02/06/2018 9:10AM

Bergman: Statistical art of drawing conclusions


It seems everything we see and read about these days involves statistics or some form of number analysis. Whether it’s the recent “scandal” at Michigan State University, where a now-convicted doctor’s years of abuse has spun into a minefield for the school’s basketball and football programs, or this industry’s reflections on a single TCO2 positive test.

“Numbers don’t lie” is a phrase we have often heard.

Unfortunately while the numbers in a sense are reliable, the stories they tell most times are interpretive. Conclusions tend to be drawn by use of numbers and that’s where the theoretical facts derived from these numbers can stretch and be pulled into opinion.

The call for greater transparency regarding TCO2 numbers in the sport, or for that matter greater transparency from those officials entrusted with the public safety at Michigan State University, brings with it some very unintended consequences. It calls on a gathering of information and an interpretation. While numbers can tell a story and statistics often do, it’s more a question of what story we’d like to make from these numbers that I find revealing.

In the case of Michigan State, two long-time coaches had numbers thrown in their face from a series of allegations that happened over a significant period of time. None of the allegations involved the specific coaches in intended wrongdoing but in facts related to accusations about their former players.

When thrown into the collective, all involved become guilty simply by association and incredibly without the benefit of our country’s legal standards of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Transparency, as we like to call, it is this theoretical art of getting all of the information available and leaving it out there for our “intended” interpretation.

While we can all agree that the right to information, especially information that could reveal potential abuses is vital, it is safe to say in modern society that very often information when sent out at warp speed can be equally damaging to those alleged of a crime and not as yet or ever convicted.

The need from all of us to reach conclusions is not new. Those of us who handicap must reach some conclusions each day by the statistics we read and interpret. However, it’s important that we all step back and notice that the way we reach our own conclusions from the set of statistics put before us differs dramatically.

Take the TCO2 situation that has been evaluated and concluded even in the simple call for transparency for example. The idea as I’ve read it is to look at all of the tests and then determine from all of these numbers who the trainers are that routinely come close to the regulated maximum threshold but don’t actually go over it. This will to some people give more credence when a stable member actually goes over the line.

That was the part of transparency that made me shiver.

The reality of a positive test in our industry is that it implies a horse went over the allowed limit of a substance that is not allowed to be present in its system prior to a horse race. While we would all hope that the tests are 100 percent accurate, history and probably some exceptional work by lawyers, has helped keep the actual conviction rate lower than that level.

So if we are asking for transparency in this regard, we now have to take all statistics and conclude that if a trainer’s horses normally come close to the level but not over it, that any positive test comes with the presumption that they were “close” to guilty on all of these other occasions and therefore must be guilty on this single test.

Sure, I would agree with many that positive tests for a large majority of occasions are completely accurate and do tell a very effective story. That they don’t always lead to punishment is something I’m afraid we’re just going to have to live with.

My fear as always is in our need for so-called transparency on this single subject that we divert our attentions away from other real problems that can’t be quantified at the moment by statistics and conclusions. That illegal substances yet to be tested for can impact the outcome of horse racing must be perceived to be of greater significance. We are not only unable to test for what we don’t know but unable to test for smaller or larger samples of mysterious but potent elixirs.

Transparency may be what we all would like and what we all should seek. However, if it’s just used to imply that someone is a “cheat” because they always came close, this sport can do without it. We already have enough social media speculation and conclusions about a significant list of trainers believed to be wrongdoers that consistently get away with it.

In drafting what is perceived to be a tougher standard on those who receive positive tests, the sport lays itself open for potential bad news. That our leading trainer over the last decade now falls into that path is something that statistically could have happened just based on the number of starters he has every year. However, it would be wrong to draw conclusions and say that someone who started 2,000 horses with one positive is any less guilty than someone who started 2 horses and had one positive.

I believe that’s what could happen if we are truly transparent.

Only the positive test matters and if it can’t be disproven it must stand on its own merits for whatever reason it came to light.

We see what we want to see and we believe what we want to believe, no amount of transparency is ever going to change that.

That children are being killed by other children using guns in our public schools leads some to blame the children and others to blame the guns. No matter the transparency we can’t all conclude that children without guns can’t do the same damage.