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California Air Resources Board Uses Strange Statistics, UCLA Fires Scientist

The story (related in full at HotAir.org) is long and tangled, but the short version is this.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) wanted to regulate diesel truck fumes, inherently believing them bad. So it sought the guidance of CARB employee Hien Tran, a fellow who received a PhD in “Applied Statistics” after sending in the proper number of Captain Crunch cereal boxtops (plus $1,000 smackeroos) to Thornhill University (“75 years of active contribution to human knowledge and higher education”1).

Yet somehow Tran forgot his degree’s origin and told his employers it came from UC Davis. It must have been the same sort of mental defect which allowed Tran to lead-author a paper which “proved” that diesel trucks caused “2,000 premature deaths” per year in the most populous left coast state. I remind readers that cause is a strong word.

This was the scientific evidence CARB needed. New regulations and rules and bureaucratic oversight and fees and requirements and forms and inspections and much more was passed into law. All was well.

Meanwhile, James Enstrom, an environmental sciences professor and researcher at UCLA, who went through the old-fashioned process of earning his PhD, wrote his own paper which said that diesel fumes and deaths had no relation. Since Enstrom reviewed every possible source, he wondered how Tran could come to the opposite conclusion using the same data.

This was how Enstrom discovered Tran to be a liar. He dutifully relayed his discoveries about Tran and his own published work to CARB who proceeded to—wait for it—ignore it. That’s not quite true. They set it aside until after they had passed the new regulations, after which the CARB Chairman Mary Nichols (a lawyer) admitted Tran’s fraud. But the new regulations were already law. What more could she do?

Tran received a fine and demotion but kept his job (and cushy California retirement package). Via open disclosure laws, California has released Tran’s disciplinary letter, in which it states the State stands by Tran’s results (“both their methodology and the rigorous peer and scientific review process”), though the State admonishes him for lying about his credentials. Tran does have a Master’s in statistics from UC Davis and did begin the PhD program there, but dropped out. His PhD advisor was contacted and said he had no idea what became of Tran.

Enstrom’s bosses at UCLA did not appreciate his meddling into settled science (we imagine he was told “The debate is over”) and so they fired him. Yet before Enstrom’s “controversial” work was generally known, UCLA School of Medicine Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs Richard H. Gold was able to say, in an Entrom’s annual review, “Dr. Enstrom’s research is fully aligned with the department’s mission.”

But after Enstrom complained about Tran and CARB, UCLA fired him saying Enstrom’s “research failed to accord with the department’s mission.” Surely coincidentally, Chairman Nichols and the second-ranking member of CARB are also UCLA professors.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) took Enstrom’s case and has asked UCLA to reinstate Enstrom. FIRE’s website has a trove of documents on the matter.

UCLA, being a “UC”, receives a bunch of money from the State of California, including various grants and contracts from CARB. UCLA’s decision to fire Enstrom could not have been easy. They had to balance the need for integrity and the need for cash flow. With an enormous number of administrators, each with large staffs (I believe they outnumber full-time professors), UCLA could not afford to let the flow become a trickle. Thus, regardless of whatever other reasons they had, UCLA at least did the fiscally responsible thing.

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1Intriguingly, their site is no longer up; I used Google Cache to retrieve the quote. Whois tells us the site belongs to Thornhill University at 155-8171 Yonge Street, Thornhill, Ontario L3T 2C6. It is administered by Fariba Mosleh, faribamosleh@yahoo.com. I emailed Mosleh to ask whether Tran’s case had anything to do with the site closing. I did not receive a reply.

20 thoughts on “California Air Resources Board Uses Strange Statistics, UCLA Fires Scientist Leave a comment

  1. Even Duke University – much reviled for its handling of the Anil Potti case (and with good reason) – managed to do the ‘right thing’ when they were confronted with a similar revelation.

    Look at the Duke case and the present case – virtually a particle-anti-particle twin.

    Star researcher Anil Potti stated falsely in his job and fellowship application that he recieved a Rhodes scholarship. When eventually found out, Duke fired *him*.

    But clinical trials based on Potti’s research were kept running, as long as they could, even in the face of published statistical evidence which clearly demonstrated that Potti’s work was wrong.

    (story here: http://nigguraths.wordpress.com/2011/01/21/data-availability-cancer-climate/)

    Here we have a degree qualification falsification, carried out by a person publishing dubious science. The falsification is OK, the guy keeps his job, the science is ok, but the guy who showed up the stuff for it is, gets fired!

    science, schmience, …we do what we want to do. We kill off patients with actual cancer by enrolling them in bunkum trials, but we will save the ‘citizens of the world’ from diesel fumes.

  2. “2,000 premature deaths”

    How do you determine if a death is premature? For example, George Burns the comedian smoked all his life and died at age 100. Was his death premature, mature or postmature and how do you tell?

  3. The decline and collapse of Western civilization isn’t pretty. Economic implosion, mass hysteria, and even urban cannibalism are likely before the nadir is achieved. Higher ed is a cruel farce, but only the tip of the iceberg. My advice: armor up, hunker down, and try to survive the coming hemoclysms.

  4. Dr. Briggs – have you been able to read and evaluate both analyses? Seems like it would make a great post comparing what you find to be proper and/or improper statistical analyses. Thanks for yout interesting blog.

  5. You are all missing the point. This is not a story about science. It is not a story about fraudulent credentials. It is not a story about air pollution, etc. It IS a story about making evil, stinky diesel trucks pay more taxes and taking more of them off our pristine roads. THAT is a goal all red-blooded Americans should be able to get behind and support. Please pay closer attention after this. Your minds wander too easily, I think.

