I take it, from many of the comments on my last post, that virtually no one bought my idea for loosing the forensic economists on sports records. So let's try again. Hopefully round two will be a bit more convincing.
It seems to me that there are two problems here. First, from everything we know it is very difficult for the drug police to catch cheaters. Bonds and Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones got caught because Trevor Graham ratted on them, not because the steriod police were on top of the problem. We have no idea how many other people out there are using chemicals that we simply don't yet have a test to detect. Second--and here I strongly disagree with some readers--peformance enhancing drugs work. They confer an enormous advantage. They allow an athlete to train so much harder than he or she otherwise could that they can turn mediocre athletes into very good athletes, and very good athletes into legends. "Game of Shadows" makes, I think, an overwhelming case that drugs allowed Bonds to essentially double his annual home run output, and turned Tim Montomgery from an also-ran into a world record holder.
Given these two facts, what do you do? That's why I think you have to bring in the forensic economists. Is this a perfect solution? Of course not. It does introduce a subjective element. It is also possible that we will occasionally see real genius and mistakenly call it cheating. But no administrative system is flawless. Juries send innocent people to jail all the time. But we put up with that because the alternative--no legal system--is a lot worse. What if--in sports like baseball and track and field and swimming--we had a record-review board. We assembled a panel of experts who reviewed the circumstances under which the record was set, physiological evidence from the athlete himself or herself, and statistical evidence about the plausibility of the performance. Beamon would pass. FloJo would not. Bonds would not--and nor, I would wager, would McGwire or Sosa. The point is that we have to do something, otherwise records will cease to mean anything at all.
Incidentally, in "Baseball Between The Numbers," by the Baseball Prospectus team, there is a very nice essay by Nate Silver doing exactly this: using forensic tools to try and gauge the extent of steriod cheating in major league baseball. It's worth a read. Silver concludes, interestingly, that the overall amount of cheating seems to be quite small, and confined largely (at this point) to mediocre players trying to get a little edge, not superstars trying to become mega-superstars. I find that very reassuring, not just because it says that Bonds is an anomaly, but because it reminds us of just how useful statistical analysis can be.