Coyle continued  //  “I made a mistake.” Now get a job”…Fact and philosophy

19 Sep 2008 Posted by

Well, the discussion around the study published by Coyle on Lance Armstrong, and the subsequent revelation that he had made a calculation error has opened up some strong debate, which is always excellent. We’ve had numerous responses, and of course had the study been done on John Jones, as opposed to Lance Armstrong, no one would have cared

And therein lies the first problem – this paper got to where it did off the back of the fame of its subject, and scientific stringency was lobbed out the window. So to the one Anonymous poster who commented that we were leading the “witch-hunt” for Lance Armstrong…I’m afraid you’ve missed the point there. It’s not about Lance Armstrong, it’s about scientific process. But more on that a little later, in “Philosophy.” First, some “Fact.”


Many of you wrote in saying that there was an error in the statement regarding the impact of the change depending on a high or low VO2. And you’d have been correct. I’ve emailed some authors about this, and what I’d like to do (this is part of our “growth strategy” here at the Science of Sport), is to allow external contributions to topics such as this one. So I will try my best to actually have the people involved respond to these kinds of specifics.

However, you are correct – the impact of the change is similar in absolute magnitude, but as a percentage of the slope, it’s larger at lower VO2 values. At the very least, we now have confirmation that our readership is up to the challenge! That’s a privilege, and says something about the high quality of our readership…!

I’m going to credit the fact that I have a “real job” for this particular error – these posts are done on the fly, during lunch or after work, thanks to the real job (again, more on this in “Philosophy”).

But it suddenly struck me as ironic that this had happened in this post, of all of them (of course, we do make mistakes, but they’ve never been picked up before!). Because the funny thing is how this scenario played out…consider the following:

Yesterday afternoon, you were sitting in a coffee shop, an internet cafe, your home, or your office, and you logged on or got our daily email. You read it, and it struck you that something was wrong, so you gave it some thought, and you realised that you disagreed with our statement. You then took it upon yourself to write in a comment, and express your view about our position. One of you even wrote in and requested that we provide data to back up that position. It was beautiful.

Why was it was beautiful? Because this is what happened when you logged onto a part-time run website on Sports Science. Now, imagine that instead of this website, you picked up a credible Journal, say the Journal of Applied Physiology. You opened it, and read a paper that was so full of holes, so full of errors and lacking any integrity in the interpretation of the data, that it defied belief. What would you do? I suspect you’d take it upon yourself, as a scientist that is, to write to the Editor, to respond to the Author of the study, and to seek answers.

Welcome to the Coyle-Armstrong debate. Now, imagine that in response to your email and opinions, I was to tell you to “Get a real job.” Again, welcome to the Coyle-Armstrong debate, because that is what was said in response to a scientific discussion.

And that is what this series about. One of the bigger ironies is that we (and the Australian scientists) were yesterday accused of being “myopic” to our approach to criticizing the Coyle paper. That is a response that can only come from within the “Fraternity” (and I use this word deliberately, instead of “Community” because science is often a Fraternity) of scientists who are perhaps defending a former colleague.

They are the ones suffering from myopia, because they’ve chosen to ignore the quality of the science and attack the messenger instead. The reality is that a peer-reviewed scientific paper should meet certain standards. Making “miscalculations” (which I still believe to be significant) is not acceptable, but then nor is the litany of other problems with that study, which we described in our first post. Then the response of the author is so offensive, so disrespectful and so arrogant that it warrants a post series all by itself.

To be sure, errors do occur in data collection and analysis. This is not a crime and nothing to be ashamed of, however when other scientists challenge your findings because they think there might be an error somewhere, transparency should prevail, data should be provided, and the problem rectified. This is how we move our knowledge forward.

The fact is that subsequent to a complaint of scientific misconduct, Coyle has still not provided all the data. Why not? Just make it available and let’s have this debate out in the open. Or is there a reason not to? Moving even further along, not only does this science appear in a scientific journal, it then becomes a cog in a legal defence when it was incorrect all along (and to answer one poster, I don’t know why the data was not made available before – perhaps the legal team made the mistake of trusting the scientific process too much?)

