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Why Lance Armstrong’s Doping Doesn’t Matter

January 19, 2013 3 comments

lance armstrongManny Ramirez. Mark McGwire. Barry Bonds. Baseball is no stranger to superstars using steroids. Sprinter Ben Johnson was disqualified from an Olympic victory decades ago. More likely than not, every sport has players who use ‘performance enhancing drugs’ – it’s just that the player’s performance is not generally enhanced to superstar status. Now Lance Armstrong has admitted to doping, and once again the world is shocked.

For me, the most unfortunate part of this whole story is that Armstrong lied to so many people for so long about doping. He sued people who ‘lied’ about his doping. He put out press statement after press statement about how he was a clean athlete. He threatened teammates and others. It’s the hypocrisy that bothers me, really. I have the same sort of scorn for politicians who blather on about family values and the sanctity of marriage after cheating on their spouse with a gay prostitute the night before. It’s not the sex that bothers me, it’s the lying.

For the moment, let’s put that aside. Armstrong broke the rules. Somewhere in the professional cycling handbook there’s a ‘no doping’ clause, just as there is in most other sports handbooks. As The Verge points out, doping can mean anything from manipulating blood through transfusions and hormones to taking performance enhancing drugs. My contention is this: A ‘no doping’ clause is a terrible rule. Not just because it’s easily circumvented by creating new drugs that aren’t on the official ‘banned’ list, and not just because it encourages athletes who want to cheat to find clever ways to evade the tests. It’s not even terrible because the extent of doping’s impact isn’t very clear. Does anyone really question whether McGwire, Bonds, Johnson, or Armstrong were excellent athletes who would have had great success even if they hadn’t been doping? It’s quite likely that all these athletes would have been very good – perhaps even great – but doping made them better. Maybe just slightly, but it was enough. The rule is stupid, because ‘just slightly’ is about to become greatly.

China National Anti-Doping Centre Opens For 2008 Beijing Olympics

Whenever I make this contention, people inevitably come back with something along the lines of a fairness argument. It’s not fair to allow doping because these dopers are cheating. They have an unfair advantage. It’s not natural, etc. Yes, dopers are cheaters. If no one was doping, there would be no cheaters. This is clearly the goal of the expensive and invasive testing processes designed to detect dopers and the suspensions and revocations of awards after dopers are caught. It’s a system designed to detect and then punish, with the goal of scaring would-be dopers straight and eliminating cheaters. You know what else eliminates cheaters without the expense, invasive tests, and asterisks next to awards or revocation of medals? Allowing doping. If it’s not against the rules, then there are no cheaters. Instead of all the extraordinary measures taken to combat doping, sports authorities could get rid of cheaters entirely (of the doping variety, anyway) by deleting a couple of paragraphs.

Allowing doping largely takes care of the unfair advantage argument as well. If it’s neither secretive nor banned, then anyone who wants to enhance their performance is free to do so. It might be an advantage, but it’s no longer unfair. But I suspect that people who use the unfair advantage argument generally mean the third thing: That it’s not natural. This, I think, is the worst argument of all.

Can we just get rid of the idea that because something is ‘natural’ that it’s better? That argument is already a fallacy for cripes sake. But it’s not just that the argument is technically wrong – it’s just plain stupid. If an athlete gets sick, we don’t get bent out of shape about them taking antibiotics or Nyquil. Hell, we don’t even get mad if they’re taking steroids as part of a recovery process. Humankind’s distinguishing characteristic is arguably our ability to use tools to improve our condition. We nearly all use drugs when we’re sick. Many of us will huff steroids to get rid of a simple allergy. Is it really that unbelievable that an athlete being paid millions of dollars to do well wants to use a tool to help them become better? Why do we all of a sudden get bent out of shape about their using an unnatural substance to run better when we were fine with that athlete using the same substance to recover from a torn ACL a year prior?

It comes back to the unfair advantage argument. These athletes aren’t ‘pure humans’ or something like this, and so by taking a substance to get better it’s ruining the core of the sport. Consider this argument in two different lights.

Super Bowl XLVIThe first light is something like: This athlete wouldn’t naturally be this good, so it harms the sport to allow her to take a performance enhancing substance to get better. Let’s take American football as an example. Ryan Fitzpatrick (starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills) is not as good as Tom Brady (starting quarterback of the New England Patriots). As far as I know, neither of these athletes are illegal dopers, though I suspect they probably use legal substances to get rid of the aches and pains of, say, getting sacked by Brian Urlacher. As far as I know, both QBs put in a ton of work, are smart guys, and are dedicated to their jobs. That is, it isn’t the case that Tom Brady is more motivated than Ryan Fitzpatrick. Certainly the surrounding team helps Tom look better than Ryan, but if we stripped that away and just looked at their statistics in running, passing accuracy and passing distance, I think we’d find that Tom is perhaps a little quicker, a little more accurate, and has a little more arm than Ryan.

