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“Secret Science” Regulation: A Time for Truth

By E. Calvin Beisner -- May 29, 2018

“Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science (STRS) will improve, not harm, the EPA’s mission to protect Americans from real environmental risks. It will also reduce the risks caused by unjustified but costly regulations. It should be adopted.”

What would you say if a major government agency imposed regulations on the basis of “scientific studies” that couldn’t be tested because their authors wouldn’t make the data, methods, and computer codes available?

“Sure, and I’ve got a bridge to sell you down in the Everglades!”

That’d be about the right response. Followed by, “Nothing doing, buster! We taxpayers pay for the research, and the agency burdens us based on it, you’d jolly well better make it public. Period.”

And you’d be absolutely right.


For decades, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has built new regulations on studies whose authors refuse to grant access to their data, computer code, and methodology. Such studies are not subject to replication by other scientists. Falsifiablility is the essence of physical science, and replication is the acid test of scientific research. But for over two decades we’ve been in an irreproducibility crisis. Over and over, published studies, even in peer-reviewed journals, have turned non-replicable.

“Secret science” has been especially common as the basis for regulation related to one of the most politicized, controversial branches of modern science, anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

At last, though, a solution may be in sight. Last month EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt requested public comment on a new rule, “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” (STRS), designed to solve that problem.

STRS provides that “When promulgating significant regulatory actions, the Agency shall ensure that dose response data and models underlying pivotal regulatory science are publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation.” It codifies what was intended in the Secret Science Reform Act of 2015, and the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017 (HONEST Act). Both passed the House but never came up for vote in the Senate.

Time for Truth

The organization I lead—a network of scientists, economists, and religious leaders dedicated to environmental stewardship and economic development for the poor—is gathering signatures to an open letter supporting the STRS that calls the proposed rule “badly needed to assure American taxpayers that the EPA is truly acting in their best interests.”

Opponents raise three common objections.

  1. Peer review makes sure only top-quality, credible studies with highly reliable results get published in refereed journals.

But no empirical evidence supports that. In fact, as John P.A. Ioannidis demonstrated in a celebrated article in PLOS/Medicine, “most scientific research findings are false.”

  1. The rule would prevent the EPA from using studies that involved confidential information, but many such studies are key to establishing risks and thus regulations to reduce them.

In an open letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) argued, “there are multiple valid reasons why requiring the release of all data does not improve scientific integrity and could actually compromise research, including intellectual property, proprietary, and privacy concerns.”

Yet Section 30.5 of the rule expressly states: “Where the Agency is making data or models publicly available, it shall do so in a fashion that is consistent with law, protects privacy, confidentiality, confidential business information, and is sensitive to national and homeland security.” And Section 30.9 allows the Administrator to make exceptions when compliance isn’t feasible.

  1. As the UCS put it, “many public health studies cannot be replicated, as doing so would require intentionally and unethically exposing people and the environment to harmful contaminants or recreating one-time events (such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill).”

But what need to be replicated in studies are not the events but the procedures used to collect and reason from data.

Consider, for example, the infamous “hockey stick” graph purporting to show global temperature over the past 1,000 years. It used tree-rings as proxy temperature measurements. It revealed neither the Medieval Warm Period nor the Little Ice Age—strong evidence that Earth’s climate warms and cools cyclically without human contribution—but it showed a rapid, historically unprecedented warming starting in the late 19th century. It became iconic for claims of dangerous AGW driven by human emissions of carbon dioxide.

No one needed to recreate the trees the study depended on. All anyone needed to show that the authors had excluding uncooperative data and misused a statistical procedure, resulting in false results, was access to the raw data and the computer code used to analyze it.

Yet lead author Michael Mann’s long refusal to share the data and code delayed discovery of his errors for years. During those years the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the public, and governments all over the world were led to believe the study’s claims and formulate policies potentially costing trillions of dollars based partly on it.

  1. The UCS asserted that concerns about transparency and certainty “are phony issues that weaponize ‘transparency’ to facilitate political interference in science-based decision making, rather than genuinely address either.”

But enhanced transparency works against politicization, not for it. This objection is so patently invalid as to suggest that those who offer it are themselves weaponizing confidentiality to facilitate their own political interference in science-based decision making.


STRS will improve, not harm, the EPA’s mission to protect Americans from real environmental risks. It will also reduce the risks caused by unjustified but costly regulations. It should be adopted.

Any farmer knows you don’t buy a pig in a poke. Scientific studies aren’t pigs, but “secret science” is a pig in a poke.

Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

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