Syed’s response, and a final wrap on the whistleblower/faith debate

01 Aug 2016 Posted by
Last week, I published a rebuttal to an article that Matthew Syed had written in response to some comments I made about whistleblowers and secrecy in sport.

In response, Matthew Syed contacted me on Saturday, to say that he would email me a response, if I would publish it here on my site.  I accepted, because I think it’s good to offer both sides, and thus only fair to allow for a response.  As such, below I publish Syed’s email to me, completely unedited.

Below that, I’ve offered my responses to his points.  As before, I’ve divided his email up into sections and addressed the points there.  So here, without further wasting of words, are Syed’s response (in dark grey text), and then my response to them below that.

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Syed’s email

Your post is nicely written, so I thought I’d venture a response. The points about whistleblowing are v well observed. I have some familiarity with this. I recently worked with the Sec of State for Health in UK in changing the law to create safe spaces for whistleblowers in the NHS (am working with other governments, with different legal systems, on this vital issue). Whistle-blowing isn’t just about corruption; it is about driving reforms that can only emerge from “bottom up” knowledge of problems and defects.

There are many examples in sport where it has been harrowing for those speaking up. However, there are also examples where whistle-blowing has been more positively received. I was struck by the response to allegations of bullying in British cycling. This led to the departure of a coach. As far as I am aware, the cyclist (and others who stepped forward) has been taken seriously and the claims investigated. The journalist secured a boost to her reputation. Certainly, I’d encourage anyone with evidence against Team Sky to speak up. I will report it faithfully, and I am sure colleagues would do the same.

Much of the rest of your post seems to imply conspiracy.

The idea of Murdoch control is wide of the mark. I will highlight my own experience, but I know colleagues would say the same. I have criticized The Sun, the News of the World as well as companies that advertise directly with The Times – and never had a single line re-written. The Times doesn’t work like that. I have been consistently impressed with the integrity of the journalists/editors I have worked with.

Marginal gains are only advantageous in a zero sum environment if they are not exploited by the competition (or executed less well). The key intellectual property is, therefore, not publicised by Team Sky (as you’d expect). I have seen some of this, have good reason to believe it is not being used by the competition. Variation in performance is often explained, in part, by differential coaching, leadership and culture. If I had significant doubts about Team Sky’s integrity, I wouldn’t have included them (for a few pages, in a late chapter) in a book about scientific method.

You mention survivor bias. There is a long section on this in BBT (forgive the mention, but I have worked with fund management companies to eliminate survivor bias in the estimation of skill in traders: the results are interesting). Re Bounce, I explore the nuances in relationship between practice and outcome, and deal with survivor bias (but if you missed this, you could claim that I didn’t do so at sufficient length).

On the wider point: are Team Sky doping? It’s possible. Do I believe it to be the case? No. The culture of continuous improvement, intellectual curiosity, the willingness to revise their assumptions: I wish we had more organisations like that.

I guess we can disagree on the facts without anyone acting in bad faith. 

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My responses, point by point

Here, I’ve highlight Syed’s email in blue, my response is in black:

Your post is nicely written, so I thought I’d venture a response. The points about whistleblowing are v well observed. I have some familiarity with this. I recently worked with the Sec of State for Health in UK in changing the law to create safe spaces for whistleblowers in the NHS (am working with other governments, with different legal systems, on this vital issue). Whistle-blowing isn’t just about corruption; it is about driving reforms that can only emerge from “bottom up” knowledge of problems and defects.

There are many examples in sport where it has been harrowing for those speaking up.

So we agree on two issues: 1)  The importance of whistleblowers to exposing corruption (which means different things in different domains, but plays out the same way for a whistleblower), and 2) That it is harrowing for those speaking up.  I’d add “unpleasant, hostile and dangerous” to that list, based on all the examples I gave previously, which I presume are accepted and agreed as accurate.

Given this apparent agreement, I am all the more stunned at the tone of Syed’s original article.  In it, he described “giggling” at my recounting of whistleblower who feared for his safety.  He flippantly, arrogantly dismissed the notion that whisteblowers face risk (whether physical or financial or emotional, he did not distinguish).

