If there is anything that the British should be the most proud of, it is their establishment of the science peer review process. Because of it, science research work are inspired to be top notch and published works stand scrutiny. This culture has taken root firmly in America and other developed countries. Developing countries like China are too working to have it ingrained. And, perhaps, no other than the science journal, Nature, epitomizes that culture the best. Nature is the most revered around the world and the most cited magazine within the science community. Scientists around the globe dream to have their work published by Nature. Once published, it is instant fame and even promotions for the scientist. So, what does the paper have to do with Ye Shiwen? I will start with the journal’s apology to readers and Ye Shiwen by Chief Magazine Editor Tim Appenzeller and Editor-in-Chief Philip Campbell.
I should first take a moment to offer this contrast, where, in an earlier article, I criticized the UK’s Guardian paper in which reporters Branigan and Walker instead of apologizing for their paper’s irresponsible propagation of Leonard’s accusations, they tried to dismiss rightful Chinese indignation at the British and American media.
Nature is a highly regarded journal also inside China. When the paper’s writer Ewen Callaway weighed in on Leonard’s accusations, sub-titling it, “Performance profiling’ could help catch sports cheats,” it was clear which way the author was leaning, never-mind the flawed analysis to begin with. Criticisms from Chinese scientists poured in, and many pointed out the glaring flaw (also see our author, jxie‘s prior post, “Ye Shiwen, the 16 year old dreamy girl superstar, and the ugly world.”) The journal’s editors then weighed in, first by changing the sub-title, then publishing a criticism from Lai Jiang of Pennsylvania University’s Department of Chemistry, and finally issuing a formal apology.
When the Western press is capable of a similar class act, perhaps I will stop blogging. Kudos to Nature. You have constituents around the globe and I am proud of the fact that you aspire to be worldly. With the apology, you can be forgiven for succumbing to the urge to write such an article in the first place. The apology is assurance that you do not intend to repeat such a mistakes in the future.
This article has drawn an extraordinary level of outraged response. The volume of comments has been so great that our online commenting system is unable to cope: it deletes earlier posts as new ones arrive. We much regret this ongoing problem. The disappearance of some cogent responses to the story has fuelled suspicions that Nature is deliberately censoring the strongest criticisms. This is absolutely not the case: Nature welcomes critically minded discussion of our content. (We intentionally removed only a few comments that violated our Community Guidelines by being abusive or defamatory, including several that offensively stereotyped the many Chinese readers who commented on the story.)
[UPDATE 8 August 2012: The technical problem has now been resolved and all of the posts that were inadvertently hidden have now been restored. In order to keep this problem from recurring, we have closed the story to further comments.]
Many of the commenters have questioned why we changed the original subtitle of the story from “‘Performance profiling’ could help catch sports cheats” to “‘Performance profiling’ could help dispel doubts”. The original version of the title was unfair to the swimmer Ye Shiwen and did not reflect the substance of the story. We regret that the original appeared in the first place. We also regret that the original story included an error about the improvement in Ye’s time for the 400-metre individual medley: she improved by 7 seconds since July 2011, not July 2012. We have corrected the error.
We apologize to our readers for these errors, and for the unintended removal of comments because of technical issues with our commenting system. Below we reproduce one of the most thorough and thoughtful of the hundreds of responses we received. Beneath it, we continue with our response.
It is a shame to see Nature — which nearly all scientists, including myself, regard as one of the most prestigious and influential physical-science magazines — 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 populace to be in touch with and appreciate science, the authors and editors should at least present the readers with facts within the proper context, which they blatantly failed to do.
First, to identify Ye’s performance increase, Ewen Callaway compared her Olympic 400-metre IM time with her performance at the World Championships in 2011 (4:28.43 and 4:35.15, respectively) and concluded that she had an “anomalous” improvement of around 7 seconds (6.72 s). In fact, her previous personal best was 4:33.79 at the Asian Games in 2010. This leads to an improvement of 5.38 seconds. In a sporting event in which 0.1 s can be the difference between the gold and silver medal, I see no reason for 5.38 s to be treated as 7 s.
Second, as previously pointed out, Ye is only 16 years old and her body is still developing. Bettering oneself by 5 seconds over two years may seem impossible for an adult swimmer, but it certainly happens among youngsters. An interview with Australian gold medallist Ian Thorpe revealed that his 400-metre freestyle time improved by 5 seconds between the ages of 15 and 16. For regular people, including Callaway, it may be hard to imagine what an elite swimmer can achieve as he or she matures and undergoes scientific and persistent training. But jumping to the conclusion that it is “anomalous” based on ‘Oh that’s so tough I cannot imagine it is real’ is hardly sound.
