Lance, you fooled us all. Well, not really.

Liestrong - Lance ArmstrongI ride bicycles. Not particularly well, but I ride in competitive events. And I’ve spent the last fifteen years or so arguing with friends of mine about whether or not Lance is a cheat. Obviously I was right.

A million fat Texans with ten thousand dollar bikes wearing yellow wristbands and Postal/Discovery/Radio Shack jerseys were wrong. They thought him innocent mostly because of two factors. First, he’d never tested positive, and second he was an American/Texan. Of course it’s human nature to do that. He was one of ours, and when ours cheat, we either insist it didn’t happen or explain it away, as baseball fans have done for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. We tell ourselves cheating was part of the times, that everyone did it, and in cycling, that is undeniably true. We tell ourselves they were only hurting themselves, which is a transparent lie, since they took prize money and jobs from someone else.

In the case of Lance though, we also tell ourselves, “but look how much good he did with the Livestrong charity.” And I know people who have met Lance, been affected by him, and they have told me about him riding all day, and then exhausted, touring hospitals at night. Whether he did it because he really cared or because dying kids with shaved heads are great photo ops is something we will never know. The little we know about Lance Armstrong the person suggests it could be either. Is he a manipulative, obsessive, narcissistic bully or a thoughtful and sincere man who cares deeply about those affected by cancer and worked tirelessly to help them? Yes.

The real point of this though, is that we didn’t need the USADA report or Lance’s confession. (Oprah? Really?) Anyone with half a brain knew he was cheating. He had to be. One of the signature mountains in the Tour de France is the Alpe d’Huez. It’s been climbed 27 times since it was first included in the tour in 1952. Here are the fastest times for the climb.


What is immediately obvious is that riders during the period Lance was competing, 1993 to 2010, climbed the mountain faster than anyone has before…or since. It’s the “or since” that should get you. Because equipment is better, training is better, nutrition is better and yet riders are slowing down.

Your grandmother was right, you are known by the company you keep, and Lance kept company with an entire generation of cheats. Of the fifteen fastest times, every single one was set by a rider who was caught, implicated in, or later confessed to doping. Two of those belong to Lance.

One of the slower times belongs to Greg Lemond, an American rider who is just as unlikable as Lance, but who is physiologically superior in those measures that matter in cycling, like oxygen uptake and lung capacity. He’s the 48 on the graphic above. That’s how much of a difference cheating could make–eight minutes on one day. The TDF lasts three weeks and is usually decided by a handful of minutes. Those that cheated would have obliterated Lemond, arguably the best cyclist of all time. There may have been another great cyclist during those years that was riding clean, but we will never know, because he would have been at the back of the pack.

We all want to believe in heroes. We all want to believe in transcendent moments when a human being does something that gravity and math say he or she should not be able to do, like Wilt scoring a hundred points or Bob Beamon jumping out of the stadium. But once-in-a-lifetime moments are just that. When they happen with casual regularity, say seven times, we need to hold our applause. And our noses (this includes you, Jamaican sprint team.)

Believing in great performances just because we want to doesn’t make us true fans—it makes us true chumps.

Words Matter: a “denier” is someone who denies, nothing more or less

CATEGORY: WordsMatterThe English language can be confusing, absurd, and infuriating all at the same time. Words Matter is a new occasional feature where S&R authors deconstruct how English words, phrases, and colloquialisms are used and misused.

to refuse to accept the existence, truth, or validity of (Source)
one who denies [deniers of the truth] (Source)

As part of my climate and environmental reporting, I come across the term “denier” all the time, as in “climate denier,” “climate change denier,” “global warming denier,” and “industrial climate disruption denier.” And there are a lot of people identified as deniers who claim that the term is an attempt to place them on the same moral level as those individuals who claim that the Holocaust didn’t occur, aka Holocaust deniers. While there are certainly some who intentionally make that implication, the implication has nothing to do with the word “denier” itself. “Denier” means nothing more than a person who refuses to accept the existence, truth, or validity of something.