  6. 49erDweet,
    To me, this is a story about how we believe everything we read! I have to admit that I don’t click on the Hot Air or Mail Online! ^_^

  7. Mike D. says:
    4 April 2011 at 1:10 pm

    “The decline and collapse of Western civilization isn’t pretty.”

    How could this NOT be evidence of the end of western civilization? The only possible way is if at least ONE person, reading that question, didn’t automatically believe the question was rhetorical.
    I get the fun at laughing at how ridiculous it all is. Really, I get it. (And I also get how nearly pointless any attempt to rectify this may seem.) Still, I’m talking to a bunch of really smart guys here and I ask this seriously: what do we have to do to make sure that Enstrom is reinstated and that the people who have arranged for him to be fired are turfed instead?
    Small steps at first perhaps. I have written to the UCLA Office of Ombuds Services to ask if this is an issue that they can look at.
    Suggestions?

  8. Mike T,

    I haven’t seen them, no. But if you (or anybody) can find and send them to me, I’ll take a look.

  9. A quasi-government agency i once worked for needed a 10% reduction in force. It wasn’t “quasi” enough to do it the old fashioned way and have a lay-off. So one of the brighter lights suggested that there be a resume/application check which would include degree verification, confirmation of prior employment where there was any, criminal record check in current and previous states of residence, and so forth. There was some slack given if requested, but serious misrepresentation meant out. It worked, they got the 10% which turned out to include some of the mainstays of the place.

  10. I wanna get a PhD in statistics. Where the heck is Thornhill University? OMG, don’t tell me it doesn’t exist.

  11. Dear chopbox,

    For starters you might wish to fire the regents, president, all the vice-presidents, all the other administrators and the dept. chairs at UCLA. Prune the faculty, too. While you’re at it, might as well impeach Gov Moonbeam and the entire CA legislature as well. Ashcan CARB, too.

    But will that really solve the problem (a rhetorical question you can answer yourself)? What IS the actual problem in your opinion, in a nutshell?

  12. Anyone read the WHO “fact sheet”?

    “Poor indoor air quality may pose a risk to the health of over half of the world’s population. In homes where biomass fuels and coal are used for cooking and heating, PM levels may be 10–50 times higher than the guideline values.”

    So this air pollution they are accusing of killing 2,000,000 people is really just smoke from cooking fires?

    Statistically, if they didn’t cook their food, what would be the death rate versus the dead from smoke inhalation?

  13. Bruce,

    That two million number has been popping up in the media for years and is just too “round” to be taken as gospel. Chasing down the source material is a daunting task but as you have learned, some of the topmost claims (ie. indoor polllution) point to simpler, less costly and more effective remedies than re-engineering the world’s energy supplies.

    Cooking with biomass may be sustainable* but it ain’t necessarily healthy.

    * For some definitions of sustainable.

  14. Dear Speed,

    Sustainable but not healthy? Depends on how you define “health”.

    Campfires with cooked bones found in Swartkrans cave, situated in the Sterkfontein Valley ~30 miles NW of Johannesburg, have been dated to 1.6 mya (million years ago). The first culinary artistes were probably Homo erectus, although use of fire for cooking by Australopithecus robustus cannot be ruled out. Wrangham hypothesizes that fire was a central evolutionary force toward larger human brains: cooked foods aided digestion and prevented food poisoning, and cooking was a social activity that increased social interaction between individuals leading to language, culture, and eventually the Food Channel.

    New evidence presented by Roebroeks and Villa suggests that Neanderthals used fire for tool making (as well as warmth, light, and cooking) ~400 kya, but their late date is controversial. Most historians of fire use peg pyrotechnology much earlier. See

    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/03/07/1018116108.full.pdf+html

  15. Mike D. says:
    4 April 2011 at 8:57 pm

    Dear chopbox,

    What IS the actual problem in your opinion, in a nutshell?

    ***
    The problem appears to be that we have lost the ability to cut out rot (or pull weeds, pick your own metaphor). We’re still pretty good at identifying it, but there is a sense that there is so much of it or that what is there is so difficult to get at, that it is pointless to even try. In the same way, if cancer riddled my body, I might agree to abstain from chemotherapy, as this attempt at a cure is not costless.

    Perhaps we have been so outraged at all that has gone on before that the latest scandals only serve to make us weary. Perhaps we need to move past our outrage, and realize, like gardeners, that it is pointless to rage against the weeds, but regular attendance out in the cabbage patch is required.

    If this latter, then why do we so defeated? Don’t know how which is weed and which is flower? (Doubt this applies here.) Don’t know how to get at it? (No reply yet from UCLA Office of Ombuds Services and don’t know if this is the right approach anyway. No suggestions from anybody on how to move forward.) Is it just a lemons problem, where we would prefer it were somebody else who gets their hands dirty? (Maybe we need to hire it out.) It’s not directly affecting me and “Modern Family” is on tonight? I’m not trying to guilt you into doing something: in fact, I AM you and need a good kick in the pants myself. But seriously, are we going to put up with this crap?

  16. got a reply, which goes a little way in explaining why stuff like this can happen:

    ***

    Thank you for your inquiry. The Office of Ombuds Services is a resource that provides assistance in resolving conflict, disputes or complaints on an informal basis to all members of the UCLA community. The office is neutral and confidential. Please call 310/825-7627 to schedule a time to speak with an Ombudsperson.

    Respectfully,

    Brenda
    Brenda Woods-Patin
    Brenda Woods-Patin
    Intake Coordinator and Office Manager
    UCLA Office of Ombuds Services
    http://www.ombuds.ucla.edu

    Please remember that e-mail is not appropriate for confidential communications. Due to the confidential, neutral, informal and independent function of the Office of Ombuds Services, communication with the office does not constitute notice to the University.

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