One of the most shocking events of 2016 was the Fact Free Election: free license to mislead and lie, without time or care for details. The problem is politics begets policy, and the truth seems to matter less and less to people. In the case of science, this is tragic.
As an engineer, I’m happiest in a world of flow charts and data. Science, done correctly, such that an average technically trained person sees it as being legitimate and appropriate, is blind like justice. It is what it is. No screaming. No party politics. No bending of the truth. And if new information comes out, it’s reviewed, it’s mulled over, it’s considered as part of the body of knowledge, and everyone (mostly) goes on their merry way figuring out the next thing.
Yet Fact Free (or at least Fact Lite) decision-making is a trend even in environmental policy, based on my 30 years in that field. Bad, incomplete, or misused science causes public drama over the wrong things, yet it is rarely called out whether wielded by the public, industry, or regulators. Three recent examples include water, ethanol, and a new uproar over metals.
Bad people have lawns, we are told, in California. Based on the barrage of press, one would think that grass is a moral failure that must be rectified to “drought proof” us. The problem is, urban areas use only 10% of the water statewide, according to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC, www.ppic.org,) and that means ornamental grass, trees, and plants use only 5-8% of the water in the entire state.
Urban water utilities spend countless hours a month reporting their 10% of the pie to a new database which, incidentally, I love. The other 90% of water uses – private pumpers, environmental and agriculture and – lack comprehensive data. Of 13 areas of water accounting, such as environmental use and return flows, studied by PPIC this summer, the vast majority have major data gaps. Mandates on 10% of the pie when 90% of the pie is based on “guestimation” are silly.
We were told ethanol fuel is “good.” Local facility permits have been written to specify ethanol fueled (E85) equipment, even when no appropriate equipment is available to purchase. Fueling stations are also limited, meaning if those vehicles were available, they’d have to drive farther to refuel. Add to this the embarrassing fact that E85 gas gets 25%-35% worse fuel economy than regular gasoline, according to a 2006 EPA study of all models. The reality is ethanol, biodiesel, and every other fuel (even human power) all have impacts on society. Without a realistic and unbiased lifecycle analysis, mandating “the next big thing” just handicaps proper long range planning.
Recent news reports mentioned air samples in the City of Paramount showed Hexavalent Chromium, an air toxic, “above average levels for the southern California region.” Those average levels of air toxics in Southern California have a standard deviation nearing +/- 100 % in most cases. Meaning the average is hardly representative, and communities’ air toxics vary widely. Regulators are now looking at sources, discovering unpermitted facilities (no surprise due to low enforcement budgets,) and conducting more tests in Paramount. The problem is most likely not coming from the companies that have had their names in the paper. Nor will the first proposed solution, a pending rule with restrictions on metal grinding at foundries, do much since most foundries don’t use hexavalent chromium. Incomplete information, misconstrued by many, distracts from the proper goal of reducing air toxics in communities.
In all of these cases, it may sound like we are “at least doing something.” Yet without fully measuring and understanding issues we are wasting time and money, coming up with the wrong solution and failing the public. There is certainly a need for estimating and starting somewhere. However, it is tragic when science is misused to inflame the public about the news du jour yet there is never the time, money or interest for fixing the important issues, the big picture solutions.
Have facts ceased to matter as we march toward 100% Fact Free decision-making? As politics goes, so could public policy, if we are not careful. “We (must) remain vigilant against normalizing blatant falsehoods masquerading as legitimate alternatives to understood science. We’ve set the whole world up to be exactly what P.T. Barnum dreamed of: the suckers that are born each and every minute.” So said science writer and astrophysicist Ethan Siegel. I agree.
Originally published in The Signal Newspaper in January 2017.