on the shore of the ultimate sea

Tetraethyl Lead and Pure Inquiry

I just finished a standout investigative piece that’s aged very well, Jamie Kitman’s look into leaded gasoline’s terrifying public health legacy, published by The Nation in 2000.

A few things struck me.

One is the continued prevalence of the cascading uncertainty rule, described here:

By relying on what Jerome Nriagu of the University of Michigan has called the cascading uncertainty rule (“There is always uncertainty to be found in a world of imperfect information”), the lead industry and makers and marketers of TEL gasoline additives were able to argue in 1925: “You say it’s dangerous. We say it’s not. Prove us wrong.” (Or, as Nriagu prefers, “Show me the data.”) They still do.

This is an almost classic misdirection that’s affecting how we judge huge dangers to society and public health, like vaccinations and global warming.

Meanwhile, a crusading scientist used techniques for determining this age of the earth to hypothesize how badly we were screwing it up by blanketing it with lead. Clair Patterson then gave what stands as a lasting caution against undue influence in research. This has recently been in the news, with Wall Street and academia cozying up.

“It is not just a mistake for public health agencies to cooperate and collaborate with industries in investigating and deciding whether public health is endangered,” Clair said. “It is a direct abrogation and violation of the duties and responsibilities of those public health organizations.”

I tend to use a lot of others’ research to make points; often, I can be lazy about sourcing. Was it the federal government, or a non-profit organization that’s providing that figure, or is it an entity motivated to make a specific commercial point? Research, both good and bad, can be easily manipulated. This served as a great reminder that concrete, civic-minded fact-finding is always going to serve the truth better than interested parties’ ‘findings’.

Written by Nick

January 16th, 2014 at 1:17 pm