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Thursday, September 8, 2005

Shifting Standards

Bruce Schneier blogs about a retrospective drug test for athlete Lance Armstrong. It seems that blood samples are kept for many years, and may be subject to new tests.

"Athletes considering using banned substances [not only] have to evade any tests that exist today, [but also] have to at least think about how they could evade any tests that might be invented in the future."

Bruce suggests athletes need escrow blood samples, to defend themselves against retrospective charges.

Retrospective tests introduce new modes of risk and uncertainty for athletes. Not only new tests as Bruce indicates, but possibly also new interpretations of the regulations, based on shifting expert opinion from scientists and lawyers. (Does chemical substance X2 invented at time T2 and detected in a blood sample taken at time T3 count as banned under a regulation enacted at earlier time T1, which refers to an almost identical substance X1, if a reliable test to discriminate between X1 and X2 wasn't perfected until a later time T4, and X2 itself wasn't explicitly banned until T5? Complicated, huh?)

An older and long-established athlete may have access to more expensive ways of cheating, as well as a greater incentive to cheat as athletic prowess starts to wane. Meanwhile the direct cost of being detected (in terms of suspension from further competition) reduces to zero as the athletic career comes to an end. Retrospective testing may increase the chance of detection, but it also increases the average delay between transgression and detection. So we might expect retrospective testing to amplify the age imbalance: greater compliance from younger athletes, and lesser compliance from older ones.

Meanwhile, crime writer Patricia Cornwall has a theory (Portrait of a Killer) about the identity of Jack the Ripper, based partly on DNA evidence. (Nineteenth century crime subject to twentieth century forensics.) So do we also need to think of escrow DNA, to deal with posthumous allegations of crime or paternity?

[Update] Bruce Schneier adds some useful game theoretic analysis to his earlier post, prompted by dope-testing of Floyd Landis.

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