Third, to compare Ryan Lochte’s last 50 metres to Ye’s is a textbook example of ‘cherry-picking’ your data. Yes, Lochte was slower than Ye in the last 50 metres, but Lochte had a huge lead in the first 300 metres, so he chose not to push himself too hard and to conserve his energy for later events (whether this conforms to the Olympic spirit and the ‘use one’s best efforts to win a match’ requirement that the Badminton World Federation recently invoked to disqualify four badminton pairs is another topic worth discussing, though probably not in Nature). Ye, on the other hand, was trailing behind after the first 300 metres and relied on freestyle, in which she has an edge, to win the race. Failing to mention this strategic difference, as well as the fact that Lochte is 23.25 seconds faster (4:05.18) than Ye overall, creates the illusion that a woman swam faster than the best man in the same sport, which sounds impossible. Putting aside the gender argument, I believe this is still a leading question that implies to the reader that there is something fishy going on.
Fourth is another example of cherry-picking. In the same event, there are four male swimmers who swam faster than both Lochter (29.10 s) and Ye (28.93 s) in the final 50 metres: Kosuke Hagino (28.52 s), Michael Phelps (28.44 s), Yuya Horihata (27.87 s) and Thomas Fraser-Holmes (28.35 s). As it turns out, if we are just talking about the last 50 metres in a 400-metre IM, Lochter is not the example I would have used if I were the author. What kind of scientific rigorousness is Callaway trying to demonstrate here? Is it logical that if Lochter is the champion, we should assume that he leads in every split? That would be a terrible way to teach the public how science works.
Fifth is the issue I oppose the most. Callaway quotes Ross Tucker and implies that a drug test cannot rule out the possibility of doping. Is this kind of agnosticism what Nature really wants to teach its readers? By that standard, I estimate that at least half of the peer-reviewed scientific papers inNature 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 to demonstrate that in (hopefully) all scenarios considered, the theory works to a degree, and that that should warrant publication until a counterexample is found. I could imagine that Callaway has a sceptical mind, which is crucial to scientific thinking, but that would be put to better use if he wrote a peer-reviewed paper that discussed the odds of Ye doping on a highly advanced, non-detectable drug that the Chinese have come up with in the past 4 years (they obviously did not have it in Beijing, otherwise why not use it and woo the audience at home?), based on data and rational derivation. This article, 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 the governing body for water sports, FINA, to determine if Ye has doped. To ask whether it is possible to obtain a false negative in a drug test looks like a rigged question to me. Of course it is possible: other than the athlete taking a 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 so there is a probability that the drug in an athlete’s system could tunnel out right at the moment of the test. A slight chance it may be, but should we disregard all test results because of it? Let’s be practical and reasonable, and accept that the World Anti-Doping agency (WADA) is competent at its job. Ye’s urine sample will be stored for eight years after 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 Callaway failed to mention. As noted in the president of WADA’s press release, drug testing for Olympians began at least six months before the opening of the London Olympics. Furthermore, 107 athletes have been banned from this Olympics for doping. That may be the reason that “everyone will pass at the Olympic games. Hardly anyone fails in competition testing” — those who did dope have already been caught and sanctioned. Callaway is free to suggest that a player could have doped beforehand and fooled the test at the game, but this possibility is certainly ruled out for Ye.
Over all, even though Callaway did not falsify any data, he did (intentionally or not) cherry-pick data that, in my view, are far too suggestive to be fair and unbiased. 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 showing only evidence that favours your argument is hardly good science or journalism. Such an article in a journal such as Nature is not an appropriate example of how scientific research or reporting should be done.
The news story was triggered by a debate that was already active, concerning the scale of Ye Shiwen’s victory. Such debates have arisen over many outstanding feats in the past, by athletes from many countries, and it is wrong to suggest, as many of the critics do, that we singled her out because of her nationality.
The story’s intention as an Explainer was to examine how science can help resolve debates over extraordinary performances, not to examine those performance statistics in detail. Several analyses done by others convinced us that it was fair to characterize Ye’s performance as ‘anomalous’ — in the sense that it was statistically unusual. But we acknowledge that the combination of errors discussed above and the absence of a more detailed discussion of the statistics (which with hindsight we regret) gave the impression that we were supporting accusations against her, even though this was emphatically not our intention. For that, we apologize to our readers and to Ye Shiwen.
Tim Appenzeller Chief Magazine Editor, Nature
Philip Campbell Editor-in-Chief, Nature