We Need Data and So Much More

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The environmental humanities scholar Rob Nixon has a powerful phrase that I find useful for our times: slow violence. As Nixon explains in his book by the same name, “I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is not viewed as violence at all.” These are things whose effects we can’t or don’t perceive as harm in real time, but that will irrevocably harm us later. For instance: climate change, deforestation, exposure to toxic chemicals, the ever-rising tide of electronic waste.

Nixon used the term to draw Western readers’ attention to the cascading environmental harms assaulting the world’s poor, particularly those living in the Global South, but it’s been on my mind as a way to think through the regulatory catastrophe slowly working its way through the U.S. government. An analysis by the New York Times published in December 2019 counted rollbacks to 90 environmental rules and regulations since the Trump administration took office. The harms of some of these are immediate and obvious. Just two examples: bans on pesticides linked to developmental disabilities in children have been revoked, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be allowed to issue permits for federal projects, even if they’re in violation of local water quality rules.

Others are harder to see, or understand. I’m particularly alarmed about the EPA’s proposed Transparency Rule. In a nutshell, the Orwellian “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule requires that the EPA only consider findings that disclose their underlying data to the extent that a third party could re-analyze the data. You get one guess as to what kinds of “third parties” we’re talking about.

This version of the rule was introduced in April 2018, but its implementation has been delayed. The agency received over 600,000 public comments, including objections from virtually every organized scientific body and public health authority in the United States. This week the EPA announced a “Supplement” intended to expand the rule’s reach from “regulatory science” to “all science.”

The Transparency Rule was never about “transparency,” or “data,” or any of the other science-y things it supposedly glorifies. The rule parrots the values of science (“reproducible data,” “independently validation,” “best available science”) to remove actual scientific findings from the EPA’s consideration. Based on the past history of the rule’s most vocal proponents, who include toxicologist Ed Calabrese, the rule seems especially designed to undercut the entire concept of dose-response curves. Dose-response curves have limitations as regulatory devices in that they permit pollution below the threshold, but they are the bedrock of environmental protection in the United States.

I wrote about the problems with the Transparency Rule as a failure of science advising in the Washington Post back in October 2018, and I stand by that. But it’s also one of the best examples out there of how scientists and their allies get themselves played. The Transparency Rule uses the language of science to set scientists up for societal mistrust.

Here’s what I mean. The following paragraph is a direct excerpt from the full rule:

Regulatory determinations based on science should describe and document any assumptions and methods used, and should address variability and uncertainty. Where available and appropriate, EPA will use peer-reviewed information, standardized test methods, consistent data evaluation procedures, and good laboratory practices to ensure transparent, understandable, and reproducible scientific assessments. EPA's regulatory science should be consistent with the Office of Management and Budget's Final Information Quality Bulletin for Peer Review. Robust peer review plays a critical role in independently validating key findings and ensuring that the quality of published information meets the standards of the scientific and technical community.

With the exception of the line on following OMB procedure, this sounds mostly unobjectionable—and Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA at the time, knew it. You have to get fairly deep into either the science policy weeds or science studies to recognize that “assumptions,” “uncertainty,” and “data evaluation procedures” are all dog whistles inviting industry to generate doubt about the validity of scientific findings. (For more on that, see Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes’s essential book, Merchants of Doubt.)

There’s a lot of talk among scientists in the United States about “restoring the integrity of science” in federal institutions. Most Americans would see this language as doing exactly that—restoring the public’s faith in science by ensuring that regulations are based on best scientific practices. At the same time, it is profoundly obvious that dismantling environmental protections is one of the Trump administration’s highest priorities. Implementing the Transparency Rule will allow the administration to tell the public that any harms that result from its decisions have been authorized by science.

The Transparency Rule is doubly dangerous: not just for how it sidelines science from decision-making, but also for how it undermines the public’s faith in science as a public good.

When I say that scientists’ appeals to scientific objectivity won’t save them from political attacks, this is what I mean. Those who hold power—whether political or economic—will use whatever scientists say to advance their own agendas. Good data in itself is not sufficient to protect the public’s health. You also need a political system that values human life over profit. When scientists fight for one, but not the other, they lose the public’s trust.

So yes! By all means, marshal whatever institutional resources you have to fight the Transparency Rule and its new supplement. It’s awful. If you’re a member of a professional group that submitted a comment last time, ask your leadership to do it again. If you’re a scientist, science policy wonk, or someone who studies science, gather some like-minded colleagues and schedule a visit to share your concerns with your representative in Congress. Follow the blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists for ideas on specific actions you can take. (Update: Here’s a public comment guide from the UCS.)

But don’t stop there. So long as we have an economy based on extractive practices, with a regulatory system that tabulates the costs of protecting human life in terms of lost profits, we’re participating in slow violence. Join a local or national organization, like 350.org or the Sunrise Movement, that’s working to end investments in fossil fuels and other extractive practices. Find and support candidates running for state and local office who embrace a better future for all peoples, not just those with deep pockets.

Let’s work for a better future, not just better regulations.

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On the nightstand: I’m learning so much from The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. It’s essential reading for anyone who supports, works for, or receives grants from 501(c)3 organizations. Are some of the links above to nonprofits I admire? You bet. But none of us are ideologically consistent and sometimes you work with what you have—also a message of the book.

Hindsight is 20/20: I gave the Trump administration and CDC officials waaaaaaaay too much credit in dealing with the uncertainty of an emerging epidemic in last week’s newsletter. Based on the events of the past seven days, there does in fact seem to be an active conspiracy to suppress the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States. With new evidence, new conclusions. It’s science! Lolsob

Audra IRL: On Wednesday, March 11, I’ll be giving a book talk at the American Philosophical Society’s “Lunch at the Library” series in Philadelphia. Free, but please RSVP to Adrianna Link at alink@amphilsoc.org.