So that is the problem. The final point I wish to make before moving onto “Philosophy” is that in a normal state of affairs, when a research study is sent off for review, it is usually sent by the editor of the journal to a few reviewers – experts in the field, who cast their eye over it to make sure it is well-controlled and worthy of publication. The Coyle study of Armstrong was submitted on February 22nd. It was accepted three weeks later. Of course, short turnover times are not unique, but this is remarkable. Remember, this is a study so criticized that it inspired two SEPARATE letters in response, and trust us, letters like these are not all that common in the publication process. It became a case study here at UCT in how not to write a case report, and as mentioned in our first post, was criticized widely at conferences.

Yet it got through the Review process in three weeks. That is where the problem began, and it continued, all the way through to the admitted error. Perhaps a lot of people with “real jobs” were involved along the way.


Speaking of real jobs, one comment we received yesterday got me thinking about our existence here at The Science of Sport, and specifically, what our purpose is. We are now just over 17 months old, and it’s wonderful to be able to count among our readership the likes of the people who wrote yesterday. In particular, this poster (sorry, I would refer to you by name, but I don’t know it), mentioned that he gave our posts to his students on occasion, but was critical of the “lack of objectivity and professionalism” in the posts. What a privilege to have such readers, and we are very blessed to have such wide (though we’d love to grow it – send this to your friends!) and influential readership. Clearly we have many scientists and other academics among our audience, and we do feel privileged that these people have chosen to read and comment here.

When we started out, our intention was to use it as a vehicle to coach. Jonathan’s passion is cycling, mine running, and we felt that we could get into the coaching world this way. It lasted about two days, before I realised that in fact, the “market” was crying out for a more thought-provoking approach to sports news reporting. And so the concept of “Performance analysis and discussion” was born. Our mission then evolved into trying to marry our passion for sport with our training in science.

We said that our objective would be to provide the “Why and How” to what internet news sites, magazines and newspapers were reporting as the “What and Who”. That remains the idea today. So our flagship posts have been the Oscar Pistorius debate, which I genuinely believe we have covered better than any media outlet around, and the Major Marathon races, where we look at the pacing strategies, splits and race news in real time, from a physiological point of view. The Olympic Games were obviously a huge focal point as well. But we’re not here to analyse the science – that’s what journals do. We’re also not here to tell you what happened in the world of sports – the newspapers do that. We’re here to try to strip down the stories and provide some insight which hopefully brings science into the sports news, and sports stories into the world of sports science.

But the point I have to make is that it is all opinion. This is not a scientific journal, though we recognize that we offer (or should try to offer) a little more than the usual media/blog fare. So what we try to do, where possible, is provide references and links to the “objective” research. So to respond again to the Anonymous poster, if you want the “objective” discussion, then simply refer to the letters by Gore et al. in the scientific journal.

Our intention is to translate, and to inform, and then to entertain through the use of the site, and hopefully give people new perspectives based insight that we have (or hope to have). I mentioned earlier that I had a “real job” – I work as head of research for a sports management and marketing company, and so my involvement with science is these days in a consulting role. Jonathan is more immersed in a University position. But my training, both PhD and Commercial, allow me to stand with one foot in a commercial block, and another in the sports science world, and sing. Or dance, or play, whichever you prefer. Speaking personally, these posts are what I see when I look at the world, nothing more.

One of my favourite books is “The Undercover Economist“, by Tim Hartford. That book was described as “spending an ordinary day wearing X-ray goggles”. I’d like to think this is a site that lets you watch sport through X-ray goggles. That requires opinion, and it’s guaranteed to offend some (Pistorius’ father among them), but I won’t apologize for opinion.

So we are sorry if you feel that our discussion sometimes lacks objectivity, and fact. But then again, consider the discussion on Usain Bolt. I believe he is clean. Is that fact? Of course not, but then if we restricted ourselves to “fact,” this would be a very empty website. And no one wants that…

So apologies for the philosophical, and somewhat self-indulgent post (I indulge twice a year). It won’t happen again until perhaps March next year!


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