I'll take "Sports Doping Analogies" for $300, Alex

Jan 13 2010 Published by under Doping, Ethics, Hockey, Tribe of Science

roids_mcgwire.jpg
Just milk? source
This week's sports doping kerfuffle relates to the recent confession of retired Major League Baseball player Mark McGwire that he indeed used performance-enhancing drugs during his career. This confession, from what can be deduced (one of many professional opinionating comments here), was sparked only by McGwire's desire to become a hitting coach for the St Louis Cardinal team and MLB head Bud Selig's insistence that he come clean first. McGwire had previously refused to confess to his performance-enhancing drug use at a Congressional inquiry which had a lot of positive-role-model impact upside but zero financial upside. (In case you were wanting to evaluate McGwire's motivational claims at present or anything, you know.)
This is by no means news to anyone with half a brain who followed the duel between McGwire and Sammy Sosa to raise the single-season home-run hitting record in 1998. So that part is not particularly interesting or instructive, although our good blog friends the BM and Anonymoustache have opined anyway (noted Yankees fan Comrade PhysioProf has been uncharacteristically silent on the issue). AM was in particularly fine form:

Here's the 'roid confession I'd like to hear one of these days:
Yeah, I did steroids and HGH. I'm not proud of it, but I did it.
And it pisses me off that all of you people are getting all freaking high and mighty over me because of this. The hell with you all. The writers knew something was going on. The managers knew something was going on. The owners knew something was going on. The fans knew something was going on. What....a record stands for 40 years without anyone getting close to it and suddenly it gets broken 5 times in 3 years, and you all seriously thought it was because of better [redacted] Ovaltine?

I'd like to hear that type of confession for a scientific paper retraction one of these days, wouldn't you?


I digress. But only slightly. Because you just knew this was coming- there's a tie-in to academic fraud.
Noted baseball fan, presumed long-suffering husband, seemingly all around good guy and apparent doping apologist Mr Isis stepped in a pile when he drew analogies:

every player in every sport cheats. In basketball, it's illegal for a defender to run into an offensive player. In football, holding a defensive lineman is against the rules. In hockey, there's something called "icing" (which I can't explain). In baseball, amongst other things, it is illegal to intentionally scuff or mar the baseball or to fill your bat with superballs or cork, or to obstruct homeplate without the ball. Yet these things happen. And when these rules are violated, there is a clearly deliniated consequence for violating them.

Icing.PNG
"B" is icing (source)
Whut? Icing results in a "penalty" in hockey, true. In a very limited sense though. Yes, the whistle stops play and the puck is dropped in a faceoff back in the area of the rink close to where the icing player's goal is located. This results in a putative disadvantage to the icing player's team and therefore a putatively penalizing effect. In all other way, icing is an accepted part of the game of hockey with absolutely nothing in the way of an ethical smell about it. Not the slightest whiff.
The best analogies in other sports that I can come up with? Well in soccer you might see it as the awarding of a throw-in, corner kick or goal kick when one player kicks the ball out of the field of play. Same deal for an out-of-bounds ball in basketball. American football, perhaps something similar to the penalty for the false start or encroachment. In baseball? Well, this is more akin to being awarded a walk to first because of four balls pitched outside of the strike zone! "Icing" in hockey is a far, far cry from individual use of performance enhancing drugs, Mr. Isis!

@ DM I'm not equating the two; that would be silly. But the concept is similar. There are typically clear penalties in place for rules violations. In McGwire's case, and those of other PED users, there were no clear penalties or policies in place, and to apply a penalty retroactively, as HP seems to want to do, is wrong.

