Note: This is part 1 of a three-part response to an important article that appeared in the New York Times this month. Doping in elite sports has become a taboo topic in sports circles as no one wants to kill the golden egg. This article will prove to be an important reference.
Tim Rohan's article is a must-read for anyone who cares about the sanctity of sports (link). I do have some gripes about certain parts of the article which I'll get to in a future post. But the main theme of the piece is absolutely on target.
Chapter 4 of Numbers Rule Your World (which appeared three years ago) is called "Timid Testers / Magic Lassos". In this chapter, I explore the statistical nature of diagnostic testing, using two examples--anti-doping tests, and lie detector tests (polygraphs). The "timid tester" in the chapter title refers to the anti-doping agency: I asserted that the anti-doping agency, in its unwillingness to face the negative publicity related to a false positive result, has rigged the tests so that the majority of dopers will test negative.
When I made that assertion three years ago, the false negative problem in anti-doping was unspoken by those in the know and oblivious to those who get their news from the sports pages. The popular view--now proven to be a delusion--was that the dopers and the anti-dopers were playing a cat-and-mouse game. It is this false premise that led many people, including statisticians, to focus on the non-existent false positive problem, while failing to notice the blatant false negative problem.
Rohan's story is about several (unnamed) researchers who have thus far been prevented from publishing the results of a 2011 poll of elite track and field athletes which showed that about 30 to 45 percent of them admitted to doping. (The poll uses a randomized response strategy designed to hide the identity of the responders so the athletes were in no danger of implicating themselves.)
It appears that the anti-doping agency required approval from the sports governing bodies to publish this result, and thus far approval has not been granted. There goes the myth that the anti-dopers are adversaries of dopers, especially the superstars protected by their respective sports governing bodies. This is exactly the kind of behavior that I expected when I labeled them "timid testers".