Tierney begins by quoting an editorial in the current issue of the journal Nature, which argues that poorly calibrated doping tests have damaged athletics with false results and created “a sporting culture of suspicion, secrecy and fear.” This, and a Science News article about some trainers’ quests to always stay ahead of current detection systems, leads Tierney to conclude:
So what we have now is not a level playing field. The system punishes some innocent athletes and rewards others with the savvy and connections not to get caught. The more that the authorities crack down on known forms of enhancement, the more incentive athletes have to experiment with new ones - and to get their advice from black-market dealers instead of doctors.
Granted, there is an ethical strand to Tierney’s argument here, and he later quotes a doctor of sports medicine and two bioethicists’ opinions that legalized doping would “encourage more sensible informed use of drugs in amateur sport ” But as every good columnist knows, part of mounting an effective argument involves a rebuttal of contrary opinion. Here, Tierney’s work is lacking. He quotes an article in the British Medical Journal, endorsed by thirty other scholars, which criticizes healthcare professionals for inflating the dangers of drugs like anabolic steroids based “on scant evidence tainted by a misguided moralistic motivation to protect sport.”
What are these misguided moralistic motivations? Tierney doesn’t elaborate, but the BMJ does:
Four reasons are conventionally advanced in favour of anti-doping: the need to ensure a “level playing field,” the need to protect the health of athletes; the need to preserve the integrity of sport; and the need to set a good example. All four assumptions have at their core a need for moral certainty, and all four are flawed.
The article then goes on to explain, in detail, why the authors think each of the four arguments is flawed, an act of cost-benefit analysis that would have improved Tierney’s column immensely. From him, readers get only the much-too-simplified rationale that performance enhancement should be less taboo because “The fans, after all, include people with laser-corrected eyes, chemically whitened teeth and surgically enhanced anatomies.” He also throws in the idea that legalized doping could “point the way for lesser mortals to coax more out of the their bodies.” By “lesser mortals,” he seems to mean the elderly and the injured. Ignoring the callous turn of phrase for a moment, one might ask why he thinks it is ethically justified (or even necessary) to permit sports doping in order to achieve medical progress.
Tierney’s failure to fully explain the ethical underpinnings of his anti-anti-doping argument is not his only problem, however. His proposed solution to the current system also falls flat. Both the Nature and the BMJ report cited by Tierney stop short of supporting the legalization of performance enhancement, though Nature suggested as much a year ago. Instead, they discuss the need for a massive overhaul of anti-doping policies and procedures, offering suggestions about how they might become more effective and fair. Tierney’s plan:
I’d like to see what would happen of someone started a new anthing-goes competition for athletes over 25. If you have any ideas for how to run it or what to call it — Max Match? UltraSports? Mutant Games? — submit them at nytimes.com/tierneylab.
Mutant Games might be a stretch, but who knows, Tierney could be right. Again, though, he fails to outline the ethical questions behind his argument that might better inform readers. If the system is broken, why does he favor abandoning it, rather than fixing it? Or if we keep the current system, but institute a parallel one that allows doping, how does that address the four moral qualms outlined in the BMJ report?
Much like geoengineering, people will come to very different conclusions about the cost versus the benefit of sports doping based on the same set of scientific facts and uncertainties. Where Dean clearly indicates the boundaries where science must give way to ethical decisions, however, Tierney does not, and therefore fails to make his case.