The definition of a denier is completely neutral. The definition doesn’t include any guidance about the values, ethics, morals, psychology, beliefs, or experiences of anyone who qualifies as a denier, only that the person is denying something. The definition also doesn’t define whether the thing being denied actually exists, is true, or has validity, only that it’s existence, truth, or validity is being denied. What’s being denied can be literally anything – evolution, that Han shot first, the existence of God, vaccine safety, that Picard was the best Star Trek captain, HIV as the cause of AIDS, that Shakespeare authored his plays, or even 2 + 2 = 4.

Since the definition of “denier” offers no guidance as to motivations or moral equivalencies, any good or bad properties associated with the term are necessarily a function of the term’s context, not of the term itself. In the context of a Sunday church service at a fundamentalist Christian church, someone being an evolution denier is unimportant. But change the context to a high school biology classroom and suddenly that denial may matter greatly. Similarly, a vaccine safety denier may well be harmless if he or she refuses to get the annual flu vaccine, but put that same denier in the context of child immunizations and public health ramifications of a pertussis outbreak and his or her denial may well be a serious concern.

But even in the case of vaccine safety deniers, their denial doesn’t mean they are necessarily immoral. They may simply be so afraid of vaccine side effects that their usual rationality is clouded by their own biases. Or they may not have the mathematical skill to realize that they’re actually making their children (and others) less safe by refusing to vaccinate. Their denial doesn’t mean that they’re stupid, either – everyone’s rationality is occasionally clouded by biases, emotions, and/or ignorance. It’s when someone knows that vaccines are safe and yet claims they aren’t for some other reason that vaccine safety denial becomes immoral. Of course, we tend to use different terms for these kinds of people – terms like “liars.”

It’s true that sometimes cultural context can mean that value-neutral terms can develop values that are partially independent of the term itself. A good example of this is the difference between “ethics” and “morals.” In philosophy they mean the same thing, but in the United State we tend to use “ethics” when we’re talking about professional behavior and “morals” when we’re talking about personal behavior. It’s possible that “denier” did originally have the cultural context of morally repugnant Holocaust denial, but even if that was the case years ago, it’s not the case any more.

Google is an occasionally convenient way to gauge the culture of the United States – search for something and the things that people are most interested in show up in the first few pages of results. When I did a search strictly on the word “deniers” earlier this week (1/14/2013), I found the following:

  • Links to definitions of “denier” were ranked #1, #6, and #17.
  • The Wikipedia disambiguation page was ranked #2.
  • A reference to the French denier coin came in at #27 and a reference to the denier as a unit of fiber measurement came in at #33.
  • The first Holocaust denial link was ranked #56, on page 6 of the results.
  • The first mention of Holocaust denial was in the “Searches related to deniers” options at the bottom of first page. The alternate search terms were “deniers definition,” “evolution deniers,” “climate change deniers,” “climate deniers,” “aids deniers,” “famous Holocaust deniers,” “Holocaust deniers claims,” and “Jewish Holocaust deniers.”

Every other link up to #56 was to a website or blog post or news article related to the denial of industrial climate disruption. It’s probably fair to say at this point that calling someone a “denier” is less likely to invoke Holocaust denial than it is to invoke climate disruption denial.

So why do people who deny one thing or another generally dislike being labeled as “deniers?” It’s probably not because of the spurious connection to Holocaust denial. Instead, people who take umbrage at the term do so because no-one likes being labeled negatively. We psychologically prefer to view ourselves in positive terms than in negative ones, and the term “denier” is a strongly negative term.

Furthermore, in most cases the term “denier” simply and accurately describes what the people so labeled are doing – they’re denying some aspect of objective reality. Vaccine safety deniers deny the reality that vaccines have repeatedly been demonstrated to be safe and that the risks of vaccination are much lower than the risks of going unvaccinated. HIV/AIDS deniers deny the reality that HIV causes AIDS. Evolution deniers deny the reality that species evolve and that God is not a necessary condition for the existence of humanity.

