Remembering Bill Freudenburg

April 15, 2011



Statistician and thinker showed that finding key bad actor would produce greatest results

Professor William Freudenburg, 1951-2010.
Photo courtesy University of California at Santa Barbara.

The collaboration started informally enough, over lunch between lectures at UC Santa Barbara in January 2009. He wanted to talk with my wife, Marilyn, and I about the craft of writing and the art of storytelling.

Bill Freudenburg was a brilliant statistician and thinker who used numbers as a tool to decipher patterns in corporate behavior, economic and environmental impacts. He had done that type of work for the government, working for seven years as a consultant to the Idaho National Laboratories, looking for patterns in federal nuclear operations which led to radioactive contamination in surrounding environments, and patterns in cleanup efforts which might lead to more efficient operations.

“But the official Bush Administration policy was that we were doing a good enough job and don’t have to do another god damned thing,” he said. “So they pulled the plug on the project.”

His work there buttressed a gnawing suspicion he had about environmental degradation:

  • It was wrong to label an industry as dirty or environmentally harmful, and journalists and environmentalists were tackling the wrong issue by doing so.
  • If you went after the one bad actor in a given field, about 80% of the environmental problems could go away.

If you looked at the data, he said, the spotted owl — that symbol of animal and tree-huggers vs. the economy and jobs for people — was all wrong. Statistically, the Pacific Northwest was over-logged and in economic decline long before environmentalists realized the spotted owl was in trouble. Indeed, the region’s economic decline was set before the owls and bird watchers knew there was a problem.

Journalists should never have gotten into a discussion of the environment vs. jobs and environmental organizations should not have defended the need to protect one over the other. If, instead, they had gone after the unsustainable logging practices of Weyerhaeuser — and left the other logging companies alone — they would have realized that owl conservation had nothing to do with regional economic decline.

Bill was comfortable with his findings. His problem was how to express them in ways that did not put people to sleep.

“We academicians and scientists operate with the premise that if we just put our data out there, everyone will see the same things we do, and act accordingly,” he said. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Explaining technical subjects means utilizing storytelling techniques that incorporate technical detail and draw readers into the discussion. Bill brought us to UCSB to talk to staff at the new Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology about effectively communicating science to the media and the public. But over lunch, he said he needed help communicating a project he had been working on for more than 20 years. And, since he was dying, it would be his last book.

“This started with studies I was doing around the time of the Exxon Valdez, which I called the ‘Atrophy of Vigilance’,” he explained. “There is a pretty predictable pattern. Right after an accident, everybody is paying attention. Congress holds hearings, executives pay attention to details, and the media records everything. But over time, the vigilance falls off and atrophies.

“It’s not just that individuals get lazy, but safety tends to be a secondary consideration for everybody. There aren’t any organizations on the face of the earth for whom protecting health and environment is something they do. As a professor, I worry about other people doing things safely, but I sometimes leave my file drawers open. We all take shortcuts.

“That said, not everyone is equally susceptible. It’s usually the case that, after an accident, people will take another look at information that’s been sitting there in front of them all along and see it in a different way.”

Over the ensuing months, there were several intermittent discussions with Bill about his final book, which he believed would show the correct way to look at threats to the environment. Sometimes there were long phone conversations, where he laid out his data and we suggested ways to tell that in a story. At other times, there were e-mail exchanges with sections of his work in progress. He was a man in a hurry, with good reason.

The preface to one such e-mail exchange began this way: “Statistically I should have been dead already. I have less than a year. Any hour I spend worrying about it is an hour I can’t spend doing something more valuable to me, so I can’t worry too much.

“The drugs do a number on my endurance. I have a couple of good hours a day.

“Chemo-brain is not just a theory. I can’t remember as quickly. Don’t have the endurance. There is so much in any job that is bull shit that you have to do five to six hours a day and then something valuable. I’m stuck with about as much bull shit as ever and then I’m wiped out.

“But it’s OK because of Max [his son]. He still thinks I’m wonderful. Biggest goal is to live long enough and ... see if he thinks I’m not such a dope.”

Bill paused in this project after the BP spill, driven to get out what he hoped would be a definitive work on the subject. In his view, the oil spill provided new fodder for the premise that the worst actors are responsible for the bulk of the environmental problems, and the oil spill was predictable from the patterns of the past.

“It is surely interesting that it was BP that had the Texas City Refinery that blew up,” he said recently. “It is interesting that of the 18 or so deep well blowouts, Halliburton was involved in all of them.

“It is the kind of thing where, after an accident, it’s as if your eyes open and you can see a pattern that was there all along.”

Bill interrupted his project to work with his long-time collaborator, Robert Gramling, on Blowout in the Gulf which turned out to be his last published work. When he resumed work on his emerging book, Atrophy of Vigilance, his energy level was down to about two hours a day. He could still think, he just lacked the energy to do anything else. He sent me the first half of his book and asked for help rewriting and restructuring it, as needed.

His accompanying note said, in part:

“You have a hodgepodge here — a few stretches might actually be ready for editing, but most of them won’t be. I’m trying to pull together pieces of ‘academic’ chapters, some of which I’ve tried to put into a consistent tone, and some of which I haven’t. I can do the thousand little bits of editing that still need to be done — what I’m still not doing all that well is to make sure that the first section actually leads into the second, enticing readers to head to the third, and so on. And the big problem I have with THAT is that, after so many years, I can’t convince myself I’m actually making the case I need to make unless I have at least a small assortment of statistics, a few citations to ‘respectable’ sources, etc. Here is where I really need help — or to be more clear about it, here’s where I KNOW I need help. I may need it in other places, too.

“In short, I’ll welcome just about any kind of feedback that you can find the time to provide. If there’s stuff that works, tell me about it, and tell me why. Where there are things that don’t work, tell me what they are. If you have alternative ideas that you’re able to pass along, do that. I’m eager to learn, in the limited time I have left, and I look forward to any lessons or bits of advice you’re willing to impart.”

Bill never did regain the strength to work on the book. After Thanksgiving, his one goal was to use his dwindling energy to enjoy one last Christmas with Max and Sarah. Here is his preface to Atrophy of Vigilance — as he wrote it.

Roger Witherspoon writes about the auto and nuclear industries.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2011 issue.