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The prestigious scientific magazine Nature published a news report titled 'Oympic feats raise suspicion' by Ewen Callaway (@ewencallaway), which talked about 16-year-old Chinese Olympic gold medalist swimmer Ye Shiwen, and says

... how an athlete's performance history and the limits of human physiology could be used to catch dopers ...

Was Ye’s performance anomalous?
Yes. Her time in the 400 IM was more than 7 seconds faster than her time in the same event at a major meet in July 2011. But what really raised eyebrows was her showing in the last 50 metres, which she swam faster than US swimmer Ryan Lochte did when he won gold in the men’s 400 IM on Saturday, with the second-fastest time ever for that event. ...

Doesn't a clean drug test during competition rule out the possibility of doping?
No, says Ross Tucker, ...

Other than this fact-lacking and logically flawed weak reasoning, there is not much data or scientific analysis in this report. It seems a rather substandard article for Nature, especially on a potentially controversial topic. One of the reader comments was particularly well-ground criticism on it:

Lai Jiang said:

It is a shame to see Nature, which nearly all scientists, including myself, regard as the one of the most prestigious and influential physical science magazines to publish a thinly-veiled biased article like this. Granted, this is not a peer-reviewed scientific article and did not go through the scrutiny of picking referees. But to serve as a channel for the general populous to be in touch with and appreciate sciences, the authors and editors should at least present the readers with facts within proper context , which they failed to do blatantly.

First, to compare a player's performance increase, the author used Ye's 400m IM time and her performance at the World championship 2011, which are 4:28. 43 and 4:35.15 respectively, and reached the conclusion that she has got an "anomalous" increase by ~7 sec (6.72 sec). In fact she's previous personal best was 4:33.79 at Asian Games 2010 [1]. This leads to a 5.38 sec increase. In a sport event that 0.1 sec can be the difference between the gold and silver medal, I see no reason that 5.38 sec can be treated as 7 sec.

Second, as previously pointed out, Ye is only 16 years old and her body is still developing. Bettering oneself by 5 sec over two years may seem impossible for an adult swimmer, but certainly happens among youngsters. Ian Thorpe's interview revealed that his 400m freestyle time increased 5 sec between the age of 15 and 16 [2]. For regular people including the author it may be hard to imagine what an elite swimmer can achieve as he or she matures, combined with scientific and persistent training. But jumping to a conclusion that it is "anomalous" based on "Oh that's so tough I can not imagine it is real" is hardly sound.

Third, to compare Ryan Lochte's last 50m to Ye's is a textbook example of what we call to cherry pick your data. Yes, Lochte is slower than Ye in the last 50m, but (as pointed out by Zhenxi) Lochte has a huge lead in the first 300m so that he chose to not push himself too hard to conserve energy for latter events (whether this conforms to the Olympic spirit and the "use one' s best efforts to win a match" requirement that the BWF has recently invoked to disqualify four badminton pairs is another topic worth discussing, probably not in Nature, though). On the contrary, Ye is trailing behind after the first 300m and relies on freestyle, which she has an edge, to win the game. Failing to mention this strategic difference, as well as the fact that Lochte is 23.25 sec faster (4:05.18) over all than Ye creates the illusion that a woman swam faster than the best man in the same sport, which sounds impossible. Put aside the gender argument, I believe this is still a leading question that implies the reader that something fishy is going on.

Fourth, another example of cherry picking. In the same event there are four male swimmers that swam faster than both Lochter (29.10 sec) [3] and Ye (28.93 sec) [4]: Hagino (28.52 sec), Phelps (28.44 sec), Horihata (27.87 sec) and Fraser-Holmes (28.35 sec). As it turns out if we are just talking about the last 50m in a 400m IM, Lochter would not have been the example to use if I were the author. What kind of scientific rigorousness that author is trying to demonstrate here? Is it logical that if Lochter is the champion, we should assume he leads in every split? That would be a terrible way to teach the public how science works.

Fifth, which is the one I oppose the most. The author quotes Tucks and implies that a drug test can not rule out the possibility of doping. Is this kind of agnosticism what Nature really wants to educate its readers? By that standard I estimate that at least half of the peer-reviewed scientific papers in Nature should be retracted. How can one convince the editors and reviewers that their proposed theory works for every possible case? One cannot. One chooses to apply the theory to typical examples and demonstrate that in (hopefully) all scenarios considered the theory works to a degree, and that should warrant a publication, until a counterexample is found. I could imagine that the author has a skeptical mind which is critical to scientific thinking, but that would be put into better use if he can write a real peer-reviewed paper that discusses the odds of Ye doping on a highly advanced non-detectable drug that the Chinese has come up within the last 4 years (they obviously did not have it in Beijing, otherwise why not to use it and woo the audience at home?), based on data and rational derivation. This paper, however, can be interpreted as saying that all athletes are doping, and the authorities are just not good enough to catch them. That may be true, logically, but definitely will not make the case if there is ever a hearing by FINA to determine if Ye has doped. To ask the question that if it is possible to false negative in a drug test looks like a rigged question to me. Of course it is, other than the drug that the test is not designed to detect, anyone who has taken Quantum 101 will tell you that everything is probabilistic in nature, and there is a probability for the drug in an athlete's system to tunnel out right at the moment of the test. A slight change as it may be, should we disregard all test results because of it? Let's be practical and reasonable. And accept WADA is competent at its job. Her urine sample is stored for 8 years following the contest for future testing as technology advances. Innocent until proven guilty, shouldn't it be?

Sixth, and the last point I would like to make, is that the out-of- competition drug test is already in effect, which the author failed to mention. Per WADA president's press release [5], drug testing for olympians began at least 6 months prior to the opening of the London Olympic. Furthermore there are 107 athletes who are banned from this Olympic for doping. That maybe the reason that everyone will pass at the Olympic games. Hardly anyone fails in competition testing? Because those who did dope are already sanctioned? The author is free to suggest that a player could have doped beforehand and fool the test at the game, but this possibility certainly is ruled out for Ye.

Over all, even though the author did not falsify any data, he did ( intentionally or not) cherry pick data that is far too suggestive to be fair and unbiased, in my view. If you want to cover a story of a suspected doping from a scientific point of view, be impartial and provide all the facts for the reader to judge. You are entitled to your interpretation of the facts, and the expression thereof in your piece, explicitly or otherwise , but only showing evidences which favor your argument is hardly good science or journalism. Such an article in a journal like Nature is not an appropriate example of how scientific research or report should be done.


How well said!

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