28 January 2013

Lance Armstrong, Baseball HOF, and Reality

I wrote a post last August (click here for that post) on Lance Armstrong and reality.  I have waited several days after Armstrong's admission to Oprah Winfrey that he cheated in his Tour de France competitions (other competitions, too) because I didn't want to post something knee-jerk.  Because of my Tour de France research and my book's chapter on Tour de France cycling with emphasis on Lance Armstrong, many people have contacted me wanting to know my thoughts on Armstrong.  I'll offer a few here.

One of the great appeals that science has for me is that I am not forced to "believe" anything.  Scientists acquire data and evidence through experimentation in the natural world, build models of the natural world from that data and evidence, and then test the models with better experiments.  We scientists do not fear being wrong, and in fact sometimes relish being wrong because of the opportunity afforded to learn something new about how the universe works.  The collective efforts of scientists over the past few centuries have given us our current understanding of the world.  The various pieces of our knowledge come with various levels of likelihood.  All good scientific theories must be falsifiable, and experiments are done every day with the goal of falsifying current understanding of the natural world.  If a repeatable experiment comes along and shatters our current understanding of the world, then we evolve our knowledge base and move on with new information.  We try to avoid confirmation bias and let our investigations into natural provide us with "truth."  Though our knowledge of the universe is far from complete, we use science as the tool to remove our ignorance.

An alternate approach to gaining knowledge is "faith," which Webster defines as firm or unquestioning belief in something for which there is no proof.  I could simply have faith in a proposition, but what happens when scientific "proof" comes along to shatter my faith?  Do I accept a scientific result or adhere to a faith in something despite evidence to the contrary?  As a thinking scientist, I cannot do the latter.  And now we come to Lance Armstrong, and then to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

For 13 years, Lance Armstrong vehemently denied cheating while competing in cycling races.  He was backed up by having no failed drug tests.  Many, many people had faith in Armstrong because there was no proof to the contrary.  Many, many other people believed that Armstrong cheated, despite the lack of proof.  People were thus taking sides on competing claims, yet there was no evidence to bolster either side.  Armstrong and those who supported him were in the impossible position of having to prove a negative.  How does one prove that one did not cheat even when drug tests came back negative?  Those on Armstrong's side took him at his word and those on the other side believed he could not possibly be good enough to win seven Tours in a row without performance enhancing drugs.

Armstrong has now admitted to cheating during all seven Tour wins, using EPO, blood doping via blood transfusion, HGH, testosterone, and cortisone.   He claimed that he could not win seven Tours in a row without cheating.  He also claimed that he could not win "in that generation," referring of course to the belief that many cycling competitors were cheating.  Armstrong further claimed that he did not cheat during his comeback in 2009 and 2010 in which he finished 3rd and 23rd, respectively, in the Tour de France.  That claim is contradicted by a drug test that was supposed to have a "one in a million" false positive.  New testing science and, especially, biological passports have contributed greatly to cleaning up cycling.

Armstrong's comments beg the question:  what percentage of cyclists were cheating while Armstrong was winning the Tour de France each year?  If everyone was cheating, was he simply the best of the best?  Did his fame and wealth provide him with cheating advantages over his competitors?  Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey that he looked up "cheat" in the dictionary and noted the phrase "gain advantage."  He didn't, however, feel that he had an advantage because the prevalence of cheating meant that he competed on a level playing field.

So, without data and evidence, do you withhold an opinion or decide to have faith in a belief? Armstrong told Winfrey, "I'm not the most believable guy in the world right now, I understand."  Do we believe Armstrong's claim of widespread cheating or do we think that he is rationalizing his own deceitful actions?  Is the truth close to what Armstrong claims?  Those who thought Armstrong a liar for 13 years could easily now believe his claim of widespread cheating.

Science helped out Armstrong.  Urine that did not test positive in 1999, Armstrong's first Tour de France win, is now positive with better science.  It is easy to lie when one does not have to compete against data and evidence.  Cheaters who get caught almost always "come clean" because they are staring at data and evidence produced via good science.  It is a testimony to our value system that we hold in such high esteem the results of science done well.