In my opinion, however, there is another aspect to the complaints about the word “denier,” one that goes to the heart of why so many industrial climate disruption deniers claim that “denier” is meant to imply Holocaust denial. I think that some deniers dislike that such a simple, value-neutral word as “denier” can be used to accurately describe them and would prefer that some other term be used instead (we’ll cover euphemisms and misnomers like “climate realist” and “climate change skeptic” another time).

There are over a dozen synonyms for the verb “deny.” Converting them from the verb form to a noun that describes the person doing the action generates the following list of alternate terms that could be used in place of “denier:”

contradictor, disaffirmer, disallower, disavower, disclaimer, disconfirmer, disowner, gainsayer, negator, negativer, refuter, rejecter, or repudiator.

With the possible exception of “rejecter,” however, each of the terms is more confusing than “denier.” How many people would know what you meant if you wrote “Holocaust gainsayer” or “HIV/AIDS disavower” or “industrial climate disruption disconfirmer?” Most people would become confused by the unknown word, lose track of the point you were trying to make, and then give up and move on.

The word “denier” is value neutral and it says nothing about the motivations or ethics of a person who is described as such. It’s only through context that “denier” can be given a moral or ethical dimension. While it’s possible that it was once culturally tied to Holocaust denial, that cultural connection is minimal now, and it probably has been ever since “denier” became so firmly attached to climate change/global warming/industrial climate disruption. Nowadays, “denier” merely means someone who rejects the existence, truth, or validity of something. Any other implications are strictly in the minds of the person calling someone a denier, and in the mind of the person being called one.

Words matter – use them carefully.

Manti Te’o and the worst (and best) in sports journalism

Screen Shot 2013-01-16 at 8.24.27 PMThe ridiculous Manti Te’o story that Deadspin broke today represents the best, and the worst, in sports journalism.

We’ll get to the worst in a bit here – and there is plenty to say about the worst – but let’s talk about the best. The reporting job that Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey did with this story is utterly sensational. It’s among the finest pieces of sports journalism I’ve ever seen. Look at how they reported this story. Look at the work they did, discovering the fact that the photos of Te’o’s girlfriend were actually those of another young woman, the discovery of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and his alleged role in the fraud. Hell, just read these graphs:

Manti Te’o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.

Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.

That is reporting. That’s the kind of fact-finding, discovery and writing you want to see in the media. This isn’t a story graded on a curve because it’s Gawker. It’s better than almost anything you’ll see on any media site – mainstream or alternative.


And now for the worst …

There’s no way to sugarcoat it. This story is an embarrassment to sports journalism. The fact that one of the highest-profile players on the highest-profile college football team in the country carried out this hoax to some degree* for an entire season, and nobody sniffed out anything about it, is embarrassing. It feeds the worst perceptions of sports journalism – that we’re all fanboys and fangirls, looking to tell cute little stories about games and that we’re not real reporters.

These are points that will be widely made in the next few days, and they’re worthwhile ones. One of the core parts of a reporter’s job is to verify facts. It’s to take what they are told by sources and try to independently verify them. Facts matter, even in a heartwarming feature story. A reporter should never take what he or she is told at face value. You know the old saying “If a story sounds too good to be true, it probably is”? Reporters need to live by that. The fact that nobody tried to verify the facts in this story is stunning.

(And, as a reporter, I can say I was not always very good at this. I was not a model reporter by any account. So yes, this is Monday Morning Quarterbacking to some degree.)

Here’s the thing: Verifying facts doesn’t necessarily mean being confrontational. It doesn’t mean asking Te’o “Yeah, I want to make sure your grandma and girlfriend really died.” Because yeah, you’d look like a terrible person if you did that. It also doesn’t mean harboring doubts about what you’re being told. It’s doing your diligence. If you’re doing a feature story about a player who’s inspiration is his dying girlfriend, it seems obvious that you’d want her voice in the story somehow. That would mean trying to find out about her. What was she like? What happened to her? Maybe you call Stanford, where she went to school. Maybe you request the police report for the accident, which is public record. The player said her family wants privacy. Which is fine and understandable. But one of the things I always tried to do as a journalist was this: If someone didn’t want to talk to me, fine. But they had to tell me no comment. Not someone on their behalf.

