … very little evidence.

All that said, a lot of Pielke’s recommendations are difficult to argue against:

But again, the devil’s in the details. And those details may have some gray areas that we’re going to have to navigate.

(Naturally, Saturday Night Live‘s site doesn’t have the sketch in which Johnnie Cochran responds to critics saying he’s playing the “race card” by complaining that the O.J. prosecution is playing the “evidence card.”)

 

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