ooookay. So this brings us back around to the discussion of the causes of, and consequences for, scientific fraud and other misconduct. There is a pretty fair spectrum of opinion, even represented just within the commentariat of this blog and that of Dr. Stemwedel. One pole might hold that only the most flagrant violations of very clearly established policy (see strike one of this post) amount to misconduct. The other pole (held down by occasional commenter S. Rivlin) maintains that even the very slightest misstep step is akin to a MortalSin of science. How do we decide what is "icing", what is "doping" and whether rules are sufficiently clearly drawn such that a given scientist knows that s/he was cheating or not? What penalties do we apply? Some might want to keep Mark McGwire out of the Hall of Fame..should we retract Nobel prizes and other lesser awards in science?
Other positions in this discussion say McGwire should also be stripped out of the official record books- sure we retract individual papers in science...but what about an entire canon or even the PhD of a fradulent scientist? For this I will turn to cycling, as is my wont. There have been sports doping scandals aplenty within cycling and they continue year after year. When it comes to rehabilitating confessed dopers and considering measures that can be seen as mostly preventive in nature, I think we do a huge disservice when we underestimate the lasting impact of an undetected doping episode. Take a late teens / early 20s promising cyclist. Add drugs. It lets him / her train harder and perform better. This allows the cyclist to become better in a lasting sense- some training effects will persist even when the person goes off the dope. Team opportunities will be provided. S/he will be at the front of the race more often, thus learning more about the mental and strategic game. S/he will attract contracts / sponsorships, coaching, and may be the designated protected rider instead of domestique....all of which will persist as as sort of lasting career momentum long after discontinuation of EPO or steroids or whatever it may be.
This is exactly what would happen to a scientific trainee or young PI who cheats to get a couple of GlamourPubs. That very "accomplishment" will have lasting downstream beneficial effects on career, even if that scientist never ever cheats again. This suggests a very high degree of vigilance and a robust penalization system is required to reduce the motivation to cheat, right?
weeelll. I don't know. I don't agree with the extremist position that any sign of minimal misstep in science is the same thing as a lasting major fraud. I believe that even people who have committed misconduct (in a given setting or lab, say) are not irretrievable...and we put a heck of a lot of money into training them in the first place. Paranoid witchhunting just doesn't square with me.
My solution, which I've mentioned before is to try to minimize the career benefits of cheating in the first place. To de-emphasize the disproportional role of getting a GlamourMag publication on one's CV and to re-emphasize the lasting quality and impact of the science itself in a noncircular way. To de-emphasize the first-or-bust culture and therefore the fear of scooping. To restore the notion that a paper which depends on multiple disparate assays should satisfy the standards within each of those subdisciplines (helloooo, behavior). To object to the gee-whizzers packing of 5 person years of work into a methods-free two pages.
Minimize the payoff for cheating and you reduce the encouragement for fakery. It is basic behavioral principles at work, not rocket brain surgery, people.

33 responses so far

  • ... presumed long-suffering husband...

    Hey! Watch it!

  • Eric Lund says:

    but what about an entire canon or even the PhD of a fradulent scientist?
    The University of Konstanz revoked Jan Hendrik Schön's Ph.D. degree after his fraud scandal came to light. The Wikipedia article lists 21 papers of his which were retracted, including eight in Science and seven in Nature--that may not be his entire canon (in 2001 he averaged one publication every eight days, which would be 45 publications in that year alone), but that is a whole bunch of papers.
    The Schön case is an extreme example which doesn't negate your point. The main reason he got caught is because he didn't stop cheating, and eventually somebody noticed that two figures that were purportedly from unrelated experiments had exactly the same noise. If Schön had stopped cheating after 1999 (at which time only two of the 21 retracted papers had been published), he probably would have gotten away with it and would still be considered a respected physicist today.

  • Mr. Isis says:

    "... presumed long-suffering husband..."
    Brother, you have no idea.
    Also, I like the icing diagram. Mostly, I remember getting pissed off about it every time I got whistled for it while playing Blades of Steel. While I was using a relatively minor infraction for rhetorical effect to sell the concept I was describing, I acknowledge that a) the two infractions are nowhere near one another in degree, b) I did a fairly poor job of it, and c) I really should have a better understanding of hockey.
    Your argument to minimize the payoff for cheating is a good one and is one that essential SI writer Joe Posnanski wrote about yesterday (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/joe_posnanski/01/12/posnanski.mcgwire/), we don't emphasize the risks and downsides associated with steroids enough. Joe channels his good friend Buck O'Neill, who told him "Well, people talk all the time about how they will help you hit the ball farther and pitch the ball faster. Why don't they talk instead about how you might die young? Why don't they talk about how you might not be able to have children? Why are they always telling children: 'Use this and it will make you a great baseball player... but you shouldn't use it?'"
    A similar tact could be important in science as well, not just minimizing the payoff for cheating, but talking up the consequences of falsifying data. I'm getting out of my realm here very quickly, but I could imagine such consequences including: the potential loss of career and status, the added pressure and stress of continually needing to justify those results and potentially build upon them, the implications for research subjects (in human studies), any legal liabilities, and the nagging guilt and exacerbation of impostor syndrome. I'm sure there must be others.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    "The other pole (held down by occasional commenter S. Rivlin) maintains that even the very slightest misstep step is akin to a MortalSin of science."
    DM,
    Though I appreciate the "citation," I object to the characterization you have assigned to my position on scientific misconduct. I have never took the stand that "...even the very slightest misstep step is akin to a MortalSin of science." I do however, believe that most successful cheaters in science have both experience and longevity in their vocation, two necessary factors that make them successful.
    I disagree with your stand about the rehabilitation of cheaters in science and somehow being able to minimize career benefits of cheating. Cheating in science is always about the cheater, never about science. The cheater put him/herself ahead of the principles by which science is being conducted, which without, science cannot survive. The right punishment for cheating scientists should be ala Marion Jones - stripping of all the medals and jail time. Once out of jail, she can play professional basketball and she does, but she cannot go back to track and field to represent her country in the olympic games. Only harsh punishments will deter scientists from cheating for personal benefits. One need only to examine the number of repeat offenders in the general population to realize that even the cost of training a scientist is small compared to the damage his/her cheating causes to science in general and to the scientific community in particular.

