Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Overton Window.

Glenn Beck (first and last time he'll be mentioned here, I figure) wrote a novel in 2010 called "The Overton Window." I haven't read it, and don't intend to -- it's #30,293 on Amazon, and this review should discourage anyone tempted to pick it up.

But Beck's choice of title broadened knowledge of the eponymous concept. It's named after Joe Overton, the former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan. Overton thought that policy debates are usually limited by a "window" of public acceptance, and that ideas outside the window are rejected without examination. Overton argued that advocating "unthinkable" ideas could "move" the window, thus making slightly less radical ideas seem more acceptable.

Which is where I turn in trying to understand why the Sonoma Index-Tribune published this piece by Roger Hartley.

The paper's decision seems forgivable at first. Roger looks like a Sonoma kind of a guy -- his LinkedIn profile suggests he's a silver-haired outdoorsy engineer. His appearance and background would make most people give him a +1 on  credibility.  But I offer that more as an excuse for the paper than as a reason --  because publishing his piece is the equivalent of the Index-Tribune forwarding the "5¢ surcharge on every e-mail" urban legend to thousands of inboxes.

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Hartley alleges that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District is "[a]n uncontrolled bureaucracy [that] has criminalized our quiet enjoyment of life and in true Orwellian fashion has turned neighbor against neighbor with an anonymous tip hotline to report any suspected criminal activity. From a Constitutional point of view, the real criminals are BAAQMD and the 22 politicians that sit on its board."

"Q40a. There needs to be stricter laws and
regulations to protect the environment?"
Time series, 1987-2012, The Pew Research Center
available online at http://tinyurl.com/l7u3z32
That's a pretty remarkable charge. I mean, clean air's kind of a big deal -- since 1987, essentially every Democrat in America, and even half of all Republicans, have agreed that we need stricter laws to protect the environment.  The San Francisco Bay Area is something of a Democratic stronghold, so finding strong environmental protection here should be akin to discovering that water is wet, or there's coal in Newcastle.  Claiming that local politicians and government officials acting to protect the environment are breaking the law means there'd have to be some pretty remarkable evidence of malfeasance to prove that, let alone credibly charge it.

And Mr. Hartley duly provides a certain amount of innuendo to support his allegation -- specifically, that the location of the BAAQMD air quality monitoring station in Napa, California was deliberately chosen to create, in effect, "false positives" concerning air pollution, in an effort by government officials to justify the existence of their jobs.  However, Mr. Hartley doesn't actually include the evidence -- instead, he suggests his readers do the research themselves:
"a former employee of BAAQM has alleged that the system for monitoring air quality is intentionally rigged to produce more alerts. For example, the air sensor in Napa is on top of a Mexican bakery a few feet downwind from a BBQ restaurant ... (Google 'whistleblower BAAQMD')."
So, the readers of this blog will be familiar with my taking such claims and running down the evidence to support them.  Sure enough, I followed Mr. Hartley's advice, and ran the Google search.  The first result that popped up was from a Patch.com site -- the one in San Bruno, California.  The Patch.com article was helpful for a lot of reasons, but the key one is that the Patch.com article gave the address of the monitoring station.  

It's at 2552 Jefferson.

Now, that address doesn't mean much to most people, but it rang a bell for me.  Following the hunch, I opened up Google Maps and took a look. And I immediately discovered that there are 2,158 reasons why that's exactly the place the BAAQMD should locate its air quality monitoring station -- because the site is across the street from Napa High.

I have a hard time imagining a better place to monitor air quality in Napa County than across from the flagship high school of the largest city.  I mean, there are a lot of kids there, pretty much all the time, and protecting the air that kids breathe seems like it's probably priority number one.  Hell, I'm just going to toss the mediated speech at this point.  It's so obviously priority number one I can't believe the point would be seriously challenged by anyone.

But, of course, I wanted to make sure that I really did have this issue pinned down, and so I went and checked the Patch.com site's citation to the evidence in support of the "malfeasance" argument.  As seems to be the case from time to time, the link didn't work (I have no idea why newspapers have so many problems with getting hyperlinks right, but it comes up frequently).  After some sleuthing, I managed to track down the "evidence" the anonymous Napa source cites -- it's this PDF, starting at page 265.

Don't worry, I'm not going to make anyone download a 13.64 MB file just to see a page buried in the middle -- I pulled out the relevant documents.  There are two letters, the first of which is a 21-page request from Eric Stevenson (B.S., Chemical Engineering, UC Davis, 1986), the Director of Technical Services at BAAQMD, which was sent to the EPA.  The second is a 3-page response from Matt Lakin (Ph.D., Atmospheric Chemistry, thesis from UC Irvine, 2000), granting the request.

Even casual perusal of the correspondence (I'm talking about page 2 of the request) makes clear that the Napa monitoring station has been in the same location since 1972. Further, the point of the request from BAAQMD to EPA was that the station, as sited, would understate pollution due to scrubbing effects from ozone reacting with nitrogen monoxide emitted from vehicles on Jefferson Street.

OK.  For anyone that really wants to knock themselves out with the science behind this, and impress themselves with the extraordinarily careful work our government officials undertake when protecting the environment, reading these documents should substantially bolster your trust in your government. These are guys with top-notch educations in hard sciences doing the work necessary to justify their procedures to, well, everyone.  And along comes this editorial writer, Roger Hartley, and he accuses them of being criminals.  

Now, I can see that work being criticized by another chemical engineer, or another Ph.D. in chemistry, sure. Such a criticism would probably thoroughly engage the technical analysis of Mr. Stevenson, and point out some issue or another missed by Dr. Lakin.  But Hartley's neither a chemical engineer nor a Ph.D. in chemistry -- he's a civil engineer.  And Hartley doesn't engage the evidence at all.

It doesn't stop there. Hartley takes the crazy and puts it on stilts, and accuses Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin of being criminals.  Presumably this is because they sit on the board of the BAAQMD, and they therefore supervised (!) Mr. Stevenson's request to the EPA ... that the BAAQMD be allowed to continue operating a station that's existed for forty years in the same location? Across from a high school.  Where children study. Because the air kids breathe is, like, not relevant to Napa's air quality or something.

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Trust in government is the ball game.  I blogged about that last summer, fairly extensively.  If you decide to go after the public's trust, you better be right.  And we count on our newspaper to require a basic level of evidentiary support before allowing anyone to use its pages to start calling elected officials and dedicated scientists criminals.
"Confidence in Institutions"
Gallup, June 1-4, 2013,
available at http://tinyurl.com/m8dl5vg

To me, this piece looks like nothing more than an attempt to move the Overton window, to suggest that, well, hey, of course, the claim that Susan Gorin is a criminal is wrong, but perhaps we just shouldn't vote for her because of her misconduct as a member of BAAQMD. Or because she's anti-growth, or some other specious, trumped up charge.  And pieces written for that reason, to game the public's trust, without any evidence, have no place in a newspaper of record.

It may very well be that the response to this piece is nothing at all (or, perhaps a half-hearted nod to editorial "balance"). But our newspaper is an institution we all should be able to trust, even if, in practice, as the graph to the right shows, most people do not. But where, as here, a piece is published that is fairly characterized as a hit piece on a sitting supervisor, to justify calling her a "criminal" without any, any basis whatsoever, well, that just doesn't help the political process at all.

I really think the Index-Tribune should be ashamed. 

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