Just milk? sourceThis 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.
"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.