TORTINI

For your delectation and delight, desultory dicta on the law of delicts.

Manufacturing Consent

December 2nd, 2017

David Michaels along with other “political” scientists, and the lawsuit industry, have worked assiduously over the last several decades to delegitimize discussion, debate, and controversy over scientific claims.1 Their key goals have been to attempt to disqualify manufacturing industry and any scientist with the slightest manufacturing industry contact. Their attempts to disqualify other interlocutors is, however, highly asymmetrical. If those with connections to manufacturing industry criticize studies or causal conclusions, then we hear that the criticism is corrupt. If those with connections to manufacturing industry embrace studies that show favored associations, or causal conclusions, then we hear that the embrace of advocacy positions was an “admission,” reluctantly given but “forced” by overwhelming evidence. In other words, the attempts to disqualify interlocutors are made only when the speakers articulate criticism of the claims of advocacy science.

David Zaruk has argued that the techniques used to squelch criticism of advocacy science bear an uncanny resemblance to the techniques used by fascists generally. See David Zaruk, “Ten Practices Linking Environmentalism with Fascism,” Riskmonger (Dec. 2, 2017). Although Zaruk’s argument may appear hyperbolic, there is no denying that advocacy scientists (not merely in the field of environmentalism) have used the rhetorical devices that are used by intellectual bullies everywhere. In the case of advocacy scientists, one of their key maneuvers has been to privilege advocacy scientists who speak for their favored positions, for the lawsuit industry, and for self-styled public interest groups by ignoring their potential conflicts of interest, while diminishing the substantive content of all “opposition” voices by pejoratively characterizing their opponents’ motivation as “manufacturing doubt.” Of course, the deepest irony is that before there was manufacturing doubt, there was manufacturing consent.2 The unkindest thing that can, and must be said, of the current enthusiasm for attacking dissident scientists is not that the attacks are fascist, but that they are unscientific.

The likes of David Michaels have sought to manufacture consent on various health effects issues, by selectively and asymmetrically accusing scientists of conflicts of interest, or trying to pervert the course of science. These attacks on “dissidents” assume the truth of the contested causal conclusions, and then proceed to call out the dissidents for casting doubt on the “truth” in favor of falsehood. What this mobbing of dissidents ignores is the basic normative structure of science, which requires doubt.

One of the first sociologists of science, Robert Merton, described four institutional imperatives of science: universality, communitarianism, disinterestedness, and “organized skepticism.”3 Scientists are committed to methodologies and an institutional ethos that require searching scrutiny of claims to scientific knowledge. The scientific advocates who would silence criticism with accusations of “manufacturing doubt” ignore the epistemic importance of dissent and disagreement in science. The prevalent attempts to squelch dissent as “manufacturing doubt” is thus unscientific and dangerous.4


1 See, e.g., David Michaels, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s War on Science Threatens Your Health (2008); David Michaels, “Manufactured Uncertainty: Protecting Public Health in the Age of Contested Science and Product Defense,” 1076 Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 149 (2006); David Michaels, “Mercenary Epidemiology – Data Reanalysis and Reinterpretation for Sponsors with Financial Interest in the Outcome,” 16 Ann. Epidemiol. 583 (2006); David Michaels & Celeste Monforton, “Manufacturing Uncertainty: Contested Science and the Protection of the Public’s Health and Environment,” 95 Amer. J. Public Health S39 (2005); David Michaels, “Doubt is their Product,” 292 Sci. Amer. 74 (June 2005).

2 See generally Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (1988).

3 Robert K. Merton, “The Normative Structure of Science,” in Robert K. Merton, The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, chap. 13, at 267, 270 (1973).

4 See Inmaculada de Melo-Mmartín and Kristen Intemann, “Who’s afraid of dissent? Addressing concerns about undermining scientific consensus in public policy developments,” 22 Persp. on Science 593 (2014).

Copywrongs in the Academic-Publishing Industrial Complex

December 1st, 2017

Works of the United States government, including works prepared by its officers and employees, do not qualify for copyright protection. 17 U.S.C. § 105. Such works are in the “public domain,” and may be freely distributed. Works in the public domain thus include academic papers written by governmental scientists and published in proprietary academic journals. The journals cannot acquire a copyright in what was in the public domain ab initio.

