The Planetary News Radio – Episode 15: Scientific Suppression Case Study: TOXMAP

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio, Episode number 15 with your host Bryan White and I’m here today outside in Corvallis and it is raining out. It’s very dark, and in order to avoid the rain, I’m actually under a bridge. So there’s some background noise from cars. That’s just the setting that I’m in. I had a [complaint, well I don’t want to call it a complaint], but a criticism recently that I’ll respond to about the show. What was mentioned is that the show is recorded outside. And yes, the show’s recorded outside in different settings. Sometimes it’s hiking, which might be a quiet setting, and sometimes it’s in the city, and I think that’s that’s part of the show, because it’s dynamic. And so I want to be true to the art of presenting science, and the setting is part of that. So occasionally there are times when there will be background noise. I won’t say too much more about that. And my goal is not to respond to all criticism, but just to give listeners, you know, some insight into why I’m doing [the show this way]. Yes, I could record in a quiet studio, but then it wouldn’t be the “planetary news”, it would be the “indoor quiet studio news”. 

Continuing on, the topic for today is about suppression in science, scientific suppression. And this has always been a problem. Historically, the United States has a major history of scientific suppression, going back into the sixties and the seventies with pollution and climate science. And now we’re finding out things like ExxonMobil knew for 40 years what oil use could do to the environment, and covered that up, similar to the way that tobacco companies initially tried to hide what could happen from tobacco use and nicotine use. And so we see, that same thing persisted in America and now we’re at this strange dichotomy where the science is overwhelming [in favor of anthropogenic climate change]. ExxonMobil can’t deny that they know that climate change is real. In other words, they can’t conduct and do all the science that they do in their industry, because oil extraction is an extremely scientific industry that makes use of geology and hydrogeology. And so they can’t claim to be scientifically extracting oil from the Earth and know all this geoscience, and also then deny that climate change is happening and that it’s caused by carbon emissions from humans.

So now we’re at this rare transition period where you might see British Petroleum (BP) or ExxonMobil actually accepting that climate change is real and doing things to mitigate carbon emissions [because the scientific evidence is overwhelming]. But how did we get to this point? How did we get to the point where, our greatest minds as scientists were able to create all these oil extraction technologies, while on the political side, the implications of [burning fossil fuels] were hidden? And that’s why understanding scientific suppression is important. Recently, the Trump administration [has been] overtly doing this for the first time [in a way that can be recorded]. So it’s always been a kind of a hidden thing that we knew was going on in America, but we couldn’t really put our finger on it. But now with the Trump administration silencing civilian science, social media accounts, and basically putting a gag order on [scientists] in 2017 when his administration started taking over the EPA, Department of the Interior, and all the [federal] government organizations related to science and national parks, we saw this huge, almost national gag order put out. 

In response to that, Columbia University began what they call a “Silencing Science Tracker” and the website for this is http://www.climate.law.columbia.com, [which is a part of] the Columbia Law School Center for Climate Change Law and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (https://www.csldf.org/). And so, the silencing science tracker is tracking overt (provable/documentable) instances where science has been suppressed in or by the United States government. And to this day, which is January 4th 2020, there have been 385 instances of over scientific silencing tracked and logged in the Columbia Science silence in silence structure.

A couple of examples here that they have the most recent one is, something called the TOXMAP database. TOXMAP (https://healthdata.gov/dataset/toxmap%C2%AE-environmental-health-maps) was a database run by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) that integrated 12 scientific data sets into one data set in order to view the tracking of known hazardous materials on U.S. soil. The function of the TOXMAP was to list [the location of sites contaminated by] chemical contaminants on the National Priorities list. And so the National Priorities list (https://www.epa.gov/superfund/superfund-national-priorities-list-npl) is a list of sites that have been investigated by the EPA and declared either potential sources of hazardous chemicals or places where there already are hazardous chemicals released in the environment, and which could have been [reported] as an environmental violation. Or it could have been something historically, maybe a site from the 80’s before there were environmental regulations. But now the contaminant exists, and it’s still there in the environment. And there’s 1335 of these sites that are tracked. 

The goal of this [integrated] tracking system was to obviously track the mitigation of these sites and to see how contamination is being removed and cleaned or expanded. Are there new sites popping up? Was there a new spill somewhere? And now that place is logged as a site. And so, having all this integrated data on an area [on one map], it could help scientists make decisions because pollution is a complex event. It’s not always as simple [as an oil spill over here] or we spilled Mercury here. What [is the plan to] clean it up? What [are the immediate environmental effects?]. We don’t know what the downstream ([longterm]) effects could be. One pollutant might not be as harmful in one area as another area. Spilling mercury in the ground in the middle of the Arizona desert might not be as bad as spilling mercury into a river in the middle of the Mississippi. So having integrated data sets [like TOXMAP] is really important for environmental scientists to make decisions. So I see this as a really powerful tool that I never even knew about now is gone. And so I wish I’d known about it before, because then I could have seen what was available. Environmental science and pollution tracking isn’t my specialty, so it’s something that I missed. But I regret having missed it. 

