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Why We Need the US Environmental Protection Agency.

January 25, 2017

Today, President Donald Trump issued bans on communications on public media from employees of the US Environmental Protection Agency, The Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture. He also froze payments to contractor who carry out EPA policy as well as a freeze on grants issues by the EPA. I plan to write similar posts about the other departments but today I want to concentrate on what the Environmental Protection Agency has meant to the United States. A few caveats. I am not a historian and I am not an environmentalist. I will also draw some conclusions that I do not have the time to totally vet the way my scientific proclivities would have me. But I think it is important to expose people, unaware of the EPA’s functions, to the important contributions the EPA has made to their overall quality of life. That said, here goes.

cayuhoga-river-fire

The Cuyahoga River fire of 1952 (photo credit: Cleveland State University Library)

The US EPA was formed in 1971, largely as a response to what was perceived as the growing environmental crisis of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1952 and again in 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, bringing the deterioration of our surface waters to the attention of the nation in a stark, visual way that tables of concentrations of pollutants never could. The publication of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, in 1962, raised the alarm further. By 1970, a movement was underway that would result in the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. The next year, the agency was up and running with a charge

“To declare national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality.”

It did not take long for the agency to get to work, with the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970 that authorized the EPA “to set national air quality, auto emission and anti-pollution standards” followed quickly by the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act of 1971, the testing of vehicle fuel economy (end of 1971), the ban on DDT (1972) and finally the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act, or Ocean Dumping Act, both passed in 1972. In two years, the EPA had been given the ability to regulate air and water quality as well as the power to regulate one of the primary sources of environmental lead in children, and had moved, without legislative input, to remove a pesticide that was implicated in the decline of the bald eagle and other bird predators at the top of food webs and begin the nation’s move to greater fossil fuel efficiency. These actions very quickly led to safer air, safer water, safer homes, the recovery of bird species on the brink of extinction, and the first steps toward becoming more energy independent.

Now, one might argue about the effects of the formation of the EPA on these issues but one way in which scientists assess the effects of these types of unreplicated experiments is by examining trends that were occurring before the treatment and compare those trends to trends occurring after the treatment. What was happening to air quality before and after the formation of Clean Air Act of 1970? We can look at some data from Smith et al. (2011; Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 11:1101-1116).

so2-levels

What you will notice about this figure is that after the formation of the EPA, sulfur dioxide levels go steadily down. Another way to test whether and experimental treatment has an effect is to compare it to a control. In this case, a control would have to be another industrialized country that did not impose the experimental variable (regulations on air quality), for example…China. As you can see, China’s emissions continue to increase into the 21st Century.

Lead in gasoline began to be phased out on the basis of recommendations from the EPA in 1973. What happened to lead levels in children as a result of regulating lead in paints and gasoline? See below from Nevin (2000):

lead-and-violence

Beginning in the mid 1970s, lead in products (black line) has been declining. This curve correlates highly with blood levels in children. So, regulations reduced lead level. But Nevin (2000) goes further in claiming that lead levels are correlated (after accounting for time lags due to development of children into young adults) might be implicated in the decline in violent crime in the US (red and purple lines).

You can go and log onto the EPA website and look at their history of accomplishments but it should be clear that this is an agency that has been effective at safeguarding America’s waters, air and people for 46 years. Has this cost US industries money? Certainly. But these costs have been passed on to the people who benefit from the use of the products that created the pollution EPA regulations were designed to correct (I’ll talk more about internalizing costs and the economics of doing what is right in a later post). And in the process, the EPA has made us a much healthier nation.

My main point is that, if you want to drink clean safe water, if you care about the health of ecosystems and the organisms that inhabit those ecosystems, if you care about the safety of your children, if you care about the long-term viability of the American economy, if you never want to see a river literally on fire, then you need the EPA to continue to do its job free of partisan politics. Countless career scientists at the EPA have safeguarded Americans since 1971 and I think it would be a shame to lose that a mere 46 years after its founding.

A student asked me after the last election, “Why are more highly educated people more liberal?”

November 16, 2016

It has been a while since I have sat down and contributed to my own blog. I have been really busy teaching classes and being a department chair and trying to get some research done.