And yet, proprietary journals routinely charge customers for works in the public domain. There appears to be no meaningful regulation of the academic publishing world, where publishers sometimes commandeer $60 or more per article, and charge yet again for access to supplementary data and materials. Charging fees such as these for what belongs to the public is worse than ludicrous; it’s piracy! See Ryan Merkley, “You Pay to Read Research You Fund. That’s Ludicrous,” Wired (April 18, 2016).

In an era when publishers complain and sue over unauthorized distribution of articles, it is remarkable that publishers are so cavalier about their own copywrongs. Paywall Watch is a website that has set its mission to call out proprietary academic publishers for improperly charging money to distribute articles that are in the public domain. See Dalmeet Singh Chawla, “Website Flags Wrongly Paywalled Papers,” The Scientist (May 31, 2017). From a casual review of the Paywall Watch website, there appear to be many offending instances of publisher piracy.

In addition to overt copywrongs, there is the more prevalent issue raised by publishers profiteering from selling papers based upon federally funded research. Federal regulations and Executive Orders direct federal agencies to ensure that taxpayers do not pay twice for federally funded research, even research conducted by non-governmental employees. SeeExpanding Public Access to the Results of Federally Funded Research,” (Feb. 22, 2013); Office of Science and Technology Policy, “Memorandum on Public Access” (2013). Despite President Obama’s support, powerful congressional patrons of the Academic-Publishing complex, from both sides of the aisle, have shilled for protectionist legislation. See Beware the Academic-Publishing Complex!” (Jan. 11, 2012) (discussing Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney’s efforts to press special interest legislation for Elsevier). Compliance with the federal open-access mandate is poor.

* * * * * * *

A group of authors, led by scientists from Divisions of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in Cincinnati, Ohio, recently published an epidemiologic study of cancer outcomes in workers exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Avima M. Ruder, Misty J. Hein, Nancy B. Hopf, and Martha A. Waters, “Cancer incidence among capacitor manufacturing workers exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls,” 60 Am. J. Indus. Med. 198 (2017) [cited below as Ruder]. The NIOSH authors published their study in the “Red Journal,” the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, edited by Steven B. Markowitz and Rodney Ehrlich, who are well-known in lawsuit industry circles.

Ruder’s article contained a clear disclaimer:

This article is a U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the USA.”

Ruder’s publisher, John Wiley & Sons, blithely ignored the disclaimer and hid the article behind a paywall (at the relatively low, one-time price of $38.00, U.S.). And that is too bad because Ruder’s work has generally shown that there is not much to the claim that PCBs cause lung cancer, a claim that caused quite a stir in the United States Supreme Court, twenty years ago. See General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136 (1997). Ruder and colleagues found a slightly raised incidence of lung cancer, risk ratio 1.16, but they readily acknowledged that without smoking history data, this small risk could not be interpreted causally. Ruder at 205 (2017); see also Avima M. Ruder, Misty J. Hein, Nancy B. Hopf, and Martha A. Waters, “Mortality among 24,865 workers exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in three electrical capacitor manufacturing plants: A ten-year update,”217 Internat’l J. Hyg. & Envt’l Health 176 (2014). In a previous analysis of lung cancer mortality in the full cohort, the elevation had disappeared when short-term workers (fewer than 90 days on the job) were removed from the analysis. The long-term workers, with obviously much greater potential for cumulative and peak exposures, showed a lung cancer standardized mortality ratio of 0.99, ever so slightly less lung cancer than expected among non-exposed workers. Ruder at 205. See “How Have Important Rule 702 Holdings Held Up With Time?” (Mar. 20, 2015); The Joiner Finale.”

Alabama Justice and Fundamental Fairness

November 20th, 2017

Judges from Alabama get a bad rap. Like Job, Roy Moore cannot seem to catch a break, despite his professions of great faith. Still Moore ought to be more liberal, given that he, and all of us, are descended from a transgendered woman. After all, Eve was made from a male rib, the tissue of which carried a Y chromosome:

And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.”

Genesis 2:22. Even if Eve magically ended up with two X chromosomes, certainly Judge Moore must accept that the result was part of a cosmic sex change operation. Moore might prefer Lillith, who was built female from the ground up, as his female progenitor.