Now that I’m reading about it, so what are these NPL sites [that were in TOXMAP], The National Priorities list? So these are sites that have been reported to the EPA where a pollution contamination event has occurred, and then the EPA has conducted an investigation and given them a hazard ranking score. And so this is a hazard ranking called the Hazard Ranking System a system that ranks the relative risk of site’s adverse effects on human health. So it’s basically a relative risk in the spectrum of all of the sites where contamination has occurred. [The score answers the question,] “How bad is this one?” 

What are some of the factors that went into scoring these sites? This is from EPA.gov. Number one, the likelihood that a site has released or has the potential to release hazardous substances into the environment. Number two, the characteristics of the waste with toxicity and quantity. Number three, [the presence of] people or sensitive environmental targets affected by the release. So is this something that happened in the middle of a community, or happened in the middle of nowhere? [Did the spill occur in an environmentally sensitive area, e.g. nature preserve?] That’s all going to go into the hazard ranking score. Further into that part of the score, what are the pathways of the contamination? From EPA.gov: Number one, a groundwater migration, which would be drinking water or surface water migration. [This could be direct release] into human drinking water, food chain, or other sensitive environments like lakes, streams and rivers or the ocean. Is that soil exposure or sub-service intrusion? So again, that could affect resident or nearby populations, sensitive environments, or regularly occupied structures. Let’s say something in liquid form leaks into soil [and then] just sits there but doesn’t spread into the drinking water supplies ([e.g., a soil trap]). Well, now, if you have construction [in that area], and say your construction workers go out to dig a hole and they dig through that contamination, now you’ve exposed construction workers to this pollution – [and this could happen years after the initial contamination event]. 

[Another pathway is] air migration. [Was the pollutant] a gas? And again, that’s going to be dependent on proximity to human or other environments. The scoring system has a nice mathematical property, so if [the site] scores really high on one of one of these [areas (e.g., human proximity)], and really low on everything else, it could still be a high risk site. So let’s say you have a low low amount of mercury that was spilled directly into a stream that people fish from, so that could be an extremely sensitive event. And you need to immediately close down the stream because people are immediately going to be exposed to mercury. So this is [why shutting down TOXMAP] is an example of scientific suppression. But it’s tricky because what the Trump Administration has done is they disabled the TOXMAP database, which is the linking together of 12 data sources. But those other 12 data sources still exist independently. So, really, what they’ve done is they’ve slowed down the scientific community ability to track, rank, and understand pollution sites in America. 

So I have a statement here from a Newsweek article from the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI). “The dismantling of such a usable public platform connecting health and environmental data certainly accords with the EPA’s own declared strategies, of seeking to exclude so many environmental health studies from policy-making and to neglect or defund on-going environmental health investigations.” 

And so that is what the EPA under the Donald Trump administration is seeking. They have openly declared that they will purposely exclude scientific studies in policy making decisions. [We can see] the end result of that in the TOXMAP, and that’s just one example I [looked at]. If I go through this, I might find other examples [worth talking about], but I just wanted to get this out really quick since it happened recently. I hope everybody had a good holiday season and, on communications and things like that website, there’s a website up for this. It’s iiress.com. That’s the Institute for Integrative Research in Earth and Space Science, which is going to be the overarching, structure for which the Planetary News is operating within, which is the media arm of the research organization, and so we’ll have more on that. That’s Bryan White with the Planetary News Radio signing off.

The Planetary News Radio – Episode 14: Impeachment and Science in America – Introducing the TruthScore

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio with your host, Bryan White. I’m here recording today outside in a little bit of rain in Corvallis, Oregon. It is December 24th 2019 so that would make it Christmas Eve, among other things. And I am recording today because I actually have time to record finally. It’s been several months since I’ve had time and a lot has happened since, not just in science news, but in the world, in politics and in life. And so I’ll start today with the big world news. 

We know that Donald Trump has now been impeached, which makes him the third president in the history of the United States to be impeached. But it’s different. It’s different than the other ones, which I suppose every [impeachment] is different. And it’s different for a couple of reasons, or at least a couple of major reasons. Probably the first biggest reason that is different is that the evidence that impeachable offenses were committed is not really disputed. We know that these things occurred in terms of the factual, physical trail of evidence and occurrence of events that happened. There’s no question that Trump had contact with Ukraine and that this series of events unfolded in the way that it did. There’s some questions as to actual transcripts of phone calls or not, which is not really a big deal. The overall intent and the procedural occurrence of what was done is very clear. This is quid pro quo, where a United States president asked a foreign country to investigate a political rival. 

