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Science Wednesday: EPA and World Statistics Day

2010 October 20

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

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.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. armansyahardanis permalink
    October 20, 2010

    20.10.2010. really my love number; Zero is unlimitted, one is God and two are genius mankind. Today is “2″ describe “0″1″, that they are statistics.
    Barry, You are one (not 1) of who are Genius Mankind…… Congratulations World Statistics Day !!!!

  2. realalien permalink
    October 21, 2010

    I am really interested in the legal case of prosecuting the automaker.
    Can I get the basic literacy on how the statistics was used as an evidence, it will be very helpful for readers like me who comes from China where the car industry is booming and citizens have no place asking for a pollution control report.

  3. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    October 24, 2010

    Statistics play key supporting roles in environmental and many other important improvements. We need statistics for transit to show how much cleaner and efficient it is to use for the daily commute than the individual car with one person inside. People would use transit alot more if shown the statistical side by sides for transit and cars on fuel use, cost, and emissions. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

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