This is where it gets interesting. If you’re a reporter, and you start to see questions arise – not doubts, but just questions like “Huh, I can’t find her online at all aside from this one little profile … and there’s no accident report? … and I can’t talk to the family because they want privacy … huh … this is … odd.” What do you do? When you’ve got deadline’s coming, you’ve got three beats to cover and your editor is houding you for the story … what do you do?

I don’t have a good answer to this question. I’d love to hear if you do (honestly).

This was a failure of process. It was a massive failure of reporters, who appear to have fallen in love with the story (which is so easy to do) and told what sounded like a perfect story. It was a failure of editors, who are supposed to protect against this. A good editor is a complete pain in the ass, a person who questions every detail in your story. The fact that no editor raised any questions about this at any outlet is just as much a failure as that of the reporters.

This is the story that makes sports journalists look terrible, like caretakers of the toy department. It feeds every negative stereotype of sports writers and sports journalism.

And yet, the work of Deadspin’s reporters also showed that, when done right, sports journalism can be just as serious, deep and good as any reporting in any other section.

Brian Moritz spent 10 years as a sports reporter before returning to the safety of academia, where he’s a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University. He blogs at Sports Media Guy, where this post first appeared.

Uganda Journal: Africa’s darkest heart

TortureChambersFinal words, written in shit: “I never for my husband was killed….”

Scrawled on concrete, marred by blood: “Cry far help me the dead.”

The lost voices of 300,000 dead, forgotten beneath the earth.

These are Idi Amin’s torture chambers—five concrete bunkers burrowed into the mountainside beneath Mengo Palace in Kampala. Amin, the notorious dictator who ruled Uganda from 1971-1979, is thought to have killed as many as 500,000 political dissidents during his time in power. This was his favorite place for killing—these five ten-by-ten rooms. Bloody handprints still hold up the walls and try to hold back the shadows.

The Israeli engineers who built the chambers thought they were building bunkers for ammunition storage. When they finished their work, Amin booted them from the country and turned their well-engineered handiwork toward its more sinister purpose.

Ask most Americans what they know about Uganda and they’re apt to answer, if anything: “Idi Amin.” I was too young to actually remember him, but his name haunts Africa like a uniformed boogeyman, bedecked with a fruit-salad of medals pinned to the left breast of his jacket.

If the Rwandan Genocide Memorial presented me earlier in the this trip with anonymous slaughter on the scale of hundreds of thousands, Amin offers a single, charismatic face for such carnage.

Amin salutes the body of the Bugangan king, which he had returned from exile for burial--a move that made Amin widely popular among many of his countrymen.

Amin salutes the body of the Bugangan king, which he had returned from exile for burial–a move that made Amin widely popular among many of his countrymen.

Andrew Rice, author of a book about Uganda’s turbulent modern history, The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget, says Amin had an intuitive feel for populist politics. Particularly in his earliest days, that man Amin a powerful cult of personality. “In that first brief flush of power, Idi Amin was more popular than any leader of Uganda before or since,” Rice says.

Amin behaved more erratically as time passed, though—although Rice and others suggest that Amin was crazy like a fox. Even after deposed, he managed to slide his way into comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia, where he lived unmolested until his 2003 death.

As a historian, I’ve been interested on this trip in somehow coming into contact with Amin’s story. I wrestle to understand my curiosity. I grope for insight.

What I find are the torture chambers beneath the palace.

PalaceThe palace itself sits atop the highest of Kampala’s hills and had served as the traditional home of the King of Buganda, whose tribe makes up the largest ethnic group in the country. The building was destroyed in 1966 during civil war—shelled by Amin in his capacity as an army colonel at the time, ironically—and was rebuilt only recently as a tourist attraction.

