Jose Canseco, Steroids, and Logical Paradox

In case you weren’t aware, Jose Canseco has been attempting a baseball comeback with the Mexican League. Last night, the president of the Mexican League confirmed to ESPN that Canseco had been banned for taking testosterone, a prohibited substance. Canseco then tweeted:

How can I test positive when I never took any test don’t believe everything the media tells you.the truth always comes out I am not using any illegal substanced

It’s easy to make fun of Canseco, the man who singlehandedly touched off the steroid scandal in baseball and wrote two books, Juiced and Vindicated, about his own personal steroid use and the steroid use of other players in baseball. He is simultaneously the most famous steroid user and the most famous steroid truth-teller in baseball. So, logically, does it make sense to believe him when he says he did nothing wrong?

The logical principle at work here is known as the “Liar paradox.” It was a key plot point in the original Star Trek episode “I, Mudd,” but it dates back to the ancient Greeks. As I first learned in Aha! Gotcha by Martin Gardner (an amazing book that every nerdy kid should read), the simplest form of the paradox can be written as follows: “This sentence is false.” No matter how we parse it, we cannot resolve the truth content of the sentence: if the sentence is false, then the statement in it must be true, which is logically impossible. But if the sentence is true, then the statement in it must be false, which is logically impossible.

The liar paradox is related to other logical paradoxes, some of which are more easily resolved than others. The famous Epimenides paradox, named after a Greek poet of the 7th century BCE who hailed from Crete, is commonly rendered as, “All Cretans are liars.” But it can be resolved with semantics: if you define the word “liar” as someone who sometimes lies but is capable of telling the truth, rather than someone who always lies and is incapable of telling the truth, then Epimenides might have been telling the truth in that moment despite his natural habit of lying.

On a similar, technical level, “This statement is false” might be resolved by deciding that a sentence — a series of symbol-groupings arranged in an arbitrary syntactic order, which might be automatically reproduced via packets of data to the pixels on your screen, which you then reinterpret as having a semantic meaning — cannot be said to contain fundamental truth. The 13th-centrury Persian philosopher Athir al-Din al-Abhari resolved the paradox another way, by questioning the necessary binary duality of truth and falsity, concluding that it is not necessarily the case that a thing must be entirely true or else it must be entirely false. (This is known as the principle of bivalence. And no, I didn’t know about bivalence or al-Abhari until I read the Wikipedia articles.)

In this case, though it appears that Jose Canseco is ironically denying the use of a potentially performance-enhancing drug, the facts appear less contradictory. According to ESPN, Jose Canseco has been banned from the Mexican League for using testosterone. In a series of tweets and in a video interview with ESPN Deportes, Canseco said that he was taking testosterone per a doctor’s prescription, due to low testosterone levels in his own body.

If anything, it appears that Canseco is confirming the Mexican League president’s claim, not disputing it. The paradox arises not because of the seemingly unconflicting statements, but because of Canseco’s credibility. After hearing this news, Fox News Latino’s Victor Garcia wrote bluntly: “Jose Canseco sold his career, his friends and his legacy out for money which he couldn’t even hold on to. He is probably responsible for the most shameful era of professional sports and has lost all credibility with baseball fans and the media.” But the novelist Michael Chabon put it more lyrically in a 2005 op-ed in the New York Times, after Canseco first spoke out about steroids:

By his own admission, Canseco has slacked off and hurt people and lied and broken a lot of promises, large and small. And used steroids. And therefore, many people seem to feel, he is not to be admired – neither in the past, during his brief heyday, so that we must retroactively rescind our delight in his style and our amazement at his prowess, put an asterisk beside our memory of the pleasure of his company over the course of a few long summers; nor in the present, not even when he steps forward to tell the truth, a big, meaningful, dolorous truth that most of us, measured by our own standards of heroism, would have a hard time bringing ourselves to tell.

Journalists are trained to be a naturally skeptical bunch, as in the old joke, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” So when Jose Canseco says that he did nothing wrong, it’s hard to take him at his word. On the other hand, Canseco has a pretty good recent track record of admitting his drug use — after all, we all believed him when he said he used steroids — so when he says he took testosterone, it seems reasonable to believe him. In other words, like Epimenides, it seems likely that in this case, he’s telling at least a partial truth.

Seen in this light, the Canseco story becomes a minor irony, like Julian Assange’s vehement objections whenever journalists attempted to probe into his private life, rather than a logical paradox. But in this column I don’t mean to just make an idle investigation into a single PED claim about a little-loved juicer. When it comes to steroids, far too many fans and writers appear to take a bivalent approach: either a player was entirely innocent or entirely guilty. Either Ryan Braun is entirely a cheater, or entirely a victim. Such strict dualism is not particularly useful. In talking about performance enhancing drugs and those who have been accused of using them, it would be helpful to move past a Manichean view of absolute good and absolute evil with regard to steroids and their users.

Or even absolute good and absolute evil with regard to Jose Canseco, the man who let a fly ball bounce off his head for a home run, the man who forced us to confront the reality of the steroid era and forever change our memory of the past two decades in baseball, the man who hasn’t played a full major league season since 1998, when he was 33, but a decade and a half later is still fruitlessly trying to make a comeback. “I just want to play baseball,” he told ESPN yesterday. “It’s real simple.”

Fundamentally, that’s the only reason any steroid user would ever take steroids in the first place. Even if I don’t much like Canseco personally — and I hope I never have to watch Season 5 of The Surreal Life or one of his MMA fights — I can’t begrudge his love of baseball, because I love it too. He’s a flawed human being but a human nonetheless, and likely no more of a liar than Epimenides. Despite his protestations, the Mexican League may well have been justified in banning him. Nonetheless, logically, I have to give him at least a little benefit of the doubt.

We hoped you liked reading Jose Canseco, Steroids, and Logical Paradox by Alex Remington!

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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.

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It might be helpful to make the distinction between “morally wrong” and “morally blameworthy.”

That is, even if we believe that it is morally wrong for a baseball player to use steroids (a claim I deny, but let’s assume it for now), we can still say that they are not morally blameworthy. There may have been mitigating circumstances that stopped them from seeing the immorality. There may have also been circumstantial pressures that made their decision to use steroids less blameworthy than if a perfectly situated person had decided to use. Intent may also matter in this instance (when it comes to blameworthiness). Did he use steroids to keep playing a game he loves? Did he use steroids because he got a thrill from cheating?

Non-baseball example. Even if we believe it is always wrong to steal (again, a questionable claim), we may find someone less worthy of blame if she steals to feed her starving friend than if she steals for the thrill of it.