The general tone was dismissive, and now reading that Syed is actively involved in creating a pathway for safe whistleblowing is difficult to compute. Knowledge of an issue from one domain did not translate into another.

However, there are also examples where whistle-blowing has been more positively received. I was struck by the response to allegations of bullying in British cycling. This led to the departure of a coach. As far as I am aware, the cyclist (and others who stepped forward) has been taken seriously and the claims investigated. The journalist secured a boost to her reputation. Certainly, I’d encourage anyone with evidence against Team Sky to speak up. I will report it faithfully, and I am sure colleagues would do the same.

Since it has been raised, let’s look at this particular incident, and how it played out.

First, Jess Varnish and her partner fail to qualify for Rio on March 3rd.  They publicly express disappointment in the organization, saying there “was no plan”.  At this stage, it looks like a typical athlete/coach/team dispute.

On April 19th, the media publish a story that Varnish has been dropped from the Olympic programme on performance grounds.  In that story, even before Varnish comments, the news report speculates whether this may be payback for her criticisms six weeks before.  They quote Sutton explaining that it’s purely on performance grounds.  This lays the foundation for what is to follow.

April 22nd, and Varnish speaks.  The Daily Mail runs a story in which Varnish says she was told to “move on and get on with having a baby”, and mentions that she was once told her ass was too big.  She says there’s a list of sexist comments as long as her arm.  She talks about a macho culture, suggesting that there is sexism within the team, and talks about how in response to her criticism, she got “both barrels” from Iain Dyer, the head coach.

She also talks about asking for her data, a request for transparency so that she can evaluate the performance grounds on which she is apparently dismissed.  The team refuse to provide that, as they have to this day.  This story is written very favorably towards Varnish, and is harsh on British cycling for sexism and verbal abuse Varnish reports.

This is important, because we live in a time, fortunately, where that is frowned upon.  And so not surprisingly, an investigation is launched, on April 24th.  A number of cyclists, Wiggins and Thomas among them, then offer a defence of Sutton.  Not direct, of course, but effectively dismissing Varnish’s claims.

On April 26th, articles come out describing a culture of fear in the team.  Varnish is quoted as saying the following:

“I have been contacted by other riders both present and past, to say that they have experienced similar behaviour at British Cycling,” she added. “I am aware that some people at British Cycling are afraid to come forward due to the culture of fear that exists, as they don’t want to lose their jobs.”

The support comes in the form of Nicole Cooke, and Victoria Pendleton.  Cooke says the following:

“I have my own personal experiences of Shane and sympathise with Jess. She was in the position so many have found themselves: speak out and your dreams will be destroyed and years of hard work wasted. Or put up with it and hope. I spoke out from the age of 19 and I know what happens.”

Pendleton raised a similar observation:

“I have never spoken out before,” Pendleton told The Telegraph. “But I have to do it now. I would not be able to live with myself if I sat back and let people try to discredit [Varnish’s] character. Not when I wholeheartedly believe her. My experiences [at British Cycling] were very similar. And I know exactly how miserable they made me”

This is all in the media on April 26th, and then, and only then, on April 27th, is the Shane Sutton suspension announced, and a probe launched into the accusations.  So not yet a departure, but a hearing, where Sutton still expects to be fully exonerated.  In other words, it took the combined weight of three women (two of whom are no longer in the race, but have earned the rights of GB cycling’s most accomplished to be heard) to instigate that suspension.

So yes, the cyclist was taken seriously, as Syed said.  Eventually.  Because they take it to the media, and create for the ‘target’ a PR nightmare that demands a response.  Just ask WADA about Russia.

But make no mistake, Varnish was bullied, both before and after coming forward.  That’s what compelled Cooke and Pendleton to speak up – look at Pendleton’s words “I have to do it now.  I would not be able to live with myself if I sat back and let people try to discredit Varnish’s character”.

In other words, people were trying to discredit Varnish’s character in response to her account of her treatment.  This is hardly the shining example of a whistleblower being taken seriously.

It reminds me of what the IAAF, WADA and the IOC have done for the last two years – exposed by the media for corruption and inaction on doping, they profess their “shock” and then launch independent probes.  Then, when those probes confirm that the media was accurate all along, they pat themselves on the back.  “Good job, lads”, they say, a glass of champagne in one hand, and a mouse in the other as they delete the 200 emails from the very same whistleblower who has just been exonerated, two years too late.