Five years later, when Amin seized power, he used the site as his base of military operations—and the site of his most notorious tortures.

A grassy ramp leads down into the hillside, where it ends at the lip of a concrete tunnel cut into the earth. Electrified metal doors once hung here on heavy hinges. The tunnel once held three feet of water—also electrified—and five doorways offer access to the cells themselves. The crush of bodies in those cells had been such that people asphyxiated to death. At other times, they were shot or bludgeoned to death with hammers. Some were fed to crocodiles.

A pile of muddy rubble spills into the tunnel, and water still pools on the floor. We have to balance from rock to rock, careful not to slip on their muddy surfaces, as we plunge into the gloom.

NeverOur guide has been unusually chipper up until now, and he helpfully directs people up a ladder into the far cell for a closer look. I’ve not made it that far, though. I’ve been stopped still by the words written in shit, scrawled between two cells. “I never….”

This is everything I’d imagine the set of a horror movie to be: dark, dank, filthy. Our voices echo from wall to concrete wall until they haunt the air like the spirits of the dead, who have no voices of their own—only shit and blood and fear and darkness.

The heart can be dark indeed.


Guardiola says no thanks to Chelsea, heads to Bayern – what now, Roman?

Roman Abramovich’s top choice to be the next Chelsea manager, Pep Guardiola, is heading to Munich.

Bayern Munich on Wednesday officially announced it had hired Pep Guardiola to coach next season for an undisclosed salary over three years.

Guardiola, who is the first Spanish manager of Bayern Munich since the club’s promotion to the Bundelisga in 1965, had been linked with Premier League teams Chelsea and Manchester City as well as AC Milan in the past weeks.

What happens now?

If the remainder of the current season goes well and the team perhaps wins a trophy (FA Cup, anyone?), does he stick with Fat Spanish Waiter Rafa Benitez, despite the supporters’ hatred of him? Does he pick up the phone and promise his old friend Jose Mourinho that if he’ll come back he can run the squad without any meddling from the top? If not, what choices remain? Abramovich has alienated or scared off pretty much every potential candidate in the world with his insistence on “attractive football,” his constant “helping” with personnel and his impatience with managers who occasionally lose a game or two?

CATEGORY: SportsIt will be interesting to see if Roman learns anything from l’affaire Guardiola. Chelsea has precisely the kinds of players that Pep likes. Pep has said he dreams of managing in England. Roman has chased him and is rumored to have offered him double what anyone else is paying. And STILL Pep says no. At this point, a man whose intelligence exceeds his arrogance might pause and do some soul-searching, perhaps even listening to those who keep telling him that his policy of turfing managers every couple of weeks is scaring away the good candidates.

My gut says no, Roman doesn’t learn a thing. One doesn’t become a multibillionaire oil magnate without a massive ego, and without putting too fine a point on it, he made his bones in a field that sometimes prefers strength to intellect and that perhaps undervalues the merits of reflection. (There – did I put that delicately enough?)

Time will tell. I’d love to think that this opens the door for a triumphant Mou return, but I’m not holding my breath.

Image Credit: ESPN FC

Nuclear weapons and voter ignorance are a lethal mix

Nuclear weapons are not only a threat to our survival, but to democracy itself.

Most of us keep our distance from the subject of nuclear weapons. Nor is it hard to understand why. Many think that since the end of the Cold War, nuclear war has become a minor threat. Especially when compared to an economy that seems like it’s always on the brink of imploding just as the United States and Russia seemed always on the brink of exploding into nuclear war. Nor, understandably, are most who are aware that nuclear war remains a threat capable of facing what may well be a sword of Damocles hanging over their very existence, as well as their families’.

