The Misguided March for Science

Although the Earth Day March for Science was billed to emphasize that “science upholds the the common good and to call for evidence-based policy in the public’s best interest,” it was nothing more than a reaction to the Trump Administration’s agenda and comments by the President that have been interpreted as hostility to science.  The only difference between the President’s remarks and the actions of the Obama Administration is that he has been blunt, even if misguided and ill-informed, where the Obama Administration wrapped its abuse of science in politically correct language.

Obama’s war on Climate Change was cloaked in science but was nothing more than a war against fossil fuels, especially coal.  EPA used science much as a drunk uses a lamp post—for support and not illumination.  Its Clean Power Plant regulation claimed benefits that were preposterous on their face.  The claim that reductions in air pollutants would reduce the incidence of asthma and premature deaths was accepted without challenge by many of those involved in the March for Science.  If they really wanted science based public policy, they would have challenged the basis for those claims by pointing out that the incidence of asthma has been increasing even though air quality kept improving and that the estimates of premature deaths avoided implied epidemiological precision of greater than 99%.  There is no scientific basis, beyond political science, that can justify those claims.

EPA’s abuse of science has been going on for a long time and has been accepted by many in the scientific community because it advanced the agenda of environmentalist elites who use science as a tool to increase the political power of government to promote their policy preferences. How else can you explain black box modeling and the one hit, linear dose response approach to toxic impacts?

Here are a few examples.

In evaluating the health effects of air pollutants and carcinogens, EPA takes the most conservative approach possible by assuming that there is no safe exposure and that dose response is linear.  Professor Judith Curry of Georgia Tech described one example this way: “ … EPA decided that there is no safe level of ambient PM 2.5 – however near to zero — at which risk of ‘early” death ceases. Statisticians call this analytic approach a “no threshold linear regression to zero analytic model.” …   This methodology … contradicts a foundational principle of toxicology, that it’s the dose that makes the poison. …”

In 2014, a former EPA scientist wrote Confessions of a Computer Modeler.  The example he used was his development of a large model to assess sewer treatment and drinking water quality.  As the regulations became more stringent, his analysis concluded that the agency “had hit the point of diminishing returns.”  EPA didn’t want to hear that.  He was told to rework the analysis and “sharpen my pencil”.  That kept happening until he asked his supervisor what result he was looking for?  In the end, he concluded “my work for the EPA wasn’t that of a scientist, at least in the popular imagination of what a scientist does.  It was more like that of a lawyer.  My job, as a modeler, was to build the best case for my client’s position.”

The agency draws on scientists to conduct research and participate on its advisory panels.  But, many of these groups end up reviewing the work of their members.  This has been shown to represent a clear conflict of interest.  Group Think virtually guarantees that these groups will pursue enlightened  self interest by being collegial and agreeing with each other’s research.

Past attempts to mandate transparency and data quality have not brought an end to EPA mischief.  And, it is the prospect that Congress will be more vigorous and vigilant going forward that rattled some of the organizers of the recent march.  If the marchers are serious about promoting “evidence-based policy” they will coalesce around accepted principles of science and complete transparency.  A good place to start would be support for the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence and the rules set out by the Supreme Court in its 1993 opinion in Daubert v. Merrell Dow. 



Founder and president of Solutions Consulting which focuses on public policy issues, strategic planning, and strategic communications.

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