  • My solution, which I've mentioned before is to try to minimize the career benefits of cheating in the first place. To de-emphasize the disproportional role of getting a GlamourMag publication on one's CV and to re-emphasize the lasting quality and impact of the science itself in a noncircular way. To de-emphasize the first-or-bust culture and therefore the fear of scooping. To restore the notion that a paper which depends on multiple disparate assays should satisfy the standards within each of those subdisciplines (helloooo, behavior). To object to the gee-whizzers packing of 5 person years of work into a methods-free two pages.

    If only my grandmother had balls, she'd be my grandfather.

  • re: cheating in hockey (I agree that icing is definitely not cheating). Any thoughts on Burrows' allegations of referees getting personal by calling penalties-that-aren't-penalties on players they don't like?
    (Not that I'm biased in this particular case or anything)

  • Ooh! My comment got held for moderation. First time in the penalty box for me this season.

  • prelevent says:

    I think there is a significant difference between using performance enhancing drugs and committing scientific fraud.
    For one thing, when a person commits fraud in academia, it is because they are actually making things up. In other words the "science" that is being reported did not actually occur. It is both unfair and damaging to rest of the scientific community.
    However, even if a person has taken steroids and all other many of chemicals to manipulate the body they still have to perform. The home run records were things that actually happened (though it can be debated if the changes in regulations regarding the building of baseball stadiums as to where the fence needs to be is a factor in the rise of homeruns since the 80's). It is unfair to athletes that did not use the drugs, and a very bad example to up and coming athletes, but in the end they did perform these feats. Fraud would be something along the lines of corking a bat or a scuffed ball (though this could be considered light fraud). Heavy fraud would be like arranging for people to strike out to a particular pitcher to inflate his stats or K's.
    An appropriate analogy to academics might be the use of "performance enhancing drugs" such as adderall or even smart drugs (though I admit that I don't know if such things work). I went to grad school with a person who slept like 3 or 4 hours a night, and he used his waking hours to read like 15 or more papers a day, work on 4 or 5 projects at a time, prepare and write manuscripts constantly, and still have times to be a fairly social guy. He also took several different drugs to accomplish this inhuman level of energy and concentration. He was privileged with a sharp mind and the opportunities to do many things, but in my opinion (and maybe his) that with adderall he was able to fit more into less time.
    I don't know. I think that our standards for cheating evolve over time. Maybe one day in the not too distant future people will call for the retraction of papers of people who drank too much coffee while working on their Nobel Prize winning research.

  • Pascale says:

    Physicians do tell teen boys about anabolic side effects, and "shrinking your balls" gets their attention. However, the benefits of success as an elite athlete plus the invincibility teens imaging in themselves can cancel out any wisdom we impart.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    prelevent,
    Cheating in science is not just making up things that did not happen (fabrication). It is also stealing others' results or ideas, blocking acceptance for publication or slowing it down (as referees), while pushing a similar work by the referee forward or blocking a grant proposal from getting funded, while using the ideas in that proposal to submit your own proposal elsewhere.

  • becca says:

    Now I realize kudos, cash, and what passes for job security in this biz tends to depend on getting there first. But delaying a publication of someone else is only cheating if getting there first = winning.
    Anyone else think that the whole "science is a game to be won" is a deeply flawed and disturbing analogy?
    Thanks, S. Rivlin for providing a deeply disillusioning idea of what science *ought* to look like. I used to think you were just hopelessly out of touch frustrated idealist, and your complaints about the status quo were born out of a genuine wish for them to be better. I had some empathy for the frustrated idealist stance. But it's obvious you think science is just a game to be won. You're just bitter that nobody likes your rules and you don't own the balls so you can't take them and go home.