But Alabama is not so bad, really. My Cousin Vinny got a fair trial for Bill Gambini and Stanley Rothenstein in Beechum County, Alabama. Vinny was surprised by the prosecutor’s generosity in turning over his file, based upon a casual oral request, but as his fiancée Mona Lisa Vito pointed out, the prosecutor had to do this; it’s the law. Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), requires prosecutors to disclose to defense counsel any evidence that could reasonably be construed to favor the defendant.

Actually, Alabama law interpets Brady in the typical fashion to require the prosecutor to disclose only exculpatory evidence. Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 16. And Judge Chamberlain Haller, who presided over State v. Gambini, was a stickler for the rules.

And Beechum County prosecutor, Jim Trotter III, was a decent sort. Not only did he offer Vinny his hunting lodge as a quiet place to prepare for trial, Trotter turned over his entire case file upon a casual oral request, without delay. When the evidence appeared to exclupate Gambini and Rothenstein, Trotter withdrew the charges. Outside of Beechum County, that sort of thing happens mostly in movies; in the real world, it is dog eat dog.

The recently publicized case of Wilbert Jones is probably a more typical case. Jones was duly convicted on the testimony of the woman he supposedly raped. The identification, which was the only inculpatory evidence, was shaky, but it was sufficient for one Louisiana jury. What the jury did not hear, however, was that there was another man, who fit the description of the rapist, and who had committed similar crimes in the vicinity. The prosecutor did not think to share that information with Jones’s counsel. When later challenged about the prosecution’s failure to disclose the information, the prosecutors argued that the information was not exculpatory, and would not have made a difference in any event to the “hanging” jury that heard the case. A federal judge, hearing Jones’s petition for the writ of habeas corpus, disagreed, and vacated Jones’s conviction. Jacey Fortin, “Louisiana Man Freed After 45 Years as Conviction is Tossed Out,” N.Y. Times (Nov. 17, 2017). Despite having their conviction vacated, the Louisiana prosecutors have vowed to appeal the decision and retry the case.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, of the New York Court of Appeals, is also a stickler for the rules, much like Judge Haller of Beechum County, Alabama. Recently Her Honor issued a new rule that requires trial judges to order, in each case, the prosecution to review their files and disclose all favorable (exculpatory) evidence, at least 30 days before trial. Imagine that; New York prosecutors have to be ordered to comply with the constitutional requirement of disclosure, set out in Brady! See Alan Feuer & James C. McKinley, “Rule Would Push Prosecutors to Release Evidence Favorable to Defense,” N.Y. Times (Nov. 8, 2017); Emmet G. Sullivan, “How New York Courts Are Keeping Prosecutors in Line,” Wall St. J., at A11 (Nov. 18, 2017). See also Andrew Cohen, “Prosecutors Shouldn’t Be Hiding Evidence From Defendants,” The Atlantic (May 13, 2013).

The news media accounts of Chief Judge DiFiore’s newly promulgated rule quotes Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck as stating that the new New York rule is a “big deal.” The New York rule strikes me as a “raw deal,” which leaves to prosecutors to dole out what they think is exculpatory, on the eve of trial. Murder suspects in Beechum County, Alabama, get much better treatment from the likes of Prosecutor Jim Trotter.

The problem, even under the new New York rule, is that prosecutors are advocates and constitutionally incapable of looking at their files from the defense perspective to determine fairly what must be disclosed. Allowing prosecutors to decide what is exculpatory or not is bad policy, bad law, and bad human psychology. The better view would be to require prosecutors to turn over their complete file well in advance of trial, to permit defense counsel to prepare an effective defense.

Criminal trials, like civil trials, end with each side’s lawyer arguing that all the admitted evidence at trial favors his or her side. From the prosecutor’s perspective, none of the evidence exculpates the defendant, or even creates the slightest smidgeon of doubt. How schizophrenic must prosecutors be in order to step inside the psyche of the adversary, before trial, to see the potential inferences and potential for arguments that they will vehemently reject at trial, as utterly implausible and too farfetched to create reasonable doubt?

The entire system of permitting prosecutors to decide the disclosure issue, ex parte, and without supervision, violates the spirit and mandate of Brady. Whatever we may think of Alabama Judge Roy Moore, we could all use some of that Beechum County sense of fair play and due process.

