Can Expert Bias and Prejudice Disqualify a Witness From Testifying?

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) bills itself as a consumer advocate committed to research and education in sound science. The CSPI considers itself to be “one of the nation’s top consumer advocates,” which works to “ensure that science is used to promote the public welfare.”

You may wonder whether and why “science” turns out to promote the public welfare envisioned by the CSPI? According to the CSPI, you should just accept that it does. So sure is the CSPI that industry corrupts science that it features a web-based, open database of scientists with ties to industry. There is no database of scientists’ ties to the litigation industry (plaintiffs’ lawyers), to organized labor, or advocacy groups. No doubt, implicit in its choice, is the claim that all science done by scientists with “ties” to the plaintiffs’ bar, to labor, or to advocacy groups, is “in the public interest.”

The arrogance of the implicit claim is made even more clear by how the CSPI addresses supposed corruption and conflicts of interest in science. The CSPI features an Integrity in Science Project to ferret out corruption in science, but the Project concerns itself only with industry-sponsored and funded science. The Project is candid about its one-sided jihad against industry-based science:

“Although many have cheered partnerships between industry and the research community, it is also acknowledged that they entail conflicts of interest that may compromise the judgment of trusted professionals, the credibility of research institutions and scientific journals, the safety and transparency of human subjects research, the norms of free inquiry, and the legitimacy of science-based policy.

For example:

  • There is strong evidence that researchers’ financial ties to chemical, pharmaceutical, or tobacco manufacturers directly influence their published positions in supporting the benefit or downplaying the harm of the manufacturers’ product.
  • A growing body of evidence indicates that pharmaceutical industry gifts and inducements bias clinicians’ judgments and influence doctors’ prescribing practices.
  • There are well-known cases of industry seeking to discredit or prevent the publication of research results that are critical of its products.
  • Studies of life-science faculty indicate that researchers with industry funding are more likely to withhold research results in order to secure commercial advantage.
  • Increasingly, the same academic institutions that are responsible for oversight of scientific integrity and human subjects protection are entering financial relationships with the industries whose product-evaluations they oversee.

In response to the commercialization of science and the growing problem of conflicts of interest, the Integrity in Science Project seeks to:

  • raise awareness about the role that corporate funding and other corporate interests play in scientific research, oversight, and publication;

  • investigate and publicize conflicts of interest and other potentially destructive influences of industry-sponsored science;

  • advocate for full disclosure of funding sources by individuals, governmental and non-governmental organizations that conduct, regulate, or provide oversight of scientific investigation or promote specific scientific findings;

  • encourage policy-makers at all levels of government to seek balance on expert advisory committees and to provide public, web-based access to conflict-of-interest information collected in the course of committee formation;

  • encourage journalists to routinely ask scientists and others about their possible conflicts of interests and to provide this information to the public.”

The CSPI inquiry then is entirely one-sided, with no apparent or manifest interest in exploring and revealing conflicts created by scientists’ affiliations with advocacy groups, labor, or the litigation industry. The concern about conflicts of interests is, in my view, simply an attempt to disqualify industry-sponsored scientific studies from inclusion in policy discussions. To be sure, there are notorious examples of industry-sponsored, compromised studies. But there are similarly notorious examples of union and plaintiff-lawyer