That’s not commendable.  It’s reactive to media pressure that forces action, and in the current climate around sexism in sport, the allegations made by Varnish, then Cooke and Pendleton, created that pressure.  Arguably, based on cycling’s history, the ‘threshold’ to act would be higher for doping.

The same sequence of events – failure, speaking out, more serious revelation, condemnation from within, investigation – also occurred in the case of the Stepanovas.  The final similarity – both whistleblowers have no job, no Olympic place, nothing to do.

Point is, the allegation (whistleblowing) and the action (investigation) are only bridged by media.   They occasionally force something into the public eye, and then the whistleblower, like Varnish, has their character attacked.  Others step forward (sometimes – on an issue like sexism, thank goodness we live in a time when it is favorable to do so).  In the case of doping, it is never favorable to step forwards, retired or active.  That has been shown so often it does not bear repeating.  Sexism and doping whistleblowing are thus not the same, because of the prevailing attitude of society to them.

Much of the rest of your post seems to imply conspiracy.

Syed first introduced the conspiracy word in a tweet where he called me “sad, really”.  Conspiracy, you see, could look like Dr Evil sitting in his lair stroking a Manx cat and laughing as he pulls the strings of a nefarious plan.  I specifically have not used the word conspiracy, because I don’t want to suggest that it works that way.  It might, to some extent, but it need not either.

In other words, the outcome of a ‘cover up’ can be achieved without a puppet master pulling all the strings, because independent role players and stakeholders in the system can be similarly incentivized to act the same way, for the same end.  For instance, you don’t need a doping athlete and an incurious journalist to both be told not to raise the issue of doping.  They have their different, but equally strong reasons not to do so.  Their own incentives, and disincentives.  So I don’t know why Syed is bent on twisting the accounts of pressure on riders and media into some grand Dr Evil conspiracy.  It doesn’t need to be that way for every single thing I’ve said to be true

The media have an incentive.  The riders have an incentive.  Team managers and sponsors share an incentive.  They all have a similar disincentive for going against the grain.  No central conspiracy is required.  That said, I do believe that Brailsford applies some pressure, I have this on good authority from friends and associates in the media, and Syed might explore that himself.  But making it seem like a grand, James Bond-like plan is a convenient way to dismiss the reality of “collective incentives and disincentives”.  It’s just another straw man from a master-builder.

The idea of Murdoch control is wide of the mark. I will highlight my own experience, but I know colleagues would say the same. I have criticized The Sun, the News of the World as well as companies that advertise directly with The Times – and never had a single line re-written. The Times doesn’t work like that. I have been consistently impressed with the integrity of the journalists/editors I have worked with.

I wonder how this might play out if ahead of the 2017 Tour de France, Syed took on board Geert Leinders 2016 words about the snake simply shedding its skin when talking of doping in the sport.  Considering that Leinders is the person the skeptics point to as being responsible for suddenly helping Sky’s marginal gains strategy actually work in 2011, this would seem an important part of the discussion.  Maybe, for the 2017 Tour, Syed can write a story about Sky’s links to Leinders, along with some other team members who slipped through the zero tolerance policy.  He should write a piece criticizing and maybe mocking (we’ve seen Syed can do this in the original piece) Brailsford’s utterly implausible denial that he didn’t know of Leinders’ past (the team had three Rabobank riders on it at the time – they knew), and perhaps Syed can giggle at the fact that they tried to tell us that Leinders’ main job was weighing the cyclists.

If Syed runs that piece, and concludes it the way it should be, then we can see if the above paragraph remains true.

And to reiterate a point I made earlier – changing the message doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of integrity, in the way that doping, or lying might.  It simply reveals a balance of incentives that influences behavior.  Swimming downstream is not necessarily the same as polluting the water.

Marginal gains are only advantageous in a zero sum environment if they are not exploited by the competition (or executed less well).

An important disclaimer.  One that I’ve never seen in any piece written on this by a cycling journalist, or any other commenting on marginal gains.  We agree on this one.

The key intellectual property is, therefore, not publicised by Team Sky (as you’d expect). I have seen some of this, have good reason to believe it is not being used by the competition.

