Secret Science Under Attack — Part 1

By Kip Hansen – Re-Blogged From WUWT

In the 11th of November 2019, the NY Times published an article by journalist Lisa Friedman in the Climate Section titled: ”E.P.A. to Limit Science Used to Write Public Health Rules”.

[ Why does an article about the EPA and Health Rules appear in the Climate section of the NY Times?  Who knows? ]

The article is a long series of accusations that the current administration’s EPA is trying to weaken the science used to make public policy.  It includes the following:

A new draft of the Environmental Protection Agency proposal, titled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study’s conclusions. “

 “The measure would make it more difficult to enact new clean air and water rules because many studies detailing the links between pollution and disease rely on personal health information gathered under confidentiality agreements. And, unlike a version of the proposal that surfaced in early 2018, this one could apply retroactively to public health regulations already in place.”

The change is part of a broader administration effort to weaken the scientific underpinnings of policymaking.”

The previous version of the regulation would have applied only to a certain type of research, “dose-response” studies in which levels of toxicity are studied in animals or humans. The new proposal would require access to the raw data for virtually every study that the E.P.A. considers.  E.P.A. is proposing a broader applicability,” the new regulation states, saying that open data should not be limited to certain types of studies.”   Most significantly, the new proposal would apply retroactively. A separate internal E.P.A. memo viewed by The New York Times shows that the agency had considered, but ultimately rejected, an option that might have allowed foundational studies like Harvard’s Six Cities study to continue to be used.”

“The new version does not appear to have taken any of the opposition into consideration.”

Revealingly, the Times’ Lisa Friedman, writes “The Six Cities study and a 1995 American Cancer Society analysis of 1.2 million people that confirmed the Harvard findings appear to be the inspiration of the regulation.

The E.P.A. issued a Press release the next day, 12 November 2019, titled “The New York Times’ Several Glaring Inaccuracies “That’s Fit To Print””,  rebutting the Friedman story using the following language: (all segments are direct quotes and were bolded in the original press release)

“How the New York Times got it wrong:

….  This is completely false…. 

……which is completely false…. 

….  This is not true. …. 

….  The story continues with more false information. …. 

….  This is just wrong. …. 

….  Science transparency does not weaken science, quite the contrary. ….

….  This is just bad reporting. It is completely misleading, and lacks the understanding of the rule making process. …. 

….  This is completely false.   ….

….  the reporter confuses the situation by using “raw data,” which is clarified in the supplemental.   ….

….  This is not a new rule.   ….”

How did the NY Times cover this press release?   Did the NY Times print a correction to the Friedman article?  No, it didn’t print a single word about it…not one mention … not even a little postscript added to the bottom of the original article.  Despite the E.P.A.’s  unusual official public statement intended to correct errors and mis-statements in the Friedman article, there has been no mention in the NY Times of the E.P.A. press release — not then, and not to date, two months later.

The Times did print a letter from a reader castigating the EPA, based on the (mis-)information in the Friedman article  — but not the E.P.A.’s response.  In the past, a loud cry would have gone up from the Times’ readership to its Public Editor, demanding that she look into the Friedman reporting and how the editors at the Climate Desk not only muffed the verification of facts in the original Friedman piece, but also questioning why the Climate Desk chief did not follow up with coverage of the damning E.P.A. response.   Alas, at the NY Times, that oh-so-necessary position has been eliminated

Is the New York Times the only detractor of the proposed E.P.A. “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” (STIRS) rule?

Not at all, in fact, the Times is just one single voice in a cacophonic outcry from the mass media, non-profit health organizations and even scientific journal editorial boards condemning the proposed rule.  Using a Google internet search for the topic “EPA Secret Science Rule”  throws over 3 million results…..almost entirely consisting of articles attacking the EPA’s proposed rule.

What is all this furor all about?

The E.P.A.  explains  the purpose of the proposed rule, in plain language,  in a recent press release:

“EPA should ensure that the data and models underlying scientific studies that are pivotal to the regulatory action are available for review and reanalysis. The “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rulemaking is designed to increase transparency in the preparation, identification and use of science in rulemaking. When final, this action will ensure that the regulatory science underlying EPA’s actions are made available in a manner sufficient for independent validation.“ …. “…the science transparency rule will ensure that all important studies underlying significant regulatory actions at the EPA, regardless of their source, are subject to a transparent review by qualified scientists.

Exactly how a rule that fulfills those stated purposes could be perceived as a “threat to science” and an attempt to “suppress science” seems a mystery.  Hasn’t it always been true that scientific research should be transparent, that the results, especially those used to formulate public policy and governmental regulations,  should be able to be validated by other groups of scientists?  — scientists not involved or vested in the original research?   Isn’t this process what we know as “replication of scientific results”?   The United Kingdom’s Royal Society, originally known as ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge”, has to this day the motto ‘Nullius in verba’  which “is taken to mean ‘take nobody’s word for it’. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.”  Not just accepting any and all experimental results claimed by a single source, but results and findings replicated and checked and repeatedly, verified by independent researchers.

As in many areas of governmental regulation and rulemaking, and in the writing of laws, the devil is nearly always in the details.  The hundreds of media articles and journal papers contain complaints less often about the overall purpose of the proposed rule, though there is some of that, but mostly focus on real and, more often,  imagined possible problems.

What are the problems that the detractors raise?

  1. The “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” (STIRS) rule might increase the risk that confidential health data could be linked back to patients.”  [ source ]
  2. Detractors fears that STIRS “would be used as a mechanism for suppressing the use of relevant scientific evidence in policy-making, including public health regulations.” [ source ]
  3. Many fear that “foundational science from years past—research on air quality and asthma, for example, or water quality and human health—could be deemed by the EPA to be insufficient for informing our most significant public health issues. That would be a catastrophe.” [ source ]
  4. “… they fear agency officials will use it to rule out epidemiological studies that include confidential patient data that are difficult to make public. Such studies have often underpinned tougher air and water pollution regulations.” [ source ]
  5. Restricting the application of established science when crafting new E.P.A. rules could make it easier to weaken or repeal existing health regulations…” [ source ]
  6. Opponents of the proposed E.P.A. policy say the effort all comes back to the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long frustration over the Six Cities study and a related one sponsored by the American Cancer Society.” [ source ]

This six-item list summarizes hundreds of articles, essays, opinion columns and mass media pieces attacking the STIRS rule.  Common to almost all of them is expressed concern about one specific item:  EPA air pollution studies — two of them actually:  the Harvard Six Cities study [ doi: 10.1056/NEJM199312093292401 ]  and various studies based on the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II [ doi: 10.1289/EHP1249 ].

What are these studies? 

These are the primary studies that underpin almost all of today’s air pollution regulations in the United States.  Lisa Friedman of the NY Times, among many others,  claims that:

“Those studies, which have been independently evaluated and have had their findings confirmed, underpinned the first Clean Air Act regulations on fine particulate matter. Based on the research, the E.P.A. in 1997 estimated the rule would prevent 15,000 premature deaths annually and hundreds of thousands of cases of asthma and bronchitis.”

If these two studies and their findings have already been independently evaluated and have had their findings confirmed,  why is there any concern among the EPA-STIRS rule detractors and protesters that somehow new evaluations and re-analyses will fail to do the same?


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