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net.wars: Cheaters in paradise

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 05 August 2011


It seems that humans in general are not particularly good at analyzing incentives. How else can you explain the number of decisions we make with adverse, unintended consequences? Three examples.

Wendy M Grossman

One: this week US newspapers – such as the LA Times, the New York Times, and Education Week - report that myriad states have discovered a high number of erasures on standardized tests or suspiciously sudden improvement in test scores. (At one Pennsylvania school, for example, eighth graders' reading proficiency jumped from 28.9 percent to 63.8 percent between 2008 and 2009.)

The culprits: teachers and principals. When tests determined only the future of the students taking them, the only cheaters were students. Now that tests determine school rankings and therefore the economic future of teachers, principals, and schools, many more people are motivated to ensure that students score highly.

Don't imagine the kids don't grasp this. In 2002, when I wrote about plagiarism for the Independent, all the kids I interviewed noted that despite their teachers' warnings of dire consequences schools would not punish plagiarists and risk hurting their rankings in the league tables.

A kid in an American school this week might legitimately ask why he should be punished for cheating or plagiarism when his teachers are doing the same thing on a much grander scale for greater and far more immediate profit. A similar situation applies to our second example, this week's decision by the International Tennis Federation to suspend 31-year-old player Robert Kendrick for 12 months after testing positive for the banned stimulant methylhexaneamine.

At his age, a 12-month ban is an end-of-career notice. Everyone grants that he did not intend to cheat and that the amount of the drug was not performance-enhancing. Like a lot of people who travel through many time zones on the way to work, he took a jetlag pill whose ingredients he believed to be innocuous. He admits he screwed up; he and his lawyers have simply asked for what a fairer sentence. Fairer because in January 2010, when fellow player Wayne Odesnik was caught by Australian Customs with eight vials of human growth hormone, he was suspended for two years – double the sentence but far more than double the offense. And Odesnik didn't even stay out that long; his sentence was commuted to time served after seven months.

At the time, the ITF said that he had bought his way out of purgatory by cooperating with its anti-doping program, presumably under the rule that allows such a reversal when the player has turned informant. No follow-up has disclosed who Odesnik might have implicated, and although it's possible that it all forms part of a lengthy, ongoing investigation, the fact remains: his offense was a lot worse than Kendrick's but has cost him a lot less.

It says a lot that the other players are scathing about Odesnik, sympathetic to Kendrick. This is a watershed moment, where the athletes are openly querying the system's fairness despite any suspicions that might be raised by their doing so.

The anti-doping system as it is presently constructed has never made sense to me: it is invasive, unwieldly, and a poor fit for some sports (like tennis, where players are constantly on the move). The The lesson sent by these morality plays is: don't get caught. And there is enough money in professional sports to ensure that there are many actors invested in ensuring exactly that: coaches, agents, managers, corporate sponsors, and the tours themselves. Of course testing and punshing athletes is going to fail to contain the threat.

Kamakshi Tandon's ideas on this are very close to mine: do traditional policing. Instead of relying on test samples, which can be mishandled, misread, or unreliable, use other types of evidence when they're available. Why, for example, did the anti-doping authorities refuse Martina Hingis's request to do a hair strand test when a urine sample tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon in 2007? Why are the A and B samples tested at the same lab instead of different labs? (What lab wants to say it misread the first sample?) My personal guess is that it's because the anti-doping authorities believe that anyone playing professional sports is probably guilty anyway, so why bother assembling the quality of evidence that would be required for a court case? That might even be true – but in that case anti-doping efforts to date have been a total failure.

Our third example: last week's decision by Fox to allow only verified paying cable customers to watch TV shows on Hulu in the first week after their initial broadcast. (Yet more evidence that Murdoch does not get the Internet.) We are in the 12th year of the wars on file-sharing, and still rights holders make decisions like this that increase the incentives to use unauthorized sources.

In the long scheme of things, as Becky Hogge used to say while she was the executive director of the Open Rights Group the result or poorly considered incentives that make bad law is that they teach people not to respect the law. That will have many worse consequences down the line.


Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).