House Republicans Punish the Messenger Again

Christopher Rowland at the Boston Globe reports that House Republicans, seeking evidence of overreaching environmental regulations, are taking aim at a two-decade-old, taxpayer-funded scientific study by Harvard researchers that linked air pollution to disease.

Even though the landmark study has held up under intense scientific scrutiny since its publication in 1993, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology took the rare step of issuing subpoenas last month demanding access to the study’s raw data about thousands of individual subjects.

The committee also subpoenaed raw data from a 1995 study of American Cancer Society health data on 1.2 million individuals that confirmed the findings of the earlier review, that air pollution is associated with higher rates of emergency room visits for asthma and other respiratory ailments, hospitalizations, and mortality.

Both studies — peer-reviewed and published in prestigious medical journals — have long been on the target list of some in the GOP because they have been repeatedly cited by the Environmental Protection Agency when it justifies the need for new regulations on power plant emissions and other air pollutants.

Because, what, air pollution is good for you?

The problem here is not just how stupid and ugly this is – it is the idea that raw data from twenty years ago even exists. I’m not sure how things are where you work. I have never seen a lab, in my various careers as an oceanographer, a climatologist, a computer engineer, or a commercial software developer, where it would be even feasible to reconstruct data from a publication dated 1995 in 2013.

Should this be fixed going forward? Definitely. I am absolutely in favor of reproducibility. Is it worth fixing retroactively? Hell no. I can’t imagine anyone asking for such a thing who actually remembers the computing environment of the early 90s. I don’t suppose any of the workers then imagined such a witch hunt, either.

It’s possible that medical research has had reproducibility standards in place for that long. Even if so there are plenty of ways that this might have failed in the intervening years. In that event, are we supposed to presume that pollution does not cause asthma anymore?


  1. I suppose somebody has already remarked on the dismaying tendency of the denier apparatus and their GOP lackeys to constantly bang on about "totalitarian" environmentalists, Lysenkoism and all the rest while in fact they themselves are the only people practicing what they preach against.

    The House Inquisitors are likely not even curious to see any of the product they demand. This is more akin to dumping silicon carbide into the transmission of an ambulance on a call. Friction and delay is what it's all about.

  2. It's an interesting coincidence that this post of yours came out the day after this post from John Baez. The Azimuth Project blog is, of course, on of those tracked in your "Affiliated Blogs" section (and linked from my blog as well).

    I'll have more to say later (the Good Lord willing and the Creek don't rise...). However, my input is likely to contain information from the Great Satan, Dr. Briggs.

  3. This is not a green jelly bean, nor is it a subtle effect.

    Did you catch that N=1200000 in that second study?

    There have been thousands of studies since; Google Scholar came up with over 50,000 hits on "asthma particulate". Here's a popular description of a recent one:

    "a recent study by the University of Southern California (USC)—the most comprehensive by far to date on this topic—found that at least eight percent of the more than 300,000 cases of childhood asthma in Los Angeles County can be attributed to traffic-related pollution at homes within 250 feet of a busy roadway. "

    That's 24,000 attributed extra cases in LA alone, just from proximity to a busy road.

    Do you imagine that congressional staffers will be combing over a million records to find, what, a false positive?

    No, this is just harassment. They have stumbled on a new way to make the public sector incompetent, which proves their claim that the public sector is incompetent.

  4. No, I've checked none of the above (it being hours during which I'm supposed to be working). But the coincidence caught my eye. And don't interpret my comment as supportive of the subpoena in any case. There may be a Congressperson who can understand the study and the data, I suppose, but even such a one won't bother. At best, he or she will have a staffer of unknown expertise (likely an intern vetted for satisfactory alignment with the Congressperson's political leanings) tell him or her what he or she should think and say about it. And the hidden assumption there is that the data exists, as you rightly point out.

    That said though, there are plenty of green jelly bean studies. The Sci Am article you linked just states conclusions. I've downloaded the study (but haven't read/evaluated/analyzed yet).

    As I said, I'll have more to say later (I hope).

  5. Green jelly beans are everywhere, not least in climate studies.

    But people misunderstand how science progresses when it does work. The act of publication is the most formal step, and it's required, but it's neither the beginning nor the end of how some concept or relationship actually enters into the body of knowledge.

  6. "The act of publication is the most formal step, and it’s required, but it’s neither the beginning nor the end of how some concept or relationship actually enters into the body of knowledge."

    How true. And if the GOP were at all interested in science and expanding our sphere of information they'd be acting to encourage research and publication. Instead, the opposite. The message is loud and clear: "Do this research at the cost of serious risk we will provide, and know that you -will- dearly pay for your curiosity."

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.