And then we had an election and the day after classes were not held because of an advising day and so, on Friday, Nov. 11, 2016, there had been a few days for some hateful things to be done on our campus. The President of our college sent a letter to all faculty, staff and students explaining that this is not how we behave on a liberal arts campus. And I had to grapple with what I do with my students in an increasingly divided and  post-factual world. This is especially problematic in that I have been stressing evidence-based decision making in my general education course, a course that focuses on the ecology, economics, policy, history and ethics of food production in the 21st century.

So I began asking the class if anyone felt that they needed to talk about things. Not very far into it, one student asked me the question in the title to this post. And I am afraid I did not give her a particularly good answer. I told her that the more education you have, the more perspectives you can bring to decision-making and the more diversity of experiences you probably (but not necessarily) have to bring to that decision-making and this often leads to decisions that tend to swing more toward the middle (which actually makes you more moderate, not liberal). I should also mention that not all well-educated people are on the liberal side of the political divide. Not a bad answer but, this morning, I read a really interesting post that made me think of my own experiences.

I graduated with my PhD in 1996 and could not find a job. So I went with my then wife to the Peruvian rainforest and lived for 3.5 months among the Shipibo and, to a lesser extent, the Yaminahua people of central and eastern Peru. She was working on her dissertation research examining the effectiveness of language education program. I remember flying around in small airplanes, called Helio Couriers (the people at JAARS told me that they were designed to crash in the jungle and have you walk away from the wreckage). At 7000 ft altitude on my way to a village near the Peruvian-Brazilian border, I remember looking out and seeing nothing but unbroken lowland rain forest from horizon to horizon, 360 degrees around the airplane. I was invited to go on a “monkey hunt” with the village leader. While on the hunt, he killed eight monkeys, a guan, and we captured a red-footed tortoise. The village leader created a harness for the tortoise out of palm leaves and then strapped the tortoise, which must have weighed 30-40 lbs, onto the back of his 6 year old daughter. And off we went, running through the forest looking for more prey, the tortoise clawing into the back of the village leader’s daughter.

As a herpetologist, I could not bring myself to carry the tortoise back to the village. But as a human, I could not let this little girl carry the tortoise back to the village. I carried the tortoise back to the village where the village leader cooked the tortoise and the monkeys and the guan and asked me over for dinner.

At the time, I had travelled to Mexico, both border towns (since I lived in Texas) and deeper into the interior of Mexico. But until the set of experiences I had in Peru, I think I carried around a certain air of arrogance that comes from being raised in America without the benefit of outside influences. I wanted to judge that village leader, first, for hunting primates and tortoises (I did not care that much about the guan at the time) but then for recruiting the little girl in the act. And, over the course of the day, I lost my ability to pass judgement on them.

Somewhere along the way that day, and it was all day, these people became human to me. In a concrete rather than abstract way. They shared their food with me. They waited for me when I fell behind. I left the village that morning with one bottle of water because I did not realize it would turn into an all day event and, when I was becoming dehydrated, they advised me on where it was safe to drink. And, in the end, they shared the bounty of the hunt with me.

I had lots of experiences that trip. I was seen as the “other” when Shipibo children surrounded me in a school where I was quietly sitting and taking field notes. They boxed me in and then one girl ran her finger lightly up my arm. And all the children laughed because I was hairy…and white…and they were not. Then another did the same. And soon all of them were lightly running their fingers over my arm hairs. And when I occasionally relate this story, it comes across as special (invoke Dana Carvey’s Church Lady voice if you wish) and enlightening and life changing, which it was. But it was also creepy and uncomfortable and otherworldly, this state of being the “other” when I had lived my whole life to that point being the opposite of the “other”.

I went on a hike one day with a Shipibo guide and we ended up walking all the way to another village. As we entered the village, a group of children came around a palm bark hut and saw me and screamed and ran in the opposite direction. I asked why the children ran away and was told that they think that I am “pela cara”…someone who has come to town to “peel their faces”. This is what they think white people do to the Shipibo (possibly because white people have done so in the past?).