A potentially plausible explanation, were it not for the incredibly high turnover and churn of of people within cycling.  Riders, team staff, mechanics, managers etc, are moving from one team to another regularly.  Yet these ‘secrets’ have never left.  Perhaps they are too expensive to imitate, out of reach of all but those with the big budgets.  That’s possible, but then the accurate way to write about it is to say “Sky have a budget that enables them to do unique things in the preparation for and execution of races”. Not to say that there is magic dust, and that the people leaving the team suddenly forget it.  Unless one of those marginal gains is a memory eraser like they used in Men in Black.  I simply do not believe that keeping secrets is possible given the fluid nature of cycling.

Another thing I do wish to point out, since it doesn’t fit the narrative, is that Sky’s marginal gains philosophy did not produce Froome v 2.0. It has maintained him, yes, but his emergence to Vuelta podium (should’ve won that race too) was not because he was a beneficiary of this “key intellectual property”.  Since the Vuelta, and as per Grappe, Froome’s numbers and performances are relatively consistent.  He’s certainly a little better, more consistent, more well rounded now than in 2011, but the Tour champion physiology was there in 2011, suddenly, before all this fancy “key intellectual property” took over. In fact, Syed might want to ask Brailsford if he knows, really knows, the details of Froome’s preparation for that Vuelta.  He could start with the diet change, and who instigated that, and then perhaps explore the rest.

That said, the team is no doubt benefitting from some key intellectual property, because they’re expressing a dominance that even US Postal could not.  There is no way to establish the truth in this particular debate, and some will point to this as proof of marginal gains effects, others will say it is impossible that they’re that effective.  Since there’s no resolution, I’ll leave that alone.

Returning to the diet issue, Sky let one of the all time great Tour de France riders get so “fat” (for an elite cyclist), with a generic diet, that his fiancé was the one who stepped in to correct it, and only then did the ability that they apparently all saw express itself.  How is it possible that one of the most basic avenues of performance enhancement (diet) was so badly managed that a fiancé rescued it?

On this note, I must just point out that in my previous response to Syed, I mentioned Michelle Froome and her mother’s input – that is incorrect.  Michelle herself informed me that she alone took on the responsibility for the diet change by taking a generic diet that had been given to some of the Sky riders, and making some changes.  Again, I ask Syed: How does this never-seen-before intellectual property miss a fat rider with multiple Tour winning potential?  Impossible.

That’s one of a few inconsistencies I’d have probed if my business was genuinely to cover the sport.  If, on the other hand, my business was capitalizing on a powerful and populist narrative, I might let it slide.

Variation in performance is often explained, in part, by differential coaching, leadership and culture. If I had significant doubts about Team Sky’s integrity, I wouldn’t have included them (for a few pages, in a late chapter) in a book about scientific method.

I can imagine.  But this cannot be offered as a reason to believe them now.  If anything, it’s reason not to believe Syed about Sky’s performances.  You can’t say “I included X because I believe it, and therefore X must be true”.  It’s circular, weak logic.

The other thing is that Syed claiming a few pages in a late chapter may be true at face value, but it is hard to believe as true.  Brailsford has written of Syed’s book “An extraordinary, inspirational book”.  It’s on the jacket.  Syed has really emphasized the relationship with Sky through his regular writing.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the validity of Syed’s message, not only in the book but also in the consulting work and speaking he does, is intimately linked to the success of Sky using the methods promoted in the book.

That’s called a massive conflict of interest, and while I’m not a huge fan of dismissing every argument just because a COI exists, it’s nevertheless something that has to be acknowledged.  In this instance, I’d say that Syed and Sky are both trading off a concept, and to discredit it now would discredit themselves.  Of course the start point may be belief, and everyone is entitled to that.  I’m not disputing that, but I am saying that it’s irrelevant, because it asks us to start from a position of faith, then accept the facts that are offered because we have faith. No way.

You mention survivor bias. There is a long section on this in BBT (forgive the mention, but I have worked with fund management companies to eliminate survivor bias in the estimation of skill in traders: the results are interesting). Re Bounce, I explore the nuances in relationship between practice and outcome, and deal with survivor bias (but if you missed this, you could claim that I didn’t do so at sufficient length).