Another, less apparent, reason why most of us avert our attention from the prospect of war waged with nuclear weapons is that we believe that national-security policy, as well as warfighting strategy, not to mention the daunting technology of nuclear weapons, are above our pay grade. After all, deterrence seems to be working, doesn’t it? Perhaps, but, when it comes to weapons with the destructive power of nuclear weapons, keeping the world waiting with bated breath to make sure that war doesn’t break out is not a long-term solution.

In an oped at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists titled Democracy and the bomb, Kennette Benedict, its executive editor, points to the lack of attention paid to nuclear weapons and disarmament in the recent election as evidence that most of us feel overwhelmed by the whole subject. “Too often,” writes Ms. Benedict

… many of us lucky enough to live in democracies view elections as the only responsibility we have as citizens and leave the policy discussions to the elected and to the experts. … Political leaders and policy experts don’t always encourage a lot of participation, either; perhaps they believe that citizens are badly informed about issues and that their participation will result in poor decisions.


Allowing policy leaders and officials to make decisions for us, however, is at odds with the principle of equality, as Robert Dahl notes in his often overlooked essay “Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy versus Guardianship.” …  The principle of guardianship … holds that only a small minority of citizens is sufficiently qualified and therefore capable of making binding decisions for the nation. As Dahl observes, the political system of a modern democratic country is usually a combination of democracy and meritocracy, but, when it comes to nuclear weapons, “We have in fact turned over to a small group of people decisions of incalculable importance to ourselves and mankind, and it is very far from clear how, if at all, we could recapture a control that in fact we have never had.” We are living in a democracy based on guardianship, not equality, when it comes to nuclear weapons.

Since it combines two of our favorite subjects — nuclear weapons and voter ignorance and/or apathy — we were only too happy to go straight to the horse’s mouth and read Controlling Nuclear Weapons (Syracuse University Press, 1985), which, though Benedict refers to it as an essay, was published as a short book. Dahl, who taught at Yale University and was known as the “dean” of American political scientists, writes that the idea that only a minority of persons are competent to rule, per Plato’s The Republic, has enjoyed new life (at least as of the eighties) in democratic countries because

… the complexity of public issues challenges the assumption that ordinary people are competent to make decisions about these matters. in order to make wise decisions, decision makers need specialized knowledge that most citizens do not possess.


One might respond by saying that even in a democracy, after all, complex decisions like these can be delegated to experts. But suppose that most of us do not even possess enough knowledge to understand the terms on which we can safely delegate authority over these decisions to those more expert than we? Then we have not simply delegated authority. Instead, we have alienated [or given away — RW] control over our lives to others: that is, for practical purposes we simply lose control over crucial decisions, and lose control over our lives. The more we alienate authority … the more we lose our freedom, and the more hollow the democratic process becomes. Or to put it another way, the more that we alienate authority the more the external forms of democracy clothe a de facto regime of guardianship.

Thus, the subject of nuclear weapons not only overwhelms us, but may strain democracy itself to the breaking point. As Dahl asks:

Are the institutions of contemporary democracy adequate to cope satisfactorily with the enormous complexity of public matters?

The reservation we have with Dahl’s otherwise valuable book is that he seems to think that nuclear weapons are a problem to which society needs to adjust. Dahl provides ideas for solutions for citizen participation in nuclear-weapons decisions, many of them more or less implemented in the meantime via information technology. But they seem like so much tweaking.

The case can be made that nuclear weapons are the ultimate test of democracy. But the stakes are too high if we lose. In fact, the existence of nuclear weapons needs to adjust to the needs of society by eliminating them.

We find ourselves in reluctant accord with libertarians, though while many of them believe that government is too large and complex for the average voter (as best explained by Ilya Somin for the Cato Institute in 2004) to understand, we’ll just stick with “too complex.” Nuclear weapons, with the existential questions they force us to face and their daunting strategy and technology, exponentially compound the problem. They discourage participation in democracy, at exactly the point democracy is most needed. As Benedict writes:

Once citizens no longer feel qualified to participate in decisions about their very survival, the connection between the governing and the governed is severed. It is hard to see where the democracy is in this.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.