Let’s Drag EPA Regulatory Science Out of Darkness, Into Light
For decades the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created regulations without sound scientific basis. The regulations cost Americans hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Yet there is no solid evidence the costs are justified.
It’s done this in two ways. First, sometimes it’s thrown out scientific results and regulated to satisfy a political pressure group.
EPA’s banning of DDT is an example. Its own scientific findings showed that DDT was effective, affordable and safe. Its use reduced insects that carried malaria and other diseases. But pressured by environmentalists, EPA banned DDT in 1972.
The U.S. had eliminated malaria with DDT. So the ban did little immediate harm here. But recently it has made it difficult to combat other insect-borne diseases like West Nile Virus, Zika, Lyme and spotted fever. And even malaria is making a comeback.
Developing countries have suffered more. EPA persuaded other federal agencies to withhold foreign aid from countries that used DDT. Most developing countries complied. (Their officials usually take a cut of foreign aid for themselves.) The results? Hundreds of millions of malaria cases every year, and tens of millions of deaths over 45 years.
Regulations Built on ‘Secret Science’
But tossing science aside isn’t the only path to poor regulations. Sometimes EPA has built new regulations on “secret science.”
“Secret science” refers to studies whose authors refuse access to data, computer code and methodology. Such studies cannot be tested by replication — the acid test of science.
The STRS is “badly needed to assure American taxpayers that the EPA is truly acting in their best interests.”
In John 3:19, Jesus observed, “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.” We should be wary of claims to secrecy. Some are justified. Many only serve to hide iniquity. Particularly in science, which thrives on transparency, secrecy should have no place.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wants to end “secret science” in his agency. Last month he proposed a new rule, “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” (STRS). It would go far toward solving the problem.
STRS provides that “When promulgating significant regulatory actions, the Agency shall ensure that dose response data and models underlying pivotal regulatory science are publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation.”
It codifies what was intended in the Secret Science Reform Act of 2015 and the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017 (HONEST Act). Both passed the House but never came up for vote in the Senate.
But We Have Peer Review, and What About Privacy Concerns?
The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which I lead, is gathering signatures to an open letter supporting the STRS. The letter says the proposed rule is “badly needed to assure American taxpayers that the EPA is truly acting in their best interests.”
But opponents of STRS raise three common objections.
First, they say EPA can depend on studies in refereed journals. Why? Because peer review ensures their quality.
But no empirical evidence proves that peer review works well. In fact, the evidence proves it doesn’t. As John P.A. Ioannidis demonstrated in a celebrated article in PLOS/Medicine, “most scientific research findings are false.”
You doubt that? The intellectual father of the international congresses of peer review believes it. Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, said, “If peer review was a drug it would never be allowed on the market.”
Second, opponents say the rule would bar EPA from using studies involving confidential information. In a letter to Pruitt, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) argued, “requiring the release of all data … could … compromise … intellectual property, proprietary, and privacy concerns.”
Yet Section 30.5 states: “Where the Agency is making data or models publicly available, it shall do so in a fashion that is consistent with law, protects privacy, confidentiality, confidential business information, and is sensitive to national and homeland security.”
What About Things That Shouldn’t Be Replicated?
Third, opponents say the rule would exclude studies that either can’t or shouldn’t be replicated. “[M]any public health studies cannot be replicated …” said the UCS. Why? Because “doing so would require … exposing people and the environment to harmful contaminants or recreating one-time events (such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill).”
But what need to be replicable in studies of such events are not the events themselves. It’s the procedures used to collect data and make inferences from them.
For example, one study inferred from tree rings that rapid and unique global warming had begun in the late 1800s. It seemed to show that global temperature had been pretty constant before then. According to it, neither the Medieval Warm Period (about 950-1250) nor the Little Ice Age (about 1350-1850) had occurred. That implied that recent warming was unprecedented, manmade and potentially dangerous.
The study and its “hockey stick” graph of global temperature became iconic.
It eventually came out that the study was invalid. Yet for years the lead author refused to release raw data and computer code. So, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the public, and governments the world over believed it. They formulated policies based on it that would cost trillions of dollars.
Then the raw data and computer code were finally made available. Little by little it became clear that something was very, very wrong. The authors had excluded contrary data and misused a statistical procedure.
No one needed to use a time machine to return to the 11th through 20th centuries and regrow trees to show that. All anyone needed was access to the raw data and computer code used to analyze it.
We Need More Transparency
The UCS asserted that concerns about transparency “are phony issues that weaponize ‘transparency’ to facilitate political interference in” regulating. But there is a real crisis of irreproducibility in science. High percentages of scientific studies cannot be replicated. When their failure goes unexposed, people and governments make bad decisions based on them.
Enhanced transparency works against politicization, not for it. The truth is, those who oppose transparency are weaponizing confidentiality to facilitate their own political interference in science-based decision making.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible” (Ephesians 5:11-13).
Now’s the time to restore integrity to EPA regulatory science by putting it, and keeping it, in broad daylight.
STRS should be adopted. It won’t harm EPA’s mission to protect Americans from real environmental risks. It will improve it. It will also reduce the risks caused by unjustified but costly regulations.
Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.