I was trying to explain this [situation] while I was talking to this with some friends of mine, and I basically [used this analogy]. Imagine if Thomas Thomas Jefferson had hired mercenaries, say Prussian mercenaries to investigate Benjamin Franklin, or something like that. If there would have been a point in time where Thomas Jefferson had hired French or Prussians or Native Americans, you know, some foreign entity, to investigate Benjamin Franklin, that would have been a major historical event. I think people would have said, “Well, that was unacceptable and probably went against [the Constitution]”. I mean, I’m being extreme in the example of Thomas Jefferson, but certainly this would have gone against what we thought the founders were creating as presidential. And so I think you’ll see Trump being the least “presidential” president, at least in the modern history of the United States. 

It does [make clear] all of those areas where we kind of expect people to follow tradition, and then all of a sudden, they don’t. We’ve learned a lot about what is really law in America.The other reason why the impeachment is different or unique is that [we are] really going back and forth between a constitutional crisis. We thought there was going to be one and there wasn’t. And then there was, and then it wasn’t. And now it seems like we’re at that point again because you have the Senate basically refusing to give a real trial for Trump. And so again, the example there is, say, [the trial of] O.J. Simpson. Popular belief is that O.J. Simpson was guilty of the crimes he was investigated for, but he had a trial. There were witnesses, there was evidence presented, and he was acquitted. And so, as the defendant, obviously O.J. Simpson believed, or presented [to believe], that he was innocent. In the impeachment trial, Trump presents that he is innocent. But O.J. still had a [full] trial. [Granted] a murder investigation is very different [than an impeachment inquiry], murder trials happen all the time, [so their procedures are well established]. Impeachments don’t happen all the time, but we all agree that impeachments should have a fair trial. 

What we’re seeing now is Senate Majority Leader McConnell is basically saying up front that it doesn’t matter what happens in the trial. Trump will be acquitted. Imagine if O.J. Simpson had gone to trial and the judge announced the beginning, “It doesn’t matter what you say. All of the evidence that you present any witnesses that you call. I am going to acquit O.J. Simpson.” And so there’s no reason for a trial [if the end has already been decided]. So imagine if a judge had said that, that is the death of the justice system in America. So what we’re seeing is the Senate, as a leadership entity in the United States, is creating a precedent for a judicial entity to decide the outcome of a trial before it happens, and that is a violation of the Constitution. You’re innocent until proven guilty in America, and so we have a right to a trial. And so really denying Trump a trial is taking away his right to a trial. 

And of course, it works out in the favor of a person who knows they’re guilty to be declared innocent before the trial happens. But imagine if, in another case, say, a circumstantial evidence case. Say someone had had drugs found in their car or something like that where you really don’t know before the trial, you need the trial because you need to do the investigation. Imagine if judges began declaring someone guilty before the trial and said, “It doesn’t matter.” This is a major constitutional crisis, I believe, and this is relevant to science because we can’t do science, we can’t function as a society in the midst of a constitutional crisis. We need stability to do science, and so that’s part of my job. My job is to bring about stability and create the atmosphere that science can be done in. 

And so that’s what leads me to my next development. The major thing that I’ve been working on, which is my truth score algorithm, which when I initially thought about it, when I initially had this idea, I did think that it would be a truth score, but it’s more than that now it’s been released. It’s different, but I’ll still use the word truth score. In my reading of the primary literature I looked at the history of deception detection, a linguistic science of which the major applications are in law enforcement [and criminal justice]. In this review I found that there had been studies done where linguistic patterns associated with deception were found. And so I spent a lot of time thinking of a way to scan news articles so that I could score these articles using these metrics. 

And so I’ll talk a little bit about some of the metrics. It’s not super complicated. It seems complicated when you add it all up together, but individually, it’s not really difficult to understand. The first metric is a complexity measurement. That’s the Shannon Index, which comes from a strict information theory background. The Shannon Index is a measure of complexity. You can use the Shannon Index to understand the complexity of an ecosystem or the complexity of a sentence. Since it’s a general information theory [formula], [it can be used on] any type of information. One of the things I found is that deceptive language will tend to be less complex, and truthful language will tend to be more complex. A good example is probably this podcast, which is probably using a higher level of complexity language than might be used if someone were trying to be purposely deceptive. My goal is to inform and so I’m using robust language so that you can understand what I’m saying. If someone is being deceptive, they might be leaving out details, and that’s where you see a reduction in complexity.

