Doubting the Health Harms of Air Pollution — Not a “Mistake,” but Not “Just Science” Either

I’m going to attempt to do here what a science reporter recently failed utterly to do; to refrain from spinning a lurid private morality play, and actually try to explain the substance of a public moral (and scientific) dispute. The failure in question concerns a four-part series the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) published online on Dec. 12 — about the “government’s secret alliance with Big Oil” and the petroleum lobby’s long-term sponsoring of one risk analyst to foment doubt about whether air pollution (specifically, ozone and fine particulate pollution) causes any harm at all to human health at current levels. One part of the series focuses on Dr. Louis Anthony (“Tony”) Cox, a Denver-based consultant newly-appointed by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to head EPA’s Clean Air Act Science Advisory Committee, and quotes me (a professor at a school of public health and a law school, and the former chief regulatory official at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration).

The CPI reporter (Jie Jenny Zou) accurately described Tony and me as “two friends [whose] views on what should or shouldn’t be regulated couldn’t be further apart.” Indeed, we were college classmates more than 40 years ago and have kept in close touch since. She also got it almost right (but quite wrong) when she wrote that I “count Cox among an elite few who have the credentials for risk analysis, an amalgam of health sciences, economics, policy-making, and statistics.” Actually, I emphasized at the outset that while more and more worthy risk analysts are coming to the field with good credentials in one or two of its component disciplines, I’ve always looked up to Tony as one of the few who planned his undergraduate and graduate studies and work experiences so as to be broadly proficient (that is, having the highest credentials) in all these raw materials.

Ms. Zou asked me to comment on a 120-page slide presentation Tony recently presented to a group of state and federal judges about different kinds of causal and non-causal relationships in regulatory science (note: an earlier version of this slide show is here). Tony makes two fundamental points: (1) that it is possible for high levels of pollutant X to cause, or appear to cause, higher levels of disease Y, and yet future regulations to reduce X might not reduce Y; and (2) that judges should “insist on evidence” from regulatory agencies that pollution controls have reduced or will reduce disease, and “exclude evidence” that does not meet this standard.

Tony Cox (directly behind EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt)

I found Tony’s presentation profoundly disturbing, for five basic reasons. None of these have to do with the propriety of his trying to influence judges — I applaud evidence-based advocacy as long as the evidence is credible and the advocacy is honestly disclosed as such.

  • Something is amiss that not one word in the 120 slides mentioned the fact that agencies’ estimates of regulatory cost are also plagued with assumptions that could invalidate key relationships. After all, where do we get the ideas that prices will rise or that jobs will be destroyed if we require pollution controls? From economic modeling, of course — where claims of future causality at best come from observations of past associations. So encouraging judges to ignore benefits but to swallow whole accusations of cost is a half-right lecture, which is to say a wholly incomplete piece of advocacy;
Causality is important — and controversial!

Despite this rich ground for our scholarly divide, all that readers of CPI’s story about Tony learned about our disagreements is that I apparently think he has made “a stupid mistake.” I have no recollection of using those words in the hours of Q&A I had with Ms. Zou, though I initially had no reason to doubt her memory. But I thought it was poor journalism — unfair to me and to the readers — to refer to an unnamed “mistake” by leaving out the predicate of the sentence(s) I may have offered. What mistake(s)? Obviously, as I told her boss, it makes the source, and the writer, look desperate and not credible to accuse someone of some vague and unrevealed error. But he responded that there was no need for the story to explain, because it was obvious to his readers that I was instead quoted making the omnibus criticism that Tony’s “mistake” was in taking industry money to lecture to judges, not anything in the content of his presentation.

That may be CPI’s criticism, but it is the exact opposite of mine, and I made that clear in the very first minute I spoke with the reporter. I told her that while I’m no fan of potentially undisclosed conflicts of interest, other sources are more qualified to opine on that, while I want to focus on why some advocates are misleading or disingenuous in their conclusions. CPI refused repeated entreaties to provide me with audio or notes on what I must have said the “stupid mistake” was, which now leaves me wondering which words indeed were mine and which were misattributed to me as well as surely taken out of context.

Do I think my old friend Tony has a jaundiced view of public-health causality, and is not willing to admit that discounting public concern over something not known to meet his high standards of “causal” is his way of imposing deep and hidden value judgments onto society? That I do; but I come away from this personal lesson in dealing with reporters with more regret that a “center for public integrity” doesn’t have more private integrity in its work.

Originally published at on January 3, 2018.

Originally published at on January 3, 2018.



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Adam M. Finkel

Risk assessment expert, former federal government regulator (OSHA), choral singer and conductor