Tom, it seems, has slightly better genes than Ryan; at least for the purposes of throwing a football while avoiding large guys trying to tackle him. They’ve both worked hard, put in the effort, but Tom just has a higher capability ceiling than Ryan. It’s how he was born, and that’s fine because it’s natural. But is it really? Isn’t this really the ultimate unfair advantage? There’s nothing about Tom’s greater ability that ‘ruins the game of football’ like we might argue were the case if we found out he’d been doping. In fact, if Ryan started doping and became as good as Tom and then got caught, we’d probably say that it was Ryan who was ruining the game of football by doping, even though he only improved to the same level as Tom. Tom, through random chance, is better at football than Ryan, but Ryan is the bad guy if he uses a tool to get to the same level as Tom. What kind of sense does that make?

The second light to the natural-is-better statement has already been hinted at. Tom Brady, being a great quarterback, doesn’t ruin the game of football. Michael Phelps didn’t ruin swimming because he was perhaps the best swimmer who ever existed. Naturally great athletes don’t ruin their sport, no matter how good they are. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Lance Armstrong didn’t ruin their sports by being great either. When we were unaware of the fact they were doping, they provided a spark to their sport like we hadn’t seen before. These folks were legends because they were good, and arguably revitalized their sport. I’d even argue that most people wouldn’t even care about cycling (to the extent that anyone cares about cycling, anyway) if it weren’t for this Lance Armstrong guy who won a ton of titles. A quarterback who comes in and is better than Tom also isn’t going to ruin the game of football. Great athletes make for great sports, and doping is arguably a way to make great athletes better. Great athletes are the reason we watch the NFL instead of high school football games.

That is exactly why we ought to allow doping. If it’s legal, if it’s not an unfair advantage, and if we get rid of this silly and fallacious notion that natural is better we will have better athletes. Maybe the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and professional cycling don’t want to allow dopers into their leagues. That’s fine. Create a new league where it’s legal.

geneticengineeringWe are approaching a time where steroid doping is going to look like drinking a cup of coffee in the morning – maybe it provides some advantage, but it’s miniscule. The Daily Mail ran a story a few months ago about amazing Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen and the (extremely unlikely, imo) possibility that she was genetically enhanced. Past that claim, they did a pretty good job of explaining what genetic enhancement could look like. Athletes whose blood carried more oxygen, who are stronger, faster, and have more endurance. Athletes with quicker reflexes and more durable ligaments and bones.  In short, professional athletes doing what they do, but better.

Outside of sports, some people are talking about modifying soldiers to give them superior capabilities. A decade ago, DARPA was looking into the possibility of modifying soldiers “to reduce their susceptibility to stress, sleep deprivation, fatigue, pain and blood loss while enhancing their memory and learning.” DARPA’s “Metabolic Dominance” program was covered by Wired nine years ago – and consider that we were allowed to know about that program. Generally, human enhancement is catching on and becoming more acceptable:

For its part, the National Intelligence Council expects some resistance to biomods. “Moral and ethical challenges to human augmentation are inevitable,” the Council advised. Americans, especially, tend to have deep reservations about changing people’s biology, [Georgetown researcher Andrew] Herr points out. That doesn’t mean they won’t do it. He points out increasing acceptance of cognitive-enhancing drugs among American college students. “Seventy to 80 percent of upperclassman have at least once taken these drugs illegally to get better grades,” he says. “If the younger generation in our country is more comfortable with this, then that would make the use of these kinds of things in society, and by extension the military, very different.” – Wired

Soon, doping isn’t going to mean taking a shot of steroids or getting a blood transfusion, but rewriting our DNA and making it more efficient. As soon as it’s feasible a military, somewhere, is going to embrace it. If genetic modification is acceptable for our military, then it will become acceptable elsewhere too. For instance, what happens the first time a soldier leaves the service and, say, wants to play football again like they did in college? Will the NFL let him in?

If the NFL does let this player in, they’re likely to be much better than other players – that is, after all, the point of the modification. And this athlete will be better in a way that the current doping scandals don’t even begin to approach. It might be like dropping Tom Brady into a high school football match.

That brings us to the second point. If the NFL refuses to allow the player, then surely someone will start another league. This league will be better (more exciting, faster, etc.) than the NFL to the same extent as the NFL is better than high school games. There will be no cheating as far as modifications go because modification will be specifically allowed. The advantage won’t be unfair, and there won’t be some suggestion that the athletes ought to be natural in the sense we mean now.

In less than a decade, someone will take Lance Armstrong’s place. There will be another great cyclist, because sports never stop just because one athlete got busted. Maybe this athlete will be a ‘natural’ and surpass Lance’s abilities because the athlete was lucky enough to have excellent genes. Maybe the athlete will be modified to an extent Lance never imagined. Either way, the sport will go on. Before long, enhanced athletes will become the norm, even if we still have quaint throwback leagues for unenhanced humans. Modification and doping makes sports better, and that is why Lance Armstrong’s doping doesn’t matter.