But what these, and many more, experiences taught me was a little of what the “other” feels like in our own society even though, in Peru, I was seen as “other” but always in a position of prestige because of my education and the color of my skin. I will never know what it means to be a black man in America, dealing with overt and institutional racism as well as all the implicit bias present in our society. But I can realistically imagine what that is like because I have had some experiences that have given me insight into what that might feel like.

So, Grace, here is a better answer. The presidential election of 2016 revealed a division in the American voting populace along socioeconomic and educational lines which prompted you to ask me, “Why are better educated people more liberal?” My better answer is this:

More education, especially if that education involves significant study abroad experiences, provides you with a deeper and broader pool of knowledge from which to draw when making decisions so that you can, perhaps, see a little more clearly the influence of a decision on people who are not just like yourself. This does make you more liberal and I am happy to be aligned with liberally thinking people.

Replication and Effect Size

March 19, 2015

I am asked pretty often by my students the following question:

“How many replicates do I need for experiment X?”

I always ask them a series of question trying to get at what they think the effect size will be relative to underlying variation without asking them, “What do you think your effect size will be given your underlying within-treatment variation?”

I could quote my graduate experimental design professor, Patrick Phillips, who said, “30 is closer to infinity than it is to zero.” but they generally don’t get that Read more…

Points of Significance column

March 8, 2015

Just a quick note because I just became aware of this.

At Nature, there is a column called Points of Significance and the columns are open access. It is about common statistical issues and the article are short. Might be of use to students of statistics or professors who teach statistics.

Enjoy,

Paul

Specifications Grading – Update #1

February 18, 2015

This semester I am trying out Specifications Grading in my upper level Animal Behavior class. I am doing this in part because our institution is going to be going through an accreditation visit in a few years and I want to explore assessment methods that are more authentic than perhaps traditional, points-accrual grading does. If you teach, you are familiar with traditional grading where one accumulates points over the course of the semester and if you cross some threshold number of points (or a threshold average of points across assignments), you attain a given grade. Traditional grading is how I was graded and how I have been grading for my entire career. Specifications Grading is not something I invented. I have been informed by my colleagues in our excellent Education Dept. that they have been doing this AND training their education students to do this for years. I also read a short book over the winter break that convinced me to try this. I am not plugging the book as the author has fairly negative things to say about students but there are a lot of good ideas in it (Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time by Linda Nilson, 2015, Stylus Publishing).

As I thought about my class, I realized that for virtually every course I have ever taught, I can tell you the grade a student made in the course but I can not point to the specifics of how that grade related to what she knew or what she could do. This is one of the criticisms of current grading methods Read more…

Who Were Your Scientific Influences?

January 1, 2015
tags:

I am visiting my family over the holiday and was talking to my sister a few night’s ago and we were recalling the professors we had back as Stephen f. Austin State University in the mid-1980s. As we were talking, I was reminded that there are a number of professors and others who were very influential on my own professional development and I thought it would be nice to recognize them as I enter the new year. Read more…

Science Policy in Crisis – The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

November 19, 2014

A story hit my facebook account today regarding recent activity in the US House of Representatives about legislation that would govern who and who could not participate in the deliberations of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board. Most of the posts referenced a Slate article that made the following claims:

“H.R. 1422, which passed 229-191, would shake up the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, placing restrictions on those pesky scientists and creating room for experts with overt financial ties to the industries affected by EPA regulations.”

and

“In what might be the most ridiculous aspect of the whole thing, the bill forbids scientific experts from participating in “advisory activities” that either directly or indirectly involve their own work. In case that wasn’t clear: experts would be forbidden from sharing their expertise in their own research — the bizarre assumption, apparently, being that having conducted peer-reviewed studies on a topic would constitute a conflict of interest.”

So, when I saw these posts and read the Slate post, I went and looked up the bill. The specific sections of the bill refer to who can be a member of the EPA SAB and when those individuals can participate in the activities of the board. Read more…

The Insect Ecology Lab

at the University of Dayton (Dr. Chelse Prather & students)

ecoqui

Quantitative Genetics and more

Arthropod Ecology

Writings about arthropod ecology, arachnids & academia at McGill University

Random Walks

Mr. Chase blogs about math

Dynamic Ecology

Multa novit vulpes

Small Pond Science

Research, teaching, and mentorship in the sciences

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