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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Pistorius appeal: Science sold

Going, going, gone: Pistorius wins appeal, and Pandora's box is now open - good luck to athletics

I have no doubt that many have by now heard the news that Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter from South Africa, has been cleared by the CAS to compete in able-bodied races against able-bodied runners. Little more than this has been released, so the grounds for the clearance are guess-work, other than to say that it was not a huge surprise, given the way that the case had developed. The sentiment before today's announcement was in fact that the verdict would favour him, because of the nature of the CAS process and the fact that three lawyers were required to evaluate two conflicting scientific arguments.

Perhaps most significantly, one of those scientific arguments, that of the IAAF, had been discussed and dissected for months before now, whereas the other, that of Pistorius, has still not be revealed to anyone. Quite what this shows is beyond us, and it will certainly be interesting to have a look at apply the same magnifying glass to them. I suspect the results will surprise.

Those who have followed this saga over the last 12 months will have little doubt as to our opinion on the science of Oscar Pistorius, and the size of his advantage. This LEGAL ruling does not change this - we are interested in the science, not the judicial reasons. And over the coming weeks, we hope that the "science" that is now being readily flaunted by those supporting this bid is revealed.

Peer-review, and obejctive, analysis of scientific research, is the fundamental basis on which science is built. The concept of "secret" research, done by scientists who are neither objective, nor independent, and certainly not neutral, is foreign to science. To have overturned a decision such as this one based on clandestine testing, which took place entirely in the absence of any independent expert, is a travesty of justice, more than it is a scientific proof of anything.

I eagerly await the first publication of those "scientific studies" which prove that there is no advantage. I do not believe that this research will be forthcoming, now that the dollar signs are in place and the incentive has been achieved by those who have much to gain from today's decision.

What I do believe is that this decision has changed the face of athletics, and a journey has now begun which we will ultimately all regret. So the day of May 16, 2008, will indeed go down in history (as Pistorius is quoted to have said), because it is the day that Pandora's box was opened.

Good luck to the IAAF, good luck to the sport, and good luck to all those spectators who wished for it to be opened. Whether it will take 4 months, 4 years, or perhaps 14 years, this day will one day be looked back on with a great deal of regret. The time will come where the effects are so obvious that even the most parochial and emotive supporter begins to recognize the problem, and what has been discussed will become unavoidable. Until then, the IAAF have to evaluate how to implement the far-reaching consequences of this decision. Shoulder replacement surgery and shot-put records of 25 m is the next step, followed by 42 second 400m times.

The next step is to wait on the scientific evidence, and just as Pistorius and his team of highly paid lawyers were able to criticize the IAAF-study, so too, his research should be exposed to the public. Indeed, this should have been the case from the outset, but nothing about this entire saga has been managed correctly. As soon as the scientific motivation is released, you can be sure we'll discuss it.

Until then, we leave you with a quote from the scientific expert, Hugh Herr, who defended Oscar Pistorius after performing his top-secret, unverified research. He advocates the introduction of this technology into the sport. This quote is no doubt familiar to many of your who are regular readers:

A bilateral amputee professor named Hugh Herr works here (at MIT). If anyone can predict what sports will look like in 2050, it's Herr, who lost his legs 26 years ago in a climbing accident. Herr wears robotic limbs with motorized ankles and insists he doesn't want his human legs back because soon they'll be archaic. "People have always though the human body is ideal", he says. "It's not".

Time will tell, but when the "expert" himself says that soon human legs will be "archaic", then good luck to the sport. May 16, 2008, and athletics' version of Pandora's box is wide open.



Anonymous said...

The best part about this story is the irony.

You are protesting a double amputee because he makes you feel disabled.

At the end of the day, Oscar wants to run with able-bodied athletes because it makes him feel normal. He fights this battle every day of his life. You can't understand this because you have both your legs.

N.N said...

Don't agree with the above poster, it's a sentimental argument. This blog, A. Burfoot, IAAF have all tried, with lengthy arguments to explain why he should not run. It's reminds me of the Creationism vs Science debate. The tactics deployed by Pistorius are largely the same. Science mostly lose against emotional aruguments (very loudly shouted )

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous and Lorenzo

First of all Lorenzo, thank you for your opinion and agreement. Needless to say, I agree with you on it, and I cannot wait to get my eyes on that "research" that Pistorius is supposed to have produced in his Top-secret testing session. It is, scientifically speaking, a ridiculous situation.