Mississippi High Court Takes the Bite Out of Forensic Evidence

November 3rd, 2017

The Supreme Court’s 1993 decision in Daubert changed the thrust of Federal Rule of Evidence 702, which governs the admissibility of expert witness opinion testimony in both civil and criminal cases. Before Daubert, lawyers who hoped to exclude opinions lacking in evidentiary and analytical support turned to the Frye decision on “general acceptance.” Frye, however, was an outdated rule that was rarely applied outside the context of devices. Furthermore, the meaning and application of Frye were unclear. Confusion reigned on whether expert witnesses could survive Frye challenges simply by adverting to their claimed use of a generally accepted science, such as epidemiology, even though their implementation of epidemiologic science was sloppy, incoherent, and invalid.

Daubert noted that Rule 702 should be interpreted in the light of the “liberal” goals of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Some observers rejoiced at the invocation of “liberal” values, but history of the last 25 years has shown that they really yearned for libertine interpretations of the rules. Liberal, of course, never meant “anything goes.” It is unclear why “liberal” cannot mean restricting evidence not likely to advance the truth-finding function of trials.

Criminal versus Civil

Back on April 27, 2009, then President Barack Obama announced the formation of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). The mission of PCAST was to advise the President and his administration on science and technology, and their policy implications. Although the PCAST was a new council, presidents have had scientific advisors and advisory committees back to Franklin Roosevelt, in 1933.

On September 20, 2016, PCAST issued an important report to President Obama, Report to the President on Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods. Few areas of forensic “science,” beyond DNA matching, escaped the Council’s withering criticism. Bite-mark evidence in particular received a thorough mastication.

The criticism was hardly new. Seven years earlier, the National Academies of Science issued an indictment that forensic scientists had largely failed to establish the validity of their techniques and conclusions, and that the judiciary had “been utterly ineffective in addressing this problem.”1

The response from Obama’s Department of Justice, led by Loretta Lynch, was underwhelming.2 The Trump response was equally disappointing.3 The Left and the Right appear to agree that science is dispensable when it becomes politically inconvenient. It is a common place in the community of evidence scholars that Rule 702 is not applied with the same enthusiasm in criminal cases, to the benefit of criminal defendants, as the rule is sometimes, sporadically and inconsistently applied in civil cases. The Daubert revolution has failed the criminal justice system perhaps because courts are unwilling to lift the veil on forensic evidence, for fear they may not like what the find.4

A Grudging Look at the Scientific Invalidity of Bite Mark Evidence

Sherwood Brown was convicted of a triple murder in large measure as a result of testimony from Dr. Michael West, a forensic odontologist. West, as well as another odontologist, opined that a cut on Brown’s wrist matched the shape of a victim’s mouth. DNA testing authorized after the conviction, however, rendered West’s opinions edentulous. Samples from inside the female victim’s mouth yielded male DNA, but not that of Mr. Brown.5

Did the PCAST report leave an impression upon the highest court of Mississippi? The Supreme Court of Mississippi vacated Brown’s conviction and remanded for a new trial, in an opinion that a bitemark expert might describe as reading like a bite into a lemon. Brown v. State, No. 2017 DR 00206 SCT, Slip op. (Miss. Sup. Ct. Oct. 26, 2017). The majority could not bring themselves to comment upon the Dr. West’s toothless opinions. Three justices would have kicked the can down to the trial judge by voting to grant a new hearing without vacating Brown’s convictions. The decision seems mostly predicated on the strength of the DNA evidence, rather than the invalidity of the bite mark evidence. Mr. Brown will probably be vindicated, but bite mark evidence will continue to mislead juries, with judicial imprimatur.


1 National Research Council, Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Sciences Community, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward 53 (2009).

2 See Jordan Smith, “FBI and DoJ Vow to Continue Using Junk Science Rejected by White House Report,” The Intercept (Sept. 23, 2016); Radley Balko, “When Obama wouldn’t fight for science,” Wash. Post (Jan. 4, 2017).

3 See Radley Balko, “Jeff Sessions wants to keep forensics in the Dark Ages,” Wash. Post (April 11, 2017); Jessica Gabel Cino, “Session’s Assault on Forensic Science Will Lead to More Unsafe Convictions,” Newsweek (April 20, 2017).

4 See, e.g., Paul C. Giannelli, “Forensic Science: Daubert’s Failure,” Case Western Reserve L. Rev. (2017) (“in press”).

The opinions, statements, and asseverations expressed on Tortini are my own, or those of invited guests, and these writings do not necessarily represent the views of clients, friends, or family, even when supported by good and sufficient reason.