  • "science is a game to be won" is bad for advancing science, but it is what drives large companies to invest in research.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    becca,
    In a way you have summarized my complaint about the way science is being done today. I am not sure what exactly is your beef with me, but most of the cheating in science today is about getting there first, since being first promises many rewards for the winner. In many ways, the analogy to sports is perfect. The cheating in sports and the cheating in science originate from the very same desire the cheaters have in both endeavors. Unless you believe that a human scientist is different from a human athlete where competitiveness and its rewards are concerned, then there are no differences in the basic instincts that lead either of them to cheat.
    Now, cheating has existed in both endeavors for hundreds of years. Alchemy was a product of human greed with a mixture of ingnorance and cheating. However, in the past half century, the rewards have grown exponentially for the participants in both endeavors and ditto their temptations. Today an athlete can reach gold by taking steroids and a scientist can reach the same by plagiarizing his peer's ideas and/or data.

  • DSKS says:

    At least with science, fraud, or even just honest error, is ultimately going to be laid bear and rectified by the wider community. Good wins over Evil eventually.
    On the other handball, Monsieur Henry and his 6 yrd box shenanigans have been laid bear for all to judge with the appropriate sense of horror and disgust, and yet the Rep. Ireland still won't be going to South Africa this summer*.
    [btw, My prediction for the opener on June 12th: USA shows some flare, England plays with all the charm and grace of Bristol Rovers reserves, 1:1.]

  • S. Rivlin says:

    In his last editorial as the editor of "The Scientist," Richard Gallaqgher lists the ten (10) major problems and potential flies life sciences face now and in the years ahead. Among these ten are scientific misconduct and lack of politeness in scientific debate. In the same issue of The Scientist, there's an article by Steven Wiley, "Mind Your Manners." Both should be read by the visitors to the debating grounds of the Sciblogs.
    The Scientist, 24:11, 2010; ibid, 24:23, 2010

  • neurolover says:

    "At least with science, fraud, or even just honest error, is ultimately going to be laid bear and rectified by the wider community. Good wins over Evil eventually."
    What, there are bears? Fraud-fighting bears? Are they polar bears? I like the idea, fraud-fighting polar bears o the side of good over evil.
    So, really, though, I think that we rely too heavily on replication as the method of uncovering (laying bare) fraud. First,fraud/misconduct designed to profit one's career, but not contaminate the scientific record is an issue. Second, there really are huge areas that might be equivalent to "handball" where misocnduct-contaminated work will lie fallow for years and years and years, misleading others, producing certainity where there isn't really any, or closing fields. Eventually, it is true, the truth has to triumph over the lie, since the reference point for science is the real world. But it could take a very long time.

  • neurolover says:

    PS: I think more aggressive demands/require to share data are part of the defense against fraud in fields where replication is rare, unlikely, or difficult.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Even when the culprit is more or less identified, the process of investigation is still a real stumbling block in reaching justice. Take the case of the NIH Pioneer Award receipient ($2,500,000), Duke biochemist, Homme Hellinga, who retracted at least two of his glamorous papers and blame his student, Mary Dwyer for misconduct. She was investigated by Duke University for scientific misconduct and was cleared. For the past 20 months they investigate Hellinga with no end in sight. If and when the truth will come out, the damage for Dwyer has already been done and Hellinga already spent the two and a half million dollars. Very high-priced truth.

  • [..] the total NIH budget is about 30 fucking billion dollars. If Hellinga fraudulently blew out 3 million dollars, that's one ten thousandanth of the total NIH budget. So even if Hellinga is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are 100 Hellingas out there that have never been caught, then fraud is an issue about 1% of the NIH budget. But this extreme maximum estimate of 1% issue is "destroying science"? Get a [..]grip, [..]
    Fraud is bad, but there is absofuckinglutely zero evidence that it is systematically distorting the scientific enterprise or diverting substantial resources away from fruitful science. Just because it pisses you off doesn't make it systemically important.

  • anne says:

    DM,
    A little bit of binding arbitration in the debate between these two teen players (Rivlin/CPP) is badly needed.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Hi anne, a little poem is in order.

  • anne says:

    Rivlin,
    Thank you for the suggestion. Neither poetry nor prose are within my intellectual ability's domain. I only do music. Just a keen classical music listener.