As for anonymous, to throw out an accusation about a person's motivation when you know neither that person, or even their context, smacks of exactly what Lorenzo refers to below your post. You entere a debate, charged with emotion, and contribute to that emotion with a baseless comment, unsupported by anything other than you own preconceived notion of the situation (in that regard, it's very similar to other debates, as Lorenzo mentions)

So rather than telling me why I object to this, you might consder reading the articles I have written, and then you will see the science behind why I have objected, and save everyone from having this issue blurred by the emotion that the Pistorius PR team have so expertly introduced into it.

Anonymous said...

Lets not pretend this discussion isn't ladened with emotion from both sides.

You have smacked my hand for pinpointing Oscar's motivation and retort with you own preconceived notion on his motivation.

Mine comes from experience, my son is a bilateral amputee. Being an engineer, and having an child amputee, I have a much better understanding of the science involved in this discussion than most. I also have a firm grip on what motivates amputees.

When a person excels, the competition scrutinizes and dissects. If the competition can identify and utilize what appears to give an advantage, they will without protest. If they cannot identify nor utilize, they scream foul.

What is the first thing we think of when we see a good runner from Kenya? "He was born that way".

What is the first thing we think of when we see an amputee? "What a shame, he doesn't have legs".

When you see an amputee outrun a Kenyan, you say "Its has to be the prosthetics".

Its a very natural reaction and would be a sound argument for Oscar not running, if the prosthetics could run themselves.

If they could reduce the efficiency of the legs, would you let him run? What if he still won races?

The perspective is, if the amputee is winning, he is cheating.

Anonymous said...

anonymous, you are beating around the bush. As someone who has interest in neither side, from my point of view, both Ross and Johnathon have made their argument clear.

They have clearly stated - let there be a neutral individual evaluate the impact of the prosthetics. Let the methodology claimed by Pistorius (and his lawyers) be made public for other experts to evaluate. If Pistorius does not get any advantage, why is everything done in a clandestine manner ? Why is Pistorius so blatantly ignoring the testing of the IAAF ?

As far as I see, nobody has any objections to a double amputee participating and winning. The argument is about the science behind the use of technology which is being masked by a monetary conflict of interest.

Ross and Johnathon, thanks for sharing your insights as always. Its definitely sad to see science can be purchased at a price.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Anonymous, again, you may have an understanding of some of the science, but you've clearly not read the theories here.

When I see a Kenyan running really fast, I ask myself "What factors might have contributed to the speed of that athlete?"

The answer is almost never that he was born this way (that's not science, incidentally, it's what you read in a newspaper). The answer is yet to be determined, genetics no doubt plays a large role, but so do diet, motivation etc. But the thing is, I look at the complete athlete and I say "Could it be that something in his legs, heart, lungs, muscles, or maybe tendons is what is responsible for providing that advantage?" And of course, the answer is likely yes, and so then the scientific response is to formulate the hypothesis, and test it, using research. When that is done, then you start understanding where the advantages come from.

When I see an amputee running 46 seconds for 400m, I ask the same thing - could it be the legs, lungs, tendons, heart etc.?

And I come to the same conclusion. There is something there that enables that athlete to run as fast as he does. Now, it dawns on me, as a result of physiology training, that the lack of muscle below the knee, and the replacement of that unit with carbon fibre, might in fact be the source of the advantage. And there are very good reasons for thinking this - there is physiological theory that underscores this thinking - you might go back to May and June last year, when we explained all these theories.

So, the scientific response is to do research, which was done. First they analysed his race in Rome, then they did testing in Germany.

And sure enough, the results from that testing confirmed the hypothesis.

Now since you know the science, you'll know the scientific process:

Hypothesis - study - results - analysis - conclusion. The study of the IAAF confirmed every hypothesis (put differently, they rejected the null hypothesis, which is how they set the research up, I'm not going to go into the stats of H0 here), and so it was grounds for a ban.

