Anti-doping research, politics, etc.

Those who saw what I wrote regarding the Lance Armstrong decision last fall will know I’m interested in the issue of athletes using performance enhancing substances/practices (“PEDs”) to gain an unfair advantage. And since I’m an even bigger baseball fan than cycling fan, and Major League Baseball has just gone through it’s second round of problems on this score (and not likely finished either), the topic’s on my mind.

I was pointed to this piece in the New York Times a couple days back, which pertains to use among track and field athletes and the question of how many athletes are actually using these things compared to the number who are being caught. There are two interesting issues here. The first should rather be called disturbing actually. The NYT article reports that the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) commissioned a research study on PED use among track and field athletes, but now has apparently decided not to allow publication of the results, which apparently show that only a very small percentage of those cheating are being caught. The reason given:

Nick Davies, a spokesman for track’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, said in an e-mail that the original study “was not complete for publication,” adding that it was “based only on a social science protocol, a kind of vox pop of athletes’ opinions.” Davies indicated blood tests from the world championships this month in Moscow would be combined with the previous research to produce what the I.A.A.F. believed would be a more comprehensive study.

Excuse me, what?

Since when does an international track and field organization, or any other athletic organization for that matter, no matter how powerful, have the right to tell a group of scientists that (1) their research protocol was faulty, and (2) that they can’t publish their scientific results when they feel they’re ready to? And the rationale given for this delay is to allow more blood tests to be done? That’s the whole point of the study in the first place: the athletes are successfully avoiding positive tests by various means. Heard about Lance Armstrong at all? HELLO??!! Unfortunately, the scientists involved apparently signed a “non-disclosure” agreement that prevents them from publishing until allowed to by either WADA or this IAAF organization. Once again we see scientists being forced to be subservient to political interests. Sure would like to read the text of that non-disclosure agreement.

This denigrated “social science protocol” as he called it, is in fact a questionnaire methodology that’s been around for nearly 50 years, if not longer, known as a randomized response survey method. It’s a way of getting a more accurate estimate of a sensitive practice or belief from a surveyed group than would otherwise be obtained, yet without incriminating anyone, i.e. indvidual anonymity is guaranteed and accuracy of estimate maximized. The basis of the method is pretty interesting. More than one (usually two) questions are presented to each respondent, who picks which of the two to answer based on a simple probability mechanism that he/she controls, like the roll of a die. The interviewer does not know what the result of the roll was, and thus, which question the respondent answered.

For example, if a 1, 2, or 3 comes up you answer question #1, which is innocuous and has a clear right answer, for example, “Does the ocean contain water?”. But if instead a 4 through 6 comes up, you then answer the sensitive question of interest, in this case whether you’ve used PEDs in the last 12 months. Because the researcher knows that 1/2 the time the first question will be answered, a minimum of half the answers are thereby guaranteed to be “yes”. The percentage of respondents answering yes that exceeds 50% response is then 1/2 the percentage of the population that is practicing the sensitive behavior. And that’s a minimum, because some people who answer the sensitive question will still lie. That’s why the stated estimates of 29% use at the World Championships, and 45% at the Pan-Arab games, are both likely to be on the low side, and why the IAAF’s position statement in the article, if correctly quoted, is ludicrous.

Yeah sure, the results could be in error–they are likely under-estimates of PED use in track and field! Are these people really this blatantly deceptive and/or stupid or do they just think the rest of us are?

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One thought on “Anti-doping research, politics, etc.

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