You might have been bombarded with emails about Ewen Callaway’s report on the Chinese Olympic gold medalist Ye Shiwen. Over the last 20 hours, I have received emails from a small fraction of those who had emailed you.
If you wonder why a piece in a non-essential section of Nature has brought you so much response, you should be happy to know that Chinese readers place much more weight in Nature news reports than the rest of the world does. If an event is related to science (even tangentially) and Nature publishes a news report, many Chinese readers treat the Nature report more seriously than New York Times. Chinese news media also use Nature news pieces much more than the regular Western news media would.
The Callaway report was sloppy at the best and racially biased at the worst: 1) the original subtitle implied cheating on Ye’s part, setting a negative tone for the report; 2) Callaway presented two facts to establish that Ye was strikingly anomalous, but both “facts” were wrong; 3) Callaway did not check with experts whose opinions did not support the doping explanation, and thus did not provide a balance report that is the minimal standard of fair reporting. Therefore, Callaway is at least irresponsible, and could have jumped too quickly to imply that Chinese athletes were prone to cheating. He has certainly not held onto the usual standard of news reporting.
I am glad that, while I was drafting this letter, Nature may have already noticed the bias in the original subtitle and corrected it by changing it from “Performance profiling could help to catch cheaters in sports” to “Performance profiling could help to dispel doubts”. A presumption of cheating has changed to doubts.
The Callaway report presented two “facts” which made Ye Shiwen seem more “anomalous” than she really was by stating: that she was 7 seconds faster than herself in the same event in July 2012, and that, in the last 50 meters, she was faster than Ryan Lochte, the gold medalist of the same event for men, with the second fastest record.
The first “fact” was wrong, while the second was misleading. 1) Ye was only ~5 seconds faster than her own record in July, 2011, giving the 16 year old a full year rather than less than 4 weeks to improve her own record. 2) Ye was faster than Lochte only in the freestyle, not for the entire 400 meters. Lochte’s time was the second fastest for the entire 400 meters, for which Ye was not even close (she was more than 20 seconds slower than Lochte in 400 meters). Ye was only at her best in freestyle and trailed behind other women in the same event in the first 300 meters of the individual medley. While Lochte was the fastest in 400 meters, he was slower than 5 or 6 men in the last 50 meters of freestyle. Ye was slower than those other men. Thus, Ye was only faster than Lochte in a style that was her strength and his weakness. Had Callaway done a bit more home work, then he would have had a hard time to use these “facts” to highlight the “problem”. Had Callaway done double-checking, he would have found that other swimmers had significantly improved their own records when they were in the teens. Corrections of these facts would have changed the basis for the Callaway report.
There are more facts that would have made the performance of Ye Shiwen more understandable to the general readership, which I will not go into details here. See Attachment 1 for an amazingly quick and well-balanced description of Ye’s performance by Wikipedia. Signed reports in Nature should have been better than Wikipedia. The contrast between the Callaway report and the Wikipedia item shows that the reporter did not interview experts who had publicly voiced different opinions.
You should have received an email from Dr. Liming Wang, who obtained a PhD from Caltech after publishing first author papers in Nature and Nature Neuroscience. He was awarded a prestigious fellowship for an independent postdoc at Berkeley. In case his email has been buried among the hundreds you have received, I am copying it here as Attachment 2. He had sent a copy of his email to me and asked me to look at the issue.
There are many online posts below the Callaway report. Some students think that a few very reasonable (and substantive) posts have been deleted. They have sent these to me and I am including one authored by Lai Jiang as Attachment 3 and another by Zhenxi Zhang as Attachment 4. You can see that the anger of students and more established scientists who read Nature was supported by facts neglected by Callaway.
One point the British often forget, but the modern Chinese do not, is that many in the world wrongly think that the Opium Wars occurred because the Chinese sold opium to the British. I personally experienced this in June (2012) when a long time friend of mine at MIT thought that way while she and I were in Hong Kong attending a meeting.
The British have a good international image, partly because of your science and your scientists: when every middle school student has to know Newton and Darwin in textbooks, the entire Britain wins the respect of the world. Nature should be proud of the tradition and prestige built by the great (and objective) scientists, some of whom have published in Nature to make Nature what it is today. Your prestige will be strengthened when you take steps to repair the damage caused by your news reporters.
The British have never apologized to us about the Opium Wars and did not show slight remorse when leaving Hong Kong in 1997 which the British forced us to cede after the British won the Opium Wars. So the memory is rather fresh, not just lingering from the 1840s. If Nature refuses to admit that this report was not balanced, it will be difficult to “dispel doubts” about British supremacy.
The Chinese suffer from a poor image. We also know that we have many unsolved problems that we are ashamed of, including cheating. More and more Chinese are receptive to legitimate and balanced criticism, as evidenced by our public apology for our faults at the badminton games during the London Olympic. But we are sensitive to ill-founded criticism with apparent biases. Ye Shiwen is only a 16 year old and should have enjoyed her moment of professional achievement. When she is known to have passed multiple tests before and during the London Olympic and there is no evidence to accuse her, it is certainly unjustified when the negative opinions were highly publicized but the positive ones were not, especially in a journal like Nature.
