The Ruse of Results-Oriented Science

Scott Pruitt has turned the EPA’s longstanding methodical approach to rulemaking and enforcement on its head. Instead of seeking to 1) understand a problem, 2) identify a range of solutions, 3) transparently design a targeted program, and 4) implement and enforce it fairly, Pruitt’s approach upends all four pillars. His most recent proposal to exclude peer-reviewed studies when their authors do not or cannot make their raw data available undermines the first two pillars in particular.

Linearity is a key feature of the first two pillars. EPA relies on the best science, and other analytic disciplines, along with continual information-gathering, to find out what it needs to know for its rulemaking process. In this context – the context in which the EPA has operated since its creation in 1970 – analysis that is suspected of being “results oriented” (having an answer in mind at the outset) is roundly dismissed. In fact, calling analysis “results oriented” is viewed as a grave condemnation of the work. A linear process starts with a question and ends with an answer; it doesn’t start with the answer.

The Pruitt Methodology starts with an answer – with a result in mind which then dictates the analysis and rationale used to support that result. Often the result mirrors talking points first used by the Obama EPA’s political opponents and embraced by Pruitt himself (“sue and settle”, “secret science”) – and includes the creation of a problem Pruitt needs to “solve”. Whatever effort he invests in disguising his real aims, the result he is after isn’t too hard to figure out, while the rationale he offers is frequently unpersuasive, incoherent, or non-existent.

His proposal to change what science the EPA will consider is a “solution” that has long been sought by conservative anti-science agitators (see our previous posts on this topic here and here). The proposal would subordinate EPA’s longstanding reliance on rigorous, peer-reviewed science to an entirely novel and unscientific process: allowing anyone access to otherwise private data so they may analyze – or manipulate – the data as fits their agenda-driven, “results-oriented” purpose. If the authors of a study, even one that his undergone peer-review and whose results have been replicated, do not or cannot make their data publicly available then Pruitt proposes to bar the EPA from considering the study.

It is this new feature – subordinating the best scientific practices in the agency’s rulemaking to results-oriented exercises – that is the essence of the Pruitt “transparency” proposal (see our previous post for a detailed discussion of transparency).

The recent release of EPA emails reveals the signature play in the Pruitt results-oriented playbook. Earlier in his tenure, Pruitt planned to run a “red-team/blue-team” exercise purportedly to vet the conclusions of climate change science. Leaving aside the methodological validity – or the lack thereof – of such a process, Pruitt clearly intended that it would reach a pre-ordained result. In preparing the red team/blue team event Pruitt’s staff ignored EPA’s own experts and mainstream climate scientists and sought advice largely from professional climate change doubters from conservative think tanks.

This unbalanced, unfair approach exemplifies the real function of Pruitt’s science-subordination proposal – empowering those with ideological agendas or financial stakes in regulatory outcomes with both data and license to rig the game to serve their own purposes. Despite the claims it makes about the importance of “transparency”, the proposal fails to take on the extent to which peer review and the continual efforts the science community makes to improve it already offer the solution to Pruitt’s “concern” about the reliability of scientific studies (see our other previous post for a detailed discussion of peer review).

Anticipating worries that his transparency proposal might jeopardize industry trade secrets, the Pruitt Methodology allows for a case-by-case exception to the data publication requirement. This would give Pruitt license to ignore or invoke his own policy when it’s politically convenient to do so. He will use “science” driven by the desirability of its results, in other words. This is the exact opposite of legitimate science, which proceeds by continually and sequentially examining questions with as-yet-unknown answers, and the opposite of how EPA has traditionally approached science.

If there is a valid purpose to Pruitt’s proposal, it’s the idea that making raw data available for analysis by third parties enables public participation in the agency’s decision-making. The problem of public participation, though, has also long since been addressed; the steps of designing a peer review policy, choosing what research to conduct, and considering specific studies in specific policy actions have been and continue to be offered for public comment, both to ensure public participation as an end in itself and to help the agency consider its options and the implications of what it chooses to do. Crucially, the process operates under well-defined scientific standards, as opposed to under the free-for-all approach in Pruitt’s proposal.

Prior to Scott Pruitt’s tenure, the sequence of EPA’s actions in science-based problem-solving had been followed consistently to whatever conclusions was found at the end of the process. Since the Enlightenment, problem-solving has been premised on the notion that the application of disinterested science and analysis, agnostic as to the ultimate results, is the most reliable path to useful knowledge. Pruitt prefers the techniques of an ideological Crusader – subordinating scientific inquiry and the rules under which it has long operated to advance his anti-regulatory agenda.

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