Lance Armstrong had his Tour de France wins vacated.  What has not been vacated are any of Barry Bonds' home runs or Roger Clemens' strikeouts.  The statistics and accomplishments for Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire are all still on the books.  No MVP's, Cy Young's, World Series titles, or other accolades have been wiped from the official baseball records.  Yet the guy with the most home runs in a season and in a career (Bonds), the guy with the most Cy Young's (Clemens), the only guy to hit 60 home runs in three seasons (Sosa), the greatest hitting catcher (Piazza), and all the rest did not receive calls from the Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this month.

Do admissions of cheating from the likes of Lance Armstrong mean that the likelihood that others cheated is greater?  Should we form such opinions without data and evidence?  Some claim that Barry Bonds' body changed so much that he had to cheat.  Several of the great baseball players shut out of the Hall of Fame adamantly denied cheating during their careers.  Do we believe them in spite of the impossibility of proving a negative?  If baseball continues to maintain the records and statistics of all great players of the past couple of decades, even those who admitted cheating (McGwire) or were caught at least once (Palmeiro), should the Hall of Fame admit the best of the best "in that generation" of cheating?

Frankly, I think the Baseball Hall of Fame looked ridiculous not voting anyone in.  I refrain from claiming to know more than I know.  I won't claim that a given player never cheated despite never testing positive.  I couldn't claim that Armstrong was clean or not clean while he was winning the Tour every year because I simply didn't have the data and evidence to support a claim.  Many people had "gut reactions," but there is a reason Carl Sagan said that he didn't think with his gut.  I've no idea if players on the baseball HOF ballet cheated or not, but as long as baseball maintains the statistics and records, how can the players be denied entry?  The governing body of cycling vacated Armstrong's wins, thus changing how cycling's history will record Armstrong's feats.  Baseball has done no such thing.  What happens if someone already in the HOF admits to using performance-enhancing drugs?  Does that person get voted out?  That would be unprecedented.  Would such an admission open the gates to players suspected of cheating?  Who knows?

I have offered many questions above, but few answers.  Though not always successful, I try to avoid believing claims that are not supported by data and evidence.  I am sincerely disappointed that Lance Armstrong cheated.  It was researching his feats in France that got my career in sports physics started.  His admissions do not alter my research in any way, but it stings me that what I witnessed for seven straight years is now an altered reality.  If the Armstrong mess has taught us anything, it is that skepticism is much more virtuous than faith.

Regarding the ethics of Armstrong's decision to cheat, allow me to offer a thought experiment.  Suppose you could experience the thrill of winning a grueling race like the Tour de France seven consecutive times.  You could enjoy all the wonderful French vistas for three weeks each summer, have  thousands of people cheer you on, and then stand at the race's end with a great trophy and some prize money.  You could be rich and famous.  Suppose further that someone tells you a few years after you last raced in the Tour de France that your wins didn't count.  Your memories are still intact and you still have plenty of money so that you and your family are financially secure for many years to come.  Would you take all that?  I suspect part of one's brain would immediately say "No!" while another part would weigh financial security and great memories against a publicly soiled name.

I could offer the same thought experiment with baseball.  Barry Bonds earned more than $188 million from baseball salaries.  He earned plenty of money off the field, too.  Roger Clemens made over $150 million from baseball salaries and more in endorsements.  Both players have trophy cases bulging with shiny metal and memories of achieving great things on a baseball diamond.  If either or both cheated, would you like to have a life like that?  Would it matter to you that your name was dragged through the mud if your family was financially set for several generations?  You could have anything you want and travel the world.  Would the ends justify the means?  I'd like to think I would take the high road and turn all the fame and money down to avoid cheating.  What would you do?

The thought experiment I just described is, of course, completely unrealistic, but any hesitation in thinking about whether or not you would accept the imagined offer should make you think very carefully about any moral judgments you make on Armstrong and the baseball greats of the past two decades.  Think, too, about the exponential growth in technology and what that means for how the next generation of athletes approaches sports.  Medical advances will help athletes recover from injuries that once might have ended careers.  Nutritional advances will provide vitamins and supplements that blur the line between acceptable and cheating, a line that is not all that clear today.  If hyper-competitive athletes in previous generations had access to today's technology, do you think they would have turned away from any edge they could have received from the technology?  Don't kid yourself.  I can't prove anything about what past athletes would or would not do, but I can sure be skeptical.

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