From Nature to mainstream newspaper

Nature, the most prestigious scientific journal, has published an online article about the performance of Chinese swimming athlete Ye Shiwen:

(If  the above link does not work, please Google “Why great Olympic feats raise suspicions”.)

It may seems sound and solid that, in the name of Nature, Ye Shiwen’s performance is highly questionable. It seems to confirm the suspicions raised by many others. NOT until we read the following comments that provide a more complete picture of what have happened after sorting out all the media fabrication:

However, the author has definitely achieved his goal – to reenforce doubt over Ye . After all, how many people are going to read through those comments? Majority of the readers will only read the article and naturally get the conclusion of the article. As we have repeatedly pointed out in the past, this has been an extremely successful strategy employed by our “free press” to deliver biased opinion to the public:


Congratulations to Nature for evolving from a prestigious scientific publisher to a main-stream newspaper today.

UPDATE 1: Nature has corrected the year (2011) of Ye Shiwen’s last record. So it now says that Ye improved her performance by 7 seconds (actually less than 6 seconds as some have pointed out) during a year, not the previously suggested a month.

UPDATE 2: Nature’s comment links above have disappeared. Fortunately we have made a copy and they are pasted below.

UPDATE 3: Nature has published full comment 47487 by Lai Jiang following the original article.

Full comment 47439:

Zhenxi Zhang said:

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 men’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 Let’s try not to use double standards on the great performance from countries other than US and European countries.

Full comment 47487:

Lai Jiang said:

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.

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? Let’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 president’s press release 5, 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 “everyone will pass at the Olympic games. Hardly anyone fails in competition testing”? 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.


Full comment 47746:

Liming Wang said:

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 the 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 energy. 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″8). 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 have doped ‘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 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 could still have doped at a different time, or even doped 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



Filed under Media Watch, Olympics

2 responses to “From Nature to mainstream newspaper

  1. Even worse, Nature has selectively deleted these solid comments from their site. Luckily, others have reposted them. What a shame!

    • J.J. Wu

      To Hui Zhao: To be fair, Nature did not delete comments, at least not those that are solid. Some comments disappeared because they were over the limit number of comments and were lost in the system. P.S. Thanks The New Voice! for recognizing that the article in Nature is indeed misleading.

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