I hope that you will set record straight and publish opinions that balance the Callaway report.
Yi Rao, Ph.D.
Professor of Neurobiology, Peking University School of Life Sciences
Attachment 1 Wikipedia summary of the Ye Shiwen performance
2012 Summer Olympics
At the 2012 Summer Olympics, in the third heat of the Women’s 400m Individual Medley she swam 4:31.73, an improvement of 2 seconds over her 2010 Asian Games time. In the final she won the gold medal and broke the world record (held by Stephanie Rice since the 2008 Summer Olympics) with a time of 4:28.43, an improvement of a further 3 seconds, swimming the last 50m in 28.93 seconds.
Ye’s time over the final 50m was compared to that of Ryan Lochte, the winner of the corresponding men’s event, who swam it just under a fifth of a second slower in 29.10. However, commentators pointed out that these two times were misleading outside of their proper contexts. Lochte’s overall time was 23.25 seconds faster, 4:05.18, than Ye’s, as were the times of three other competitors in the men’s 400m IM. Equally, as Chinese team officials also pointed out, Ye’s race was a very different one to Lochte’s. Lochte, when he had hit the freestyle leg of the race, had a comfortable lead over his opponents, whereas Ye was still a body length behind U.S. swimmer Elizabeth Beisel at that point in her race. Phil Lutton, sports editor of the Brisbane Times, observed that Ye, in that position, “had to hit the burners to motor past Beisel”. Freelance sports journalist Jens Weinreich described it as Ye having “lit the Turbo” at that point in the race. Australia’s Rice, a fellow competitor in the race, described Ye’s performance as “insanely fast”, and commented on Ye’s past racing form: “I was next to her at worlds in the 200m IM last year and she came home over the top of me in that freestyle leg and I’m not exactly a bad freestyler. So she’s a gun freestyler.”
Phil Lutton pointed out that Ye had grown from 160cm at the time of the 2010 Games to 172cm at the 2012 Olympics, and that “[t]hat sort of difference in height, length of stroke and size of hand leads to warp-speed improvement”. In support of the same point Ian Thorpe pointed out that he improved his own personal best in the 400m freestyle by several seconds between the ages of 15 and 16. Adrian Moorhouse similarly observed that he made a personal best improvement of four seconds at age 17 as the result of a growth spurt.
In the 200m IM, three days later, Ye again was behind, in third place, at the start of the final leg of the race, having been in fourth place at the end of the first leg. But she again overtook her competitors in the freestyle leg, finishing with the time 2:07.57. In preliminary heats she had swum 2:08.90, the same time that she achieved in the 2011 World Championships and her tenth best time of all time, with splits of 28.16, 1:00.54, and 1:38.17.
Attachment 2 Email by Dr. Liming Wang, UC Berkeley
From: Liming Wang
Date: Thu, Aug 2, 2012 at 11:26 AM
Subject: Protest to a Nature article “Why great Olympic feats raise suspicions”
Philip Campbell, Ph.D. and Editor-in-Chief of Nature,
I am a neurobiologist in University of California, Berkeley, USA. I (as well as many of my colleagues) found an article that appeared in Nature yesterday, titled “Why great Olympic feats raise suspicions”, completely groundless and extremely disturbing.
In that article, Mr. Callaway questioned China’s 16-year-old swimmer Ye Shiwen, who won two gold medals in women’s 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley (400 IM) in London Olympics, and said her record-breaking performance “anomalous”. However, the evidence he used to support his reckless statement is simply groundless.
As many have pointed out in the major media, it is not uncommon for an elite and young swimmer to increase his/her performance in a relatively short time window. An Australian swimmer and Olympics gold medalist, Ian Thorpe, said that he improved his 400-meter performance by 5 seconds around same age as Ye. UK’s Adrian Moorhouse, a Seoul Olympics gold medalist, also testified openly that he “improved four seconds” at the age of 17. He also called the suspicions around Ye’s performance “sour grape”.
The other point that Ewen Callaway used to support his accusation, that Ye swam faster than US swimmer Ryan Lochte in the last 50 meters when he won gold in the men’s 400 IM, is unfortunately also unprovoked. First of all, Ryan Lochte did not perform the best in the final 50 meters. He only ranked 5th in the last 50 meters, at 29’’10, which was significantly slower than Japan’s Yuya Horihata (27”87) and three other swimmers competing in the same event. (Ye’s performance was 28”93). It could be that Lochte was away ahead of his competitors in the first three splits so he did not have to strike too hard in the final 50 meters, or that he had used up all his strength. So one cannot only look at the final 50 meters of Ye and Lochte and conclude that Ye swam faster than a men’s champion. In fact, Ye’s record-breaking performance in women’s 400 IM (4’28”43) was significantly slower than Lochte’s (4’5”18). Secondly, even if one only looks at the performance of the final 50 meters, women can certainly surpass men and Ye’s performance shouldn’t be accused as “anomalous”. For example, in last year’s World Championships in Shanghai, UK’s swimmer Rebecca Adlington won a gold medal in women’s 800-meter freestyle. In that event her performance in her final 50 meters (28”91) was faster than both Ye and Lochte in London.
