When smog was prevalent, it was easy to see. Particulate matter 10 microns in size hover in the air, the famous London Fog was not natural moisture, it was PM10 pollution. In one event, nature combined with smog in London to kill 12,000 people.

After that, wealthier nations engaged in pollution control, and then PM10 and its health issues began to dissipate. In the 1990s and with much cleaner air, pollution activists and allied epidemiologists began to 'define pollution down.' PM2.5 was suddenly the new goalpost, they said, and showed air quality maps with red and orange to prove it.

It looks scary. On such air maps, it may appear there is 400 percent more pollution now even though the air is cleaner than it's been in 100 years but it is only science in the way 'any pathogen at any level gives us a reason to worry about pathology' activism is. If I tell you to grade my writing on a scale of 9 to 10 I can get a much more positive response than if I hand you the usual range of 1 to 10 but that is what the change to PM2.5 did. It was a distinction without an air quality difference.

The real problem with "defining deviancy down" when it comes to scaring people about the air is that doing so requires scaring people about invisible pollution - and scaring people about ghosts has impacts on vaccines, food, and lots of other fields of science. PM2.5 can't be seen. Your local TV station does not have an electron microscope, TV personalities just use government maps that basically multiple real pollution by 4. You might look outside and see a sunny day, maybe a little haze, while people who still believe government knows what they are talking about will reflexively say it's preventing deaths.

Yet no one has been saved. By 2007 claims that PM2.5 was killing people had been soundly debunked so epidemiologists pivoted. It suddenly was "correlated" to IQ in kids, premature births, obesity, even the taste of coffee. 

That's right, epidemiologists wrote with a straight face that invisible particles might have 'caused' you to go into labor a week early.

Except epidemiology does not show causation, the now-famous phrase  "correlation does not imply causation" became part of the lexicon when too many epidemiologists with an agenda tried to claim 'cause and effect' using statistics. Thousands of years ago this was known by philosophers to be a logical fallacy - cum hoc ergo propter hoc ("with this, therefore because of this")- but by the 1970s environmentalists had bulldozed over reason, journalists wrote about it to sell papers and then actually started believing it, and both fields have declined in credibility since.

A fun way to see why cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy is flawed, yet this is the same reasoning that says PM2.5, which we could only detect in recent decades, is suddenly causing shorter life spans. Sign: Sign by West Pittston, PA library via Wikipedia.

The great thing about epidemiology if you have an agenda - anti-meat, anti-chemicals, anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, whatever -  is it needs no science. All it needs to do is create a statistical link, and for that it only needs enough rows of outcomes and columns of possible harms. With enough rows and columns someone is guaranteed to create statistical significance for something linked to something. Its abuse is so common a group of signatories (including me) on a Nature paper asked journals to stop accepting papers that make no sense but have statistical significance.

That's how we get to a paper claiming that PM2.5, virtual pollution, is racist.

Progressive activists have always had a conflicted relationship with minorities and the poor, that much is obvious. Find a progressive 100 years ago and they probably embraced eugenics, along with Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Maynard Keynes, and Hitler, but when Hitler, who had previously been endorsed in the New York Times because of his love of biological science, took eugenics too far they had to pivot. Instead of still promoting eugenics, believers went on to found groups like Planned Parenthood and Sierra Club and encourage it more subtly. 

Their dislike of poor people is evident today. Activist groups want higher energy costs and expensive organic food, yet they say they care about minorities if it means a chance to sue companies creating "pollution."(1)

They will be thrilled about a new paper correlating being a minority with PM2.5 "virtual" pollution. The work uses Medicare data and then laid it over a PM2.5 virtual pollution map. Sure enough, if there was more virtual pollution, they found lower income, and minority presence, enough to declare statistical significance. 

Using that, they say that if the Biden administration cut the virtual pollution limit by to 66 percent of the current standard, they would save 6 percent of poor people, including minorities.

So PM2.5 is now causal in 6 percent of poor people deaths? It is not, but when New England Journal of Medicine writes press releases they are writing them for journalists who either don't know or don't care. So they suggest it and hope people take the bait.

Rather than showing a causal link, they use claims from other epidemiology papers as facts to infer causation, which is like people who believe in ghosts citing other paranormal belief papers and declaring that ghosts are killing people. And ghosts could be found to be controlling everything, using this methodology, 6 percent is what actual experts call the "statistical noise" range. Unless you are selling an ideology, no one would accept it.

Yet because they can declare statistical significance NEJM lets it go through peer review, without considering that you can declare coin flips are biased against heads and show statistical significance for what common sense knows is a random act.

A lot of groups put out shoddy epidemiology. The International Agency for Research on Cancer is competing with Ramazzini Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to manufacture panic about the modern world - you can't get more funding if you run out of problems to solve - but the grandfather of them all is the group that first monetized putting distrust of science on the map; the Harvard School of Public Health.

Back when IARC and NIEHS were still reputable - epidemiologists were once so conservative they were the last to accept that cancer risk might be inherited - Harvard School of Public Health was trotting out monthly papers claiming some new miracle vegetable, or oat bran or whatever, led to better health  while some trace chemical was "correlated" to maladies.

If you read Harvard epidemiology papers since the 1980s you'll believe there is no one healthy left on the planet by now and that means getting attention is more challenging, so they ramp up the hyperbole using a tactic popularizred by corporate media: 'minorities impacted most.'

Only using a population level generalization does it not seem silly. High in PM2.5 are cities like Los Angeles and New York City, two of the most expensive places to live. Is small micron particulate matter high in Harlem but low in the Upper West Side a few blocks away? Incomes are dramatically different so they must be. Except that is not the case.

And it is not the case that low income people are forced into high-pollution areas from which only more onerous regulations - with a runaway deficit and crippling inflation - and higher costs will protect them.


(1) With a Democrat in the White House again, they are hoping for new sue-and-settle arrangements with his EPA, which would get checks from the government allow the Biden administration to create regulations that act as laws - no Congress needed, 'the courts made us do it.'