Unknown Knowns

The Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary defines SCIENCE as “ the state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.”  That seems very reasonable to me.

As Donald Rumsfield so memorably pointed out as we marched toward starting a war in Iraq, there are known knowns, known unknowns, and the problematic unknown unknowns.  Science can help us with all of these.  That’s why humans have embraced science.  We, as a species, like to know things.  What science can’t help us with are the very, very problematic unknown knowns—that is, the things we know but insist on acting as if we don’t know them.

Unknown knowns—the intentional act of choosing ignorance or misunderstanding—that’s a failure of leadership.   The advantage of knowing is that you can then act in ways that reflect that knowledge.   Sometimes, however, decision-makers don’t want to act in ways that reflect knowledge.  Sometimes, decision-makers (read: politicians and regulators) want to be ignorant, or act as if they are ignorant.  That, I believe, is what happens in the world of air pollution policy—a strong desire to ignore the world of known knowns and instead to embrace the world of unknown knowns.

There are lots of examples of the effort of air policy decision-makers to live in the world of unknown knowns.  One was the Bush Administration’s refusal to acknowledge the science about exposure to ozone.  Science made it clear that the current “health-based” standard for ozone exposure was too high and should be lowered significantly.  The Bush Administration decided—despite the known knowns—not to set the ozone standard at the level that science established is needed to protect health.   Instead, that Administration embraced the world of unknown knowns,  pretending  no significant adjustment for the ozone standard was necessary.

Now, here’s a new example of unknown knowns.  The health impacts of living near high-traffic roadways.  When I say “near” I mean within about 300 meters; “high-traffic” is about 100,000 trips per day.  So, the health impacts of living within about 300 meters of a roadway that carries about 100,000 vehicles per day.  There is gobs of science about these health impacts (and yes, “gobs” is a real word—Merriam-Webster defines it as “a large amount —usually used in plural <gobs of money>”.  Merriam-Webster’s choice to illustrate “gobs” with the phrase “gobs of money” does raise an interesting question—which is more likely to be relevant “gobs of science” or “gobs of money”?  Too bad that’s not just a rhetorical question…)

Anyway, back to the gobs of science.  For the purposes of this post, I’ll point out three studies (I’ll add more studies to this site soon):

  • A study conducted in Long Beach and Riverside shows that the total cost of asthma due to pollution is much higher than past traditional risk assessments have indicated because those past studies have failed to acknowledge the growing evidence that exposure to traffic-related air pollution is a cause of asthma and a trigger for attacks. (2012)
  • Older men living near roadways in Boston were found to have decreased cognitive function, even after controlling for a wide range of things (2011)
  • Researchers examining health-care data on nearly 5,000 pregnant women in California found that African-Americans were about three times more likely to miscarry if they lived within a half-block of a freeway or busy boulevard than if they resided near lighter traffic. Among nonsmokers, living near busy roads increased their odds of miscarriage about 50 percent. (2009)

So, you’re getting my point here, right? Living next to busy roadways can cause very serious problems.  But as regulators (and industry) love to say:  “the dose makes the poison.”   Well, here’s where we get back to the known knowns and the unknown knowns.  We don’t know—because the regulators refuse to know—how much worse the air pollution is near the high-traffic roadways in Southern California.  We do know that about 1.8 million people in the South Coast Air Basin live within 300 meters of these roadways.   But we don’t really know what’s going on there.  Given the fact that science is telling us that we should know more about these exposures and how they impact health—right now a known unknown—we were shocked when we asked the South Coast Air Quality Management District to monitor air pollution in 3 representative areas so we can know more about exposures to air pollution there, and they refused.  Then, we asked Jared Blumenfeld, the Regional Administrator at the U.S. EPA, to require monitors.  He also refused.  Unknown knowns.  No one has to address unknowns—even when they should know.

Well, based on other things I’ve blogged here, I’m sure you know the result of those refusals.  We sued. We sued the U.S. EPA because their refusal to require air pollution monitors in these locations violates both the Clean Air Act requirement that everyone in the region’s air must meet the health-based standards, including the 1.8 million people who live near high-traffic roadways; and because refusing to monitor air quality for these 1.8 million people violate the U.S. EPA’s own regulations.

Administrator Blumenfeld—your unknown knowns are other’s known knowns.  The science tells us what people know–they are sick and dying from air pollution.  The science also tells us that it may be much worse for people living near high-traffic roadways.  The known unknown is how serious is the problem.   Not knowing is a failure of leadership.

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One Comment on "Unknown Knowns"

  1. Bruce Jennings
    29/02/2012 at 3:20 pm Permalink

    So glad to see more of your wonderful writing! Especially relating different kinds of “gobs”.

    I realize this is not news for you, but doesn’t this damage have a relevant and important nexus with the AB 32 auction proceeds? Perhaps this should be part of the budget subcommittee agenda (which must begin fairly soon) for directing some of this money?

    Yes, I find the auction odious, but that’s not the point for addressing this specific issue; even though it could prompt the kinds of things that should be occurring….

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