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There’s Still No Such Thing As Sound Science

Last week saw a major development in how the Environmental Protection Agency plans to engage with scientific evidence. On Friday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt gave The Daily Caller an exclusive interview and said he would soon end the agency’s use of what he called “secret science” — research whose underlying, raw data sets are not released publicly. That sounds simple enough, but it would preclude the agency from relying on a great deal of scientific knowledge.

According to the Daily Caller story, Pruitt’s upcoming policy is inspired by the Honest Act, a congressional bill championed by Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas. If that’s the case — the EPA has not responded to a request for comment — it would drastically limit the kind of evidence the agency uses for its decision-making. For example, it appears as though the policy would preclude the use of public health research that included confidential personal information about study subjects.

An editorial in the journal Science concluded that the Honest Act is, ironically, “dishonest—an attempt by politicians to override scientific judgment and dictate narrow standards by which science is deemed valuable for policy.” The legislation is opposed by more than a dozen scientific organizations. It appears that Pruitt is now moving ahead with this approach, even as the legislation has stalled.

Pruitt’s planned move appears to be a continuation of many conservatives’ push for “sound science.” We took an in-depth look at the concept of “sound science” in December: The problem is that there’s no such thing. The idea was pioneered by the tobacco industry to undercut research showing that its products were harmful. The doubt-makers’ trick was to insist that policy be based solely on “sound science,” and then to define “sound” in a way that ensures that nothing will ever qualify.

“Under Mr. Pruitt’s approach to science, the E.P.A. would be turning its back on its mandate to ‘protect human health and the environment,’” wrote two former top EPA officials — Gina McCarthy and Janet McCabe — in the New York Times.

Although Pruitt’s new policy is ostensibly about transparency, his agency has not been transparent in disclosing it to the public. Rather than put out a traditional news release with information about the change, the EPA published a two-sentence press release saying that “Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt will soon end his agency’s use of ‘secret science’ to craft regulations,” and pointed readers to the Daily Caller’s story.

In response, the National Association of Science Writers1, sent a letter to EPA Associate Administrator Liz Bowman asking her to “take steps immediately to prevent this unprofessional and unethical behavior from occurring again.” The EPA’s promotion of a media outlet’s article in place of answering questions from reporters, the NASW letter said, blocks “the dissemination of information about a potentially significant policy change.”

But the policy’s rollout aside, Pruitt’s move is an example of a strategy that has a long history: Turning scientific values against science.

Read more: There’s No Such Thing As ‘Sound Science’

Footnotes

  1. I am a member.

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science.

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