Lance Armstrong – some thoughts on science and fairness

This week’s apparent final surrender of Lance Armstrong to those who want to charge him with doping and strip him of his most important cycling awards is interesting to me at so many levels.  I so much enjoyed cheering for him during his glory days (at a time when I was cycling myself).  I am not really one to idolize a performance entertainer, as you might guess, but I enjoy and value the entertainment as much as the next guy.  So this is disappointing to me (though since I, like most people, do not really care what the official records say, it is not like I feel like those great Tours have vanished from memory).

On the other hand, Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG cancer charity used to be a particularly high-profile source of disinformation designed to discourage tobacco harm reduction, with its erroneous claims about the risks from smokeless tobacco.  These lies were a pale shadow of the American Cancer Society, who was one of the leaders in producing anti-THR junk science and disinformation, but they were bad enough.  With that in mind, I always saw a bit of a bright spot as the news kept trickling out over the years about Armstrong’s increasingly losing battle with his accusers.

But notice the use of past tense in the previous paragraph.  I just checked the website, and most of the anti-THR disinformation has quietly disappeared since THR.o last looked at it (a few years ago).  I found only one paragraph in one document that really parroted the standard anti-THR party line from the anti-tobacco extremists, and a few random mild anti-smokeless-tobacco bits.  So sometime in the last few years, someone at Livestrong must have learned something about THR and stopped repeating the lies from ACS and their ilk.  So much for the schadenfreude.  Livestrong did not go so far as to endorse tobacco harm reduction, though, which leaves them on the wrong side of the most promising way to reduce cancer in the US today

So what about the science of this?  One of the most absurd things about the whole matter is that the best evidence in support of stripping Armstrong of his Tour de France (etc.) victories is that he won the Tour de France.  How is that for Catch-22? 

To win that and other major bike races requires that someone be near the top, among the entirely population of people who have ever tried to ride fast, in each of:  useful genetic freakishness, practice, choice of the right strategy (short and long term), getting in with the right people, luck, etc.  This is true for coming out on top of any highly competitive activity, be it a sport, politics, entrepreneurship, or whatever.  It is not good enough to be near or at the top in one or two factors because there are too many other people who also do quite well at those one or two, and if they are way ahead of you in the others, then they will come out ahead.  (Those familiar with statistics or economics will recognize this is the same phenomenon that creates regression toward the mean, when luck of the moment is one of the factors.)

The catch is that one of the elements of the “etc.” — a big one in cycling during Armstrong’s glory days, according to the evidence — is using banned performance enhancing drugs.  This means that the most likely way to win was to be a freak of nature and train hard with a good team, and also to dope.  (Or at least this is the way it was a decade or so ago.  There are claims that drug detection has temporarily moved ahead of drug hiding in the arms race between them — though if it were the other way around, would we know?)

So, the logic goes, since there were other people out there who had great genetics, training, teams, etc. and who were, in addition, using great drugs, then even they were a bit inferior to Mighty Lance in most ways, if he did not use drugs also, he still would not have been able to dominate them.  This is perfectly valid scientific reasoning.  The scientifically sensible prediction from this information is that he doped. 

But such logic is not generally acceptable for making rules-based decisions.  Armstrong’s statement this week complained, quite reasonably, about the lack of due process, in particular the fact that he (supposedly) passed all of his drug tests — the accepted definitive measure.  Therefore he should be off the hook.  Indeed, in some sense, passing the drug tests (however one manages to do that) can be considered part of the game.  It is kind of like a hand-ball that is not seen by the official or an umpire calling a dubious out at the plate.  The results are based on whatever was called, which becomes the only truth that matters for the game.  There are no appeals.

The really disturbing part of the due process, though, (even worse than the double/triple/quadruple jeopardy, or the question of how a US organization can strip someone of his French victories) is the power of a few unsubstantiated claims by people with serious conflicts of interest.  As Armstrong observed:

any begrudged ex-teammate can open a USADA case out of spite or for personal gain or a cheating cyclist can cut a sweetheart deal for themselves

A great point.  Unfortunately, this observation will likely not generate concern about the countless people who are convicted of street crimes in the U.S. based on similar “evidence”?  For most of them, the testimony that the cops extract from some convenient “witness” does not leave them as a millionaire living a life of leisure, of course, but utterly ruins their lives.

In sum, I will not be wasting any sympathy on Lance Armstrong, and I really don’t feel like this diminishes the great Tour memories…  winning a time trial looking like a salt lick for lack of a water bottle, surviving 30 meters down through the grass after coming off the road on a switchback, and most of all, blowing past Ullrich and Kloden in 2004, after they refused Armstrong’s attempt to give a deserved stage win to his teammate and, ironically, his eventual primary accuser.

3 responses to “Lance Armstrong – some thoughts on science and fairness

  1. Indeed, one wonders how long it will be before Bradley Wiggins is accused of using performance enhancing drugs (nicotine), having been snapped enjoying a postprandial fag in Spain.

  2. Here we go AGAIN!
    Heart attacks among non-smokers fall by a QUARTER in German city after ban stubs out passive smoking

    Read more:

  3. Absurd innumeracy about basic scientific reasoning, isn't it? I thought the Germans were supposed to be way ahead of us in terms of kids' science scores and such. (Maybe they should have had a few kids review it, rather than leaving it to “public health” people.) I am going to have to let Snowdon address this in detail, though. He has done more on the topic than I have, and I expect I will not be able to get to it.

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