Science Wednesday: EPA and World Statistics Day

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By Barry D. Nussbaum

Today, October 20, 2010 is World Statistics Day. Gosh, that might not be noteworthy for most, but as EPA’s chief statistician, it has a large significance to me. Today EPA is inundated with data arriving by satellite and monitoring devices as well as mounds of administrative data. Plenty there to roll up one’s sleeves and analyze for important relationships. But that wasn’t always the case. Early on, we had to settle for very little data, but what we did with it was crucial. I learned that I never met a datum I didn’t like. One very vivid situation, a legal case, sticks out in my mind.

Early in my career, EPA had some indications that a large number of motor vehicles (pretty big muscle cars with 360 and 400 cubic inch engines) had excessive carbon monoxide emissions. Many meetings with the auto manufacturer proved fruitless, so the enforcement case ended up with the United States as the plaintiff in administrative law court. In preparation for the case, I realized that the “United States” did not mean that the attorney general was the lead prosecutor; it was a young lawyer in our own division. And, as for the statistical expert, that was me. With lots of interaction and preparation among EPA’s legal, technical, policy, analytic, and statistical employees, we WON the six-week court case. The manufacturer had to recall 208,000 vehicles. And how many samples did we have to win this case – – – ten. Yep, with data on only ten cars we proved victorious. I knew that ten was enough, but convincing a lay judge took every adrenaline kick I could muster.

The case was a huge success for EPA. For me it demonstrated the power of statistics; but for the country, this victory was even larger. One outcome was a large deterrent effect for the automakers. They built cars more carefully with respect to emissions after that case. And when you realize on this World Statistics Day that there are 230 million vehicles in the US traveling 240 billion miles annually, the fact that each one is just a little bit cleaner makes a BIG difference. I’d like to think I had something to do with that.
And why did they pick today for World Statistics Day? Using the international notation of day/month/year, today is 20.10.2010. You gotta love numbers!

About the author: Barry D. Nussbaum joined EPA in 1975. He has worked in both the Air Office and the Policy Office prior to becoming the Chief Statistician of the Agency in 2006.

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