  • anne says:

    Rivlin,
    That's not the whole thing. I read also Mark Twain and I like it a lot which, if I am not mistaken, gives me something in common with CPP.
    ----------
    (1) Ho Capito: Arguments and battles. Ingenta Press 1969

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Ann, that's great. I have just finished listning to Juan Crisostomo Arriaga's three string quartets, played by the Cuarteto Casals. Arriaga was called the Spanish Mozart and his chamber music justifies this title.

  • Anonymous says:

    "Fraud is bad, but there is absofuckinglutely zero evidence that it is systematically distorting the scientific enterprise or diverting substantial resources away from fruitful science. Just because it pisses you off doesn't make it systemically important."
    What kind of evidence would prove that fraud is systemically important? I'm wondering, really.
    I don't find your calculation comforting, because the problem with scientific misconduct (I don't know if I would call it fraud) occurs when the system is perceived as rewarding the cheaters. It distorts entry and success in the field (as the threads on Hellinga at WritEd suggest, if individuals within the field believe that success comes from cheating. And, if 1% of the budget went to cheaters, it would truly destroy science. And, outside of the field, it would be cataclysmic, if people were even toying with the idea was cheating was anything but strikingly rare.
    Cheating doesn't have to be very frequent to turn into a systemic problem, especially if the cheating enters the common psyche.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Clearly, scientific misconduct is an insignificant phenomenon that should be ignored, since the damage it causes to science and scientists is minimal at best. The infrequent stories about scientific misconduct in the media is the proof that this is the case.
    http://blogs.wsj.com/health/2010/01/15/feds-accuse-doc-of-faking-research-on-pfizer-merck-drugs/

  • DSKS says:

    "And, if 1% of the budget went to cheaters, it would truly destroy science."
    Nah, that's bollocks. Think about that 1% of cheaters in the context of a pursuit in which, I would estimate, over 75% of the remaining 99% are simply wrong at least 40% of the time (not me, though, I am Neo). Those bastards are the one's costing us time and money. We should fire them all.
    And when you realise that probably over half of the 75% of the 99% that are wrong about half the time are probably doing imaginative statistics in at least one quarter of the time remaining, you realise two things: 1) the scientific enterprise is an exercise in two steps forward for every eleventy steps sideways and a drunken lurch backwards, and 2) it is very rare that fraud bursts above the noise of general incompetence*.
    "I don't find your calculation comforting, because the problem with scientific misconduct (I don't know if I would call it fraud) occurs when the system is perceived as rewarding the cheaters."
    If I hold a person up at gunpoint and steal their wallet, can we say the justice system has rewarded the cheater? Not really. Not unless I have been particularly clever. Because if I haven't been clever, that same system will knock down my door in the early hours of the morning and drag my arse off to the cooler.
    The thing is, in science at least (perhaps not the private financial sector), the cost of getting caught is so far in excess of the gains one could possibly expect to make while on the run as to render it an arrogant fool's choice. As a result, the high arrogant fool quotient of fraudsters does tend to make their capture all the easier.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    "The thing is, in science at least (perhaps not the private financial sector), the cost of getting caught is so far in excess of the gains one could possibly expect to make while on the run as to render it an arrogant fool's choice. As a result, the high arrogant fool quotient of fraudsters does tend to make their capture all the easier."
    What are you talking about? The cost of being caught in science is negligable. The chance of being caught in science is small for two reasons: First, the fraudsters are pretty smart; second, [blah, blah, blah]
    And where damage to science caused by scientific misconduct is concerned, measuring it with dollars is wrong and is another reason that you take this issue lightly. The damage is much greater in terms of the public trust and the trust scietists themselves have in their own profession and their peers.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Here's another possible reason why we do not know the real magnitude of scientific misconduct today. Is there a reason the NIH do not keep records of revoked grants?
    "Wanted: Records of revoked grants"
    http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57088/

  • noblesse d'epee says:

    I agree completely with S. Rivtin (above). Cheating scientists obtain advantage with minimal risk. Hellinga is still at Duke, his fat ass firmly wedged into an endowed professorial chair as a reward for his fraudulent research. He's now "too big to fail." Dishonesty in science is analogous to the Wall Street derivatives mess; success is privatized, while losses are borne by the community as a whole.

  • [...] it comes to performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in sports, aka doping, I'm a confirmed cynic. Each case of a later life confession for prior doping habits, when the person wasn't ever [...]

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