That leads me to the next metric, which is another information theory metric. You could also use this on ecosystems or language: it is an Evenness index. An evenness index is going to tell you what’s the spread of the type of something in the measurement. So, for example, if you have an ecosystem that has 500 worms and one rabbit, that’s not very even because most of the population is worms. Everything’s concentrated in worms, [and so the local population isn’t evenly distributed amongst the possible species]. The language example would be, for example, a sentence that had 10 nouns and one verb. Well, that wouldn’t be a very evenly spread sentence [in terms of grammatical components], so that’s telling me something about the language that’s being used. Either it’s non-standard grammar or it’s not really a sentence or something’s going on [in terms of truthfulness]. And again, the idea is that it’s hiding the ability to fact check to understand what’s being said in the sentence [by using uneven grammar]. [What this suggests is] that sentences with higher evenness are again being less deceptive. 

The third metric is actually the closest thing to a truth score in the system, and this is actually matching the grammar of sentences to a database of known deceptive sentences. I have a database of Amazon reviews and hotel reviews where participants in a study were either told to write a fake story or told to write a true story, and so we know that we know which stories are lies in which stories were true, and these stories also have a positive or negative impact. You could have a deceptive positive review, which might be someone who’s trying to pay a writer to get his or her hotel ranked higher than others. You might have a deceptive negative review. Maybe it’s someone’s paying a competitor to down rank that competitor’s hotel. You have truthful, positive or negative reviews. Someone had a truthful negative experience or a truthful, positive experience. So again, we’re saying that in terms of science, a truthful, positive ([or neutral sentiment]) sentence is closer to the truth. In other words, scientific language tends to avoid negatives or emotional words. In critical thinking, you see a separation between logos, which is logic, and pathos, which is emotion. You want to say in scientific thinking that we minimize the pathos and maximize the logos, and ethos, which is credibility. 

Then there’s a final metric, which is a similar to the positive or negative sentiment analysis, which is the objectivity or subjectivity ranking. Another type of sentiment is objective or subjective. Using clear terms, clear language that is, again, not hiding, not using lots of extra adverbs and adjectives [that dilute] descriptive language and don’t give a clear meaning. Some words are much more concise and clear in their meanings and others. So a sentence with higher objectivity might be considered again, more truthful. The overall “TruthScore” is just the sum of these metrics. A higher complexity, higher evenness, higher truthfulness, higher positivity, and a higher objectivity sentence is going to score higher on the TruthScore, and a lower [sum of scores] will score lower overall. 

I’ve done this [analysis] now on a couple thousand news articles, and I’ve seen a very consistent pattern amongst them. I’m publishing a list of news organizations that publish feeds related to science, [and their rank via the TruthScore]. I’m seeing a [pretty clear] pattern. What you see is that, there’s a couple of organizations that are consistently highly ranked. Most notably, the BBC, NPR, WIRED, and the Guardian. Surprisingly The Daily Maily UK [was also highly ranked, which is strange because the Daily Mail] might be generally be considered a tabloid in its political news, but maybe in their science news they might have really good writing. I think that’s fascinating because that tells me people are looking at politics as entertainment. But when it comes to science, they want to know the real truth. And that is amazing to me, because the truth itself is fascinating. I want to learn more about the universe, and so it’s telling me this is good. There are people out there that want to learn more, and then you see some of the consistently lower ranked news organizations (e.g., Fox News), which we historically know has weaker science news. 

And so the question arose, “Why is Fox News consistently ranked the lowest out of 20 or so major broadcasting networks and science news?” And the [follow-up] question is, “Are they being purposely deceptive or what’s going on?” And so, so far, it looks like Fox News isn’t being purposely deceptive. They just don’t dedicate a lot of resources to science. And so the take home message there is that if you only watch Fox News, you’re not getting good exposure to science [writing]. You’re not getting good exposure to science and again, it tells me if people are okay with that, then people who are just watching Fox News are ok with having poor exposure to science. They don’t have that curiosity. They don’t have that drive to understand the world and learn new things that are true that we all agree or true.It tells me something about the[Fox News] readership, and as a [journalistic] source. So again, what does this boil down to? I would make the recommendation not to use Fox News as a source for science because I know off the bat they’re not dedicating resources to it. 

That would lead me to believe that, while they are publishing science articles, that I don’t know what the decisions are being made on which articles are being published. So there could be some bias there, and in science, you want to publish a diverse array of articles. So again, I’ll keep investigating this. And when I’ve learned more specific facts, I’ll share them. And then just one more interesting piece. It’s funny, because BuzzFeed news again is similar to Daily mail UK, you would think it is like a tabloid, but, BuzzFeed news consistently ranks higher than Fox News, in it’s science reporting. And so again, it tells you they’re people who are reading these tabloids for entertainment, they still have this desire to have science news, and maybe they see politics as more of entertainment. Whereas Fox News is presenting politics as facts and science as the entertainment, which to me, is flipped. And with that, I won’t say any more on this broadcast. So I hope you enjoyed this podcast and continue learning about science and searching for the truth. That’s Bryan White with the Planetary News signing off.