The email I didn’t send to the USGS

On October 10, 2015 blogger and occasional USGS collaborator, Tom Ennis, revealed that USGS scientist, Dr. Barbara Mahler, is about to embark on a two-day, five-stop tour of Northern Illinois presumably to spread her “gospel” on the evils of using coal tar sealants. As of the time of this posting, I don’t know whether USGS is sponsoring or funding Dr. Mahler’s talks or whether Dr. Mahler will be speaking on behalf of USGS – or even if USGS is aware that Dr. Mahler has planned these discussions (but I have asked USGS).

What I do know is that sound science and USGS’s own internal prohibition against advocacy research should compel USGS to shut down Dr. Mahler’s tour before she takes the stage – even before her opening act (if there is one) warms up the crowd (if there is one).  Unless Dr. Mahler is now singing from a new songbook, her message is as predictable as a broken record.  It’s advocacy – unapologetic, unvarnished advocacy and it’s wrong in content and wrongheaded in the fact that a government scientist whose own agency prohibits advocacy is apparently allowing it, if not supporting it.

Here’s an e-mail I composed, but chose not to send (actually was talked out of sending) which merely scratches the surface of the level of outrage (with a dose of alienation mixed in) I feel towards the manner in which USGS has comported itself with respect to their “science” of RTS and how it is presented to the public:

Good morning, ladies & gentlemen of the USGS –

See the email below from the “Coal Tar Free America” blogger and USGS collaborator, Tom Ennis. So, let me get this straight. It is NOT advocacy to target a particular part of the country to deliver your message that refined tar-based sealers should, in the estimation of some of your employees, be banned. It is NOT advocacy to cherry pick the data you use and don’t use to better support your thesis. It is NOT advocacy to choose one receptor model that can be manipulated into giving the preferred, USGS-sanctioned answer while withholding the results of the other receptor models that were tried and the 98% of model runs for the model that was used on the grounds those results were “pre-decisional” – apparently meaning “before we decided that the results supported our thesis.” It is NOT advocacy to use a Chinese estimate for US PAH emissions because using that estimate gives so much better results than using actual data available from EPA’s National Emission Inventory. It is NOT advocacy to leave out of your paper the fact that there was a great big fossil fueled fired power plant right on the shores of that lake in Austin – a power plant closed the year after the ban on RTS because the City had had it with fires and fuel spills (no PAHs there, right?). It is NOT advocacy to manipulate your statistical analysis to come up with the desired results in the two sediment cores – even though it means using different time points for each. It is NOT advocacy to ignore the analysis of Austin sediments after the ban that was done by the City itself. It is NOT advocacy to exaggerate and double count and use doses greater than LC50s and use these data points but not those without any explanation and, and…. I could go on. But clearly, it’s NOT advocacy because it says, right there in the USGS manual, that the USGS doesn’t do advocacy. Oh no! The USGS only talks about its science! No matter how manipulated, cherry picked or unreproducible.

“Oh,” you say, “but our peer review process!” Hah! Even without all the withheld information, it’s pretty clear that your process is broken. “But, but, but you are funded by filthy industry!” Which means we are accountable.

Enough ranting. I’ve got to figure out how to communicate complex science to completely unequipped audiences who are conditioned to think: “Golly gee, Mr. Wizard! The USGS is the government, and they just want to help!” What could go wrong indeed!

I’m going to save this e-mail and if Dr. Mahler’s “talks” go as expected, I may re-consider and hit “send.”

UPDATE: Dr. Cynthia Skrukrud of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club appears to have organized Dr. Mahler’s 5-stop tour of Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Dr. Skrukrud was involved in all 5 events and transported Dr. Mahler from venue to venue in her Prius. Dr. Mahler’s time and travel expenses were considered part of her job at the USGS, and therefore funded by the taxpayer. Environmental activists have perfected this method of gaining taxpayer support for their events.  Organizations such as Sierra Club organize the events and then ask a friendly public official to request participation by a government agency. In this case, Illinois State Representative Laura Fine asked the USGS to make Dr. Mahler available. Rep. Fine has introduced bills to ban the sale and use of RTS in the State of Illinois.

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