Garbology

A recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control says the United States is experiencing “an epidemic of lung injury” and “use of flavored e-cigarettes by youths has become a serious concern.” Anyone who has seen or heard current events knows both these things are true. But what exactly did the study authors find that led them to their conclusions?

News reports said they used garbology, a way anthropologists study modern culture by analyzing the contents of people’s trash cans and rubbish bins, much as archaeologists do at dig sites.

In an article We Are What We Throw Away, the NY Times reported how a group of University of Arizona anthropologists became the first garbologists when they sorted and classified more than 14 tons of trash from a garbage dump. Their idea was that people lie but garbage doesn’t. The premise is sound, because a fundamental research truth is that observing is better than asking, especially about things that are embarrassing or illegal .

The UCSF study method should more properly be called litterology, because they collected and analyzed loose ground litter from high school student parking lots and perimeter areas. In all, they collected 893 targeted waste items:

  • 620 cigarette butts 
  • 172 electronic cigarette detritus 
  • 87 little cigars or cigarillos
  • 14 pot-related items 

The authors’ conclusion: “E-cigarette waste and combustible tobacco product waste contaminate the Bay Area high schools studied.

Let’s take a closer look at those levels of “contamination.” The published numbers are for 12 schools over a 10 month period, which led me to ask two simple questions:

What do the numbers look like per school over that 10 month period?

    • 52 butts per school
    • 14 e-tritus per school
    • 7 cigarillos per school
    • 1 pot per school

For each school, how many per month?

    • 5 butts
    • 2 e-tritus
    • 1 cigarillo
    • 0.1 pot

Hardly the implied epidemic proportions. When you look at all the numbers, consider these things:

  • With 18,831 students enrolled at these schools, the numbers are too puny to support any claims of problems with teen smoking or vaping. Worse yet, the data collected in this particular case actually indicate the reverse.
  • High school students admit to vape and cigarette usage rates much higher than what this litterology study purports to reveal.

Here are my three takeaways:

  1. Examining litter found in and around schools is newsworthy, but in reality is a very poor method for determining what is actually going on.
  2. Analysts drew their conclusions from sources outside the data.
  3. Reporting results that are deliberately inflammatory is a favorite tool of headline-seekers.
Special thanks to data journalist Walt Hickey, who brought this study to my attention. His Numlock News (cool stories buried in the news) is a favorite of mine.