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Categories: ethics, genetics, transhumanism

GMOs: The Future Of Food

January 6, 2013 4 comments

pharmcornFor several months now, I’ve wanted to put together a post talking about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), and particularly in the context of food. I’ve had several debates with my friends – I tend toward the pro-GMO camp and several of my friends are anti-GMO. I maintained that if they simply looked at the science, reviewed the research, and avoided sources with an agenda that often post incorrect information that they would come around to my way of thinking.

It turns out, someone else just did that job for me.

Big-time environmental advocate Mark Lynas has fought GMOs for nearly two decades. He helped to coin the “Franken-whatever” phrase, and has generally contributed to public hysteria and governmental regulation of GMOs, particularly across Europe. On Thursday, at the Oxford Farmer’s Conference, Lynas recanted. Anyone interested in GMOs should watch the entirety of his speech, but I’ll highlight a few important bits after the video.

“[W]hat happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.”

This follows my general argument that when people look at the hard data, they understand that most fears about GMOs are unfounded. That someone so ardently opposed to GMOs could revise his opinion, publically no less, is extremely rare and worthy of praise.

“When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get – here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.”

Often, when I ask why people dislike GMOs, their reaction comes down to a dislike of Monsanto. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Monsanto either, though I find they’re sometimes demonized more than they ought to be. The Supreme Court is expected to hear a case about some of their practices during the upcoming term.

But creating hysteria about GMOs because one of the major companies that makes them is distasteful is like creating a hysteria about computers because one doesn’t like Microsoft. The technology is separate from the people that implement it. If someone wants to argue that the business model of Monsanto is unethical or harmful that’s an argument I can get behind (or at least entertain.) But to suggest that the technology itself is bad, even if Monsanto is a sort of corporate demon, is ludicrous.

How Some View Monsanto

How Some View Monsanto

“So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths. I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide. I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs. I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened. I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them. I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way. But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.”

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Lynas moved away from the propaganda, did some research, and came to conclusions backed by evidence instead of fear.

Lynas goes on at some length about how GMOs can help mitigate climate change, help feed billions of people, and generally make life a little better for all of us (and a lot better for some of us.)

“There is a depressing irony here that the anti-biotech campaigners complain about GM crops only being marketed by big corporations when this is a situation they have done more than anyone to help bring about.”

Ironic is exactly the right word to use here. The trouble with GMOs is that it can be a dangerous technology. Part of me hopes that so many of these regulations will be loosened and GMO technology can become essentially open source. So much of my distaste for Monsanto comes down to the patent system and approval process. But because there are strong dissenters to the technology who require stringent regulations the R&D and approval processes are very costly. That means that only large corporations can afford to research the technology. And that, in turn, means that Monsanto remains the biggest game in town because smaller, perhaps more ethical, businesses can’t afford to play.

“In the EU the system is at a standstill, and many GM crops have been waiting a decade or more for approval but are permanently held up by the twisted domestic politics of anti-biotech countries like France and Austria. Around the whole world the regulatory delay has increased to more than 5 and a half years now, from 3.7 years back in 2002. The bureaucratic burden is getting worse.”

Take, for example, a GMO salmon that, after 17 years in the approval process and millions upon millions of dollars spent to get it approved, has finally been approved after the FDA conceded that it “posed no major health or environmental risks” and that “ [the FDA] could not find any valid scientific reasons to ban the production of GM Atlantic salmon engineered with extra genes from two other fish species.”

gm-salmon

Lynas says, “If you look at the situation without prejudice, much of the debate, both in terms of anti-biotech and organic, is simply based on the naturalistic fallacy – the belief that natural is good, and artificial is bad. This is a fallacy because there are plenty of entirely natural poisons and ways to die, as the relatives of those who died from E.-coli poisoning would tell you. For organic, the naturalistic fallacy is elevated into the central guiding principle for an entire movement. This is irrational and we owe it to the Earth and to our children to do better.”

Indeed we do.

Just a few examples of the potential benefits of GMO technology (in food alone – I will post a separate article about GMOs in other contexts another time):

Lab grown meat that could provide nutrition to millions of people, without the detrimental impact to the Earth caused by traditional cattle and chicken farms and without the ethical problems of killing animals for food.

Modified tomatoes that can help prevent heart disease.

Modified corn that could help treat a rare disease.

Lynas speaks about several other current uses of GMO food to help feed people or cure disease, and again, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you listen to the entire speech. GMO food, time and again, has proven safe, effective, and offers benefits far beyond what traditional farming techniques offer. The best part: We’re just getting started.

As an aside: There is a separate debate about whether GM food ought to be labeled. For the record, I think that it should. People certainly have a right to know what sort of food they’re purchasing and consuming. Perhaps equally importantly, people ought to be able to see how many of the foods they already eat are genetically modified. This, I think, will dissipate some of the fear about GM food. It would, as a side benefit, allow me to knowingly support foods that are genetically modified.