What we have now is secret, clandestine testing, to disprove that hypothesis. The IAAF had not chance, they did not even witness the testing, only the printed results, presented to them by a man who is an amputee himself and DOES NOT EVEN WANT HIS HUMAN LEGS BACK.

So the science is black and white, I'm afraid. What is grey is the law, and seven lawyers, a lot of money and a bit of clever marketing and the case is made to go away. Wouldn't be the first time - ask OJ, and hundreds of others.

So, to respond, of course there is emotion, because I don't wish to see the sport I love compromised by the introduction of technology that will make human legs "archaic" (to quote Pistorius' expert). So yes, this incestuous use of science angers me, but the facts are the basis for my argument.

If they were not, then I might tell you of all the reports of Pistorius' lack of training and elite athlete lifestyle, and various other allegations. I'm sure you'll agree those are left out of the discussion, however, as are personal anecdotes - I'm not interested in them, and I'm not interested in the legal system that greys a black and white issue, and i'm not interested in the marketing and PR that is going to make certain people very wealthy. It's about the science, through and through.

Anonymous said...


There were 6 Universities and world-famous scientists involved in this appeal, not just MIT and Hugh Herr. None of them received any compensation. Also, they are submitting their findings for peer review. The science was never secretive.

Anonymous said...

You can't act like this is the end of the sport. Oscar's condition is one in roughly 30 million. Many people who have Oscar's condition do not have it bilaterally, nor do they opt for amputation. The conditions that allow him to excel as an amputee are extremely rare. You will not see another Oscar Pistorius for a long long time.

Pandora's box it is not, unless someone invents flubber.

Anonymous said...

Does this ruling open the door for top athletes to opt for amputation of the "archaic limbs" in pursuit of the riches heretofore only availble to drug cheats? How will that apply to middle and long distance runners for whom muscular fatigue is a factor in their racing?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately if someone opted to have a bilateral amputation, they would not be able to run like Oscar. He is conditioned to use prosthetics, and his body has adapted to functioning without lower legs. You can't just pick up a guitar and play like a pro. It takes a lifetime of training and conditioning.

Just as an adult who learns a second language later in life has an accent, a child who learns a second language has none.

He is like Tiger Woods, who has been given the perfect set of golf clubs. (Not like OJ, who murdered two people)

Alex Lightman said...

Doctors Tucker and Ross repeatedly do what honorable intelligent people do in an emotional and litigious environment. They keep focused on THE key point, and don't allow themselves to be shamed into pandering to emotional arguments. Their point that a decision was made based on secret data, and that this sets a terrible precedent, should be beyond argument. The idea that ex post facto the data will be peer reviewed - AFTER the decision has been made - is absurd because of the cliche that people make decisions emotionally and defend them logically - especially when they made the decisions in secret in politically combustible atmosphere infused with financial incentives. I have a first hand account of the irreversible nature of political decisions, from the winning side, that might be illustrative. I believed that Internet Protocol version 6 was important, and that the US should focus its efforts on the new 128-bit protocol instead of the 35 year old 32-bit protocol we all (exclusively) know and love. I also was the only person in the world to believe and to state repeatedly, in writing, that a US government mandate was necessary. I asked the White House, via the Office of Management and Budget, to require federal agencies to mandate IPv6, and they refused,so I got Congress to hold hearings on "Internet Leadership", and at the hearing the OMB representative announced the mandate (all federal agencies must be IPv6-capable this year). Here's the key: before the mandate, no one (but me) was in favor of the mandate. After the mandate, no one was against it. Before the Pistorius decision, it's possible to argue the science as science. Afterwards, there is a community, political, even tribal stigma against arguing about the data as picking on a handicapped person or other issues, but now the decision makers, for their survival, must defend the decision they made, and the weight of both expert and public opinion will be to just move on from the issue. And science will have been trumped by secrecy. Tucker and Ross have guts to make their point so athletically. Well done.

Anonymous said...

You can't act like this is the end of the sport. Oscar's condition is one in roughly 30 million. Many people who have Oscar's condition do not have it bilaterally, nor do they opt for amputation. The conditions that allow him to excel as an amputee are extremely rare. You will not see another Oscar Pistorius for a long long time.

Pandora's box it is not, unless someone invents flubber.