Scientific researchers, policy advocates and journalists all have to weigh the extent to which statistics reflect reality.
Case in point California recycling. Back in May, the state's recycling agency was "pleased to report that the overall (beverage container) recycling rate for calendar 2009 was 82 percent, an increase of 8 percentage points over the 74 percent recorded for calendar 2008." Then came the awkward element The ratio for high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic containers jumped to 109 percent from 91 percent in the same comparison.
"As a result, CalRecycle is investigating whether claims for No. 2 HDPE plastic containers are being filed and processed correctly. CalRecycle is also investigating the degree to which fraud against the recycling program has increased reported container returns of all material types."
So, has the program become increasingly effective, or increasingly vulnerable to scams against the container-deposit system, or some combination of both? AMM bypassed the story. But was that too cynical?
Several weeks later, Susan Collins, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute, suggested AMM report on the California statistics. "This recycling rate is terrific news," she wrote. "It's certainly the highest rate since they expanded to most beverage types. The high rates in the '80s were for just soda and beer."
AMM responded that the problem was the agency had previously noted that some categories probably show inflated percentages due to fraud. Collins wasn't convinced. "Earlier this year there were reports of a $3.5-million fraud case, but the entire fund brings in around $1 billion in deposit revenues per year," she said in an e-mailed reply. "That's under four-tenths of one percent." The scam transactions weren't statistically material, in her view.
But there's no way to be sure. And for a potential news story, an important ratio would be the one-year increase in recycling vs. the one-year increase in fraud. The California recycling agency has boosted its anti-fraud arrangements, with 29 recyclers ejected and another 20 flagged for special scrutiny. Recent data show the counties where plastics scams are most likely to have occurred are posting steeper-than-average drops in plastics returns, a possible sign of deterrence.
Shaky operating data can affect the reputation of a government agency, but shaky regulatory data can have wider consequences—substantial financial impacts on businesses.
One assessment that US Magnesium LLC, Salt Lake City, has involved itself in is a slow-motion review of the data on dioxins. US Magnesium's interest involves a Superfund pollution site, although dioxins also are a key concern in air emissions precautions required at secondary aluminum smelters.
A National Academy of Sciences panel in 2006 cited possible shortcomings in a broad U.S. Environmental Protection Agency dioxin assessment dated 2003. The EPA's response came out in May 2010. US Magnesium, responding in July, urged the EPA to keep its advisory panel on a short leash until after the comment period ends Sept. 20.
In some ways, the dioxin arguments are parallel to similar arguments involving lead emissions. That wrangle is approaching its final chapter, however. An appeals court ruling in May backed the EPA's handling of scientific evidence behind a 90-percent cut in allowable pollution from secondary lead smelters.
One element of that dispute remains active in federal court, however. How much access to the medical research data on lead should skeptics be offered? That's the subject of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by an attorney acting as her own client in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh. According to a filing by Amy Pohl, "the government says it cannot obtain the data from the researchers but now attempts to block plaintiff from joining (to the case) the researchers who do have the data." She is relying largely on congressional action from 1998 called the Shelby Amendment. Tucked into an appropriations bill, it ordered that a regulation be altered to allow all federally funded research data to be accessed through the Freedom of Information Act.
The affected EPA contractor, Bruce Lanphear, said he pooled lead data from some earlier researchers with a promise that confidentiality would be maintained.
The EPA also has to deal with something called the Information Quality Act, which requires federal agencies to ensure the objectivity and integrity of federally produced information.
According to some policy advocates, the push for research transparency implicitly aims at curtailing scientists' influence on government regulations.
A Clinton administration official, after returning to his public health professorship, wrote a book on such efforts called Doubt Is Their Product How Industry's War on Science Threatens Your Health. David Michaels cited controversies over the impact on health of beryllium, lead, mercury, chromium and nickel. His views once again matter, since Michaels has returned to government as assistant secretary of Labor in charge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.