It is worth pointing out that all the facts I listed above can be easily tracked in major media and from the Internet. With just a little effort Ewen Callaway could have avoided raising groundless and disturbing charges against China’s young athlete in a professional scientific journal.
Even worse, Ewen Callaway further argued that Ye’s clean drug test in Olympics ”doesn’t rule out the possibility of doping”, implying that Ye might dope “during training” and escape the more rigorous tests during Olympics. Such a statement is disrespectful to Ye and all professional athletes. Following this logic, Mr. Callaway can easily accuse any athlete “doping” without having any evidence; and ironically, according to him, those being accused have no way to prove themselves innocent: even if they pass all rigorous drug test, they can still be doping at a different time, or even be dope some unidentified drugs! I cannot help wondering if presumption of innocence (innocent until proven guilty) still has people’s belief nowadays, or it is considered outdated in Nature, or in UK?
Last but not least, although Mr. Callaway claimed that he was attempting to discuss science, instead of “racial and political undertones”. Readers can easily smell the hidden (yet clearly implied) racism and discrimination. Yes, we may all agree that better methodology for drug test (such as “biological passport”) is needed for the anti-doping effort. But why the stunning performance from this 16-year-old gifted swimmer can lead to such a proposal? Was Mr. Callaway suggesting that Ye was found drug-clean simply because the drug detection method was not advanced enough? At the end of the article, Mr. Callaway even quoted “When we look at this young swimmer from China who breaks a world record, that’s not proof of anything. It asks a question or two.” So athletes from China, despite their talent and training, are supposed to perform bad and never break world records, otherwise they deserve to be questioned, suspected, and accused? Backed up by technological progress and better training/supporting systems, athletes worldwide are maximizing their potentials. World records are being refreshed every year. USA’s Michael Phelps just won a record 19th medals in Olympics and he has broken numerous swimming world records. Shall we also “ask a question or two” about his “anomalous” performance?
Nature is considered one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world; many scientists, including myself, chose Nature to publish their best work (I myself have co-authored three papers published in Nature and Nature sister journals). However, Mr. Callaway’s article, which is not only misleading, but also full of racial and political bias, has tainted Nature’s reputation in the scientific community, and among the general audience. Unless Nature takes further actions (e.g. publicly retract this article and apologize to Ye and all athletes), I hereby decide not to send my work to Nature any more-and believe me I will not be the last one to protest.
Liming Wang, PhD
Bowes Research Fellow
Department of Molecular and Cell Biology
University of California, Berkeley
CA 94720 USA
Attachment 3 Post by Lai Jiang following the Callaway report
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.
1. 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 20101. 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 162. 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? LetÃ￠a‚¬a„￠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 presidentÃ￠a‚¬a„￠s press release5, 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 Ã￠a‚¬Å“everyone will pass at the Olympic games. Hardly anyone fails in competition testingÃ￠a‚¬Â? 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.
Attachment 4 Post by Zhenxi Zhang following the Callaway report
I just want to add this: Phelps improved 4+ seconds in his 200 fly between 14-15 years old. Ian Thorpe also had a similar performance improvement. Ye is now 16. She was 160 cm in height and now 170 cm. Human biology also play a role “ she gets stronger and bigger naturally. Yes she can make up 5 seconds (NOT 7 seconds in the article) in a 400 IM that has more room for improvement, with good training she got in Australia.
In both the 400 IM and 200 IM finals, Ye were behind until freestyle. Well I guess there is “drug” that just enhances freestyle, but not the backstroke, breast, and fly. Does that make sense? Also, it is not professional to only mention that ‘her showing in the last 50 metres, which she swam faster than US swimmer Ryan Lochte did when he won gold in the menÃ￠a‚¬a„￠s 400 IM’. The whole fact is that Ye is more than 23 second slower than Lochte in 400 IM. Plus, Freestyle isn’t Lochte’s best leg, but it is Shiwen’s best leg. Lochte had a huge lead on the field, and almost coasted to the finish. He wasn’t pressured by the field to go all out that last few meters.
And before we get into the fact there’s no way a woman should be able to come close to man’s time for a final leg of 50m. May I present the following: Kate Ziegler set a WR in the 1500m freestyle. In the last 50m of her race she had a split of 29.27, which is ONLY 0.17s slower than Lochte final 50m. This was after she swam for 1100m longer than Lochte!
I feel the author would probably not write such a piece if Ye is an American or British. Neither country is clean from athletes caught by doping (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Use_of_performance-enhancing_drugs_in_the_Olympic_Games). Let’s try not to use double standards on the great performance from countries other than US and European countries.
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