A specific critique of Bounce is the subject for another day.  I’ve already written a lot on deliberate practice and how Outliers and Bounce offered a partial, inaccurate and distorted picture.  It’s not relevant here.  However, the fact that Syed has experience and knowledge of these concepts makes the original article all the more astounding, and points to a bias that renders such knowledge “inaccessible” on matters related to Sky and cycling.  It’s a blindspot.

On the wider point: are Team Sky doping? It’s possible. Do I believe it to be the case? No. The culture of continuous improvement, intellectual curiosity, the willingness to revise their assumptions: I wish we had more organisations like that.

I guess we can disagree on the facts without anyone acting in bad faith

I agree, we can’t know.  The general criticism, however, has not been of people for believing in Team Sky – they are very much entitled to that belief. It was for failing to ask and pursue some pretty damn obvious questions about Sky, and in the specific case of Syed, the marginal gains message that is sold without any rigorous examination.  It’s a criticism of that section of the media who offer themselves up as biographers, rather than journalists, and who serve as a platform for whatever message their subject wishes to convey.  That, broadly speaking, is where the criticism lies.

The original article, of course, was Syed’s criticism of my whistleblower theory, and that has not been dismissed here.  In fact, it’s agreed upon, so that can now rest.

I have issue with “continuous improvement” as a culture.  If that’s the hook on which to hang a defence, it’s pretty weak because the large leap took place from 2010 to late 2011 (co-incidentally when Leinders was there), and marginal gains and that culture before, and since, haven’t really done much to the top end of the sport.  What Sky have done is produce an extra domestique per year, so that by 2016, they’ve had four guys with Froome very late into the mountains.  That may be considered continuous improvement, I suppose.  But let’s not delude ourselves into a myth that the methods being used are as novel, or constantly improving enough to account for the performances of the team, both in depth and quality.

I also have issue with intellectual curiosity and desire to revise assumptions.  In my field, some of the greatest scientists have worked directly in cycling, and with teams.  They are laughing at the PR spin on this “novel stuff” being done by Sky.   I would seriously question whether Syed really, truly knows what other teams are doing, how they think, because he’s only writing the story that is consistent with the book, and the narrative.  Syed should spend a year with other teams, and a bunch of teams in other sports, and then applying the same mindset, he can write five sequels to BBT.

If he did this sincerely, he’d emerge with a bit more humility about the standard of people who he doesn’t know.  He’d have more humility about just how scarce and difficult “competitive advantage” is, and why it’s laughable to read some of the stuff that has been offered by many, including himself.  That was certainly my experience in elite, HP sport. My “arrogance” was quickly dealt with when the blinkers came off.  I highly recommend it.  People at the top always say “there are no secrets”.  Syed needs there to be secrets.

Finally, let’s talk about facts and bad faith.  We can’t unfortunately disagree on the facts, because all the facts have not yet emerged.  We have some facts, and a lot of weak explanations, multiple inconsistencies, and a bunch of unasked, and thus unanswered questions.  If there were more facts, then perhaps a debate in good faith might be possible.  The whole issue is that we don’t have them.  In fact, I’d say that taking the words of Brailsford, Sky and cycling at face value is in fact, the ‘bad faith’ move.

As for Syed’s orginal article, he concluded it with what is basically an appeal for trust and faith, until evidence is provided.  I think that in a sport where literally every champion for 30 years, plus many going back 60 years (think Simpson, think Anquetil and his “imbecile” quote), the reasonable person would reject the notion of simply having faith in the promises made, both by the team, and by a journalist who is so conceptually, and contractually, linked to the team.

Perhaps, had Syed asked me to have faith and to trust the team 20 years ago, I might have, naïve as I was.  Then, before I embarked on my studies of sports science and human performance in order to become a “blogger”, I might have accepted this.  However, my “blogging” education and experience, combined with the knowledge I’ve acquired from people in the field of high performance sport compel me to reject a notion of faith and trust, in the absence of facts.

I wish that some of the media fawning over their team would apply just a little more stringency.

Anyway, I’d like to end that by thanking Matthew Syed for the response.  I look forward to my response being published in the Times.  Haha.  Yeah, right.

On to Rio we go…

Ross