what do drug tests actually measure?

Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle’s The Secret Race is a very detailed account of Hamilton’s (and, e.g., Lance Armstrong’s) doping during his bicycle racing career. Here’s one bit I found particularly interesting:

Journalists often used the term “arms race” to describe the relationship between the drug testers and the athletes, but that wasn’t quite right, because it implied that the testers had a chance of winning. For us, it wasn’t like a race at all. It was more like a big game of hide-and-seek played in a forest that has lots of good places to hide, and lots of rules that favor the hiders. So here’s how we beat the testers:

• Tip 1: Wear a watch.

• Tip 2: Keep your cell phone handy.

• Tip 3: Know your glowtime: how long you’ll test positive after you take the substance.

What you’ll notice is that none of these things are particularly difficult to do. That’s because the tests were very easy to beat. In fact, they weren’t drug tests. They were more like discipline tests, IQ tests. If you were careful and paid attention, you could dope and be 99 percent certain that you would not get caught.

(Note: Any analogies to academia, say for example for plagiarism detection or even for research fraud, are left as an exercise to the reader.)

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

9 thoughts on “what do drug tests actually measure?”

  1. Jeremy, your tweet on this post mentioned plagiarism detection *software*, which is more specific than plagiarism detection in general. Would you agree that plagiarism detection software has relatively high sensitivity, compared to drug-testing in professional athletics?


  2. I think they both have high sensitivity, if we mean that the people who get busted really are guilty. Obviously verbatim plagiarism is probably about as close to complete sensitivity as a test can get. Also, specificity-wise, I do think plagiarism detection software has to be harder to evade than the drug testing regimes described by Hamilton.


  3. My language may have been imprecise. I meant the ability of a test to pick up true positives. The book suggests that the drug testing frequently did not accurately identify those using prohibited drugs. I think software such as TurnItIn is better at identifying true positives, but it’s contingent on someone having suspicions that warrant processing a text with the software.


  4. You CAN submit EVERYTHING to Turnitin, which will increase the problems detected, as you will find things that did not look suspicious to you. On the other hand, this is not perfect. If you just look at the % overlap but don’t bother to read the detailed report, you can have a false positive, because Turnitin cannot tell the difference between extensive quotations that are properly enclosed in quote marks and sourced from unattributed quotations. On the other side, there are lots of anti-Turnitin evasions out there, including one that substitutes a synonym for every word in a text, and products that students can use to test their papers before submission to see if they will pass. And, of course, Turnitin cannot help at all in detecting the custom-written plagiarism.


  5. Jeremy:

    I’m confused here. You seem to agree with Hamilton and Coyle’s statement, “If you were careful and paid attention, you could dope and be 99 percent certain that you would not get caught.” But they did get caught, no? So this suggests that the arms race analogy is not so bad: the dopers were ahead in the arms race, then they got overconfident and the anti-dopers caught up and nailed them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. According to Hamilton, he was not busted for doping as such nor through the random drug tests. Although he doped A lot and for years, he was busted in ordinary poat-competition testing for having traces of somebody else’s blood in his bloodstream, which was the result of sloppiness from the doctor he had trusted in doing his transfusions (who was also working with many more cyclists than Hamilton realized.) the bigger point though is Hamilton did this for years without getting caught, and Armstrong had like 500 tests and was never caught despite a wild account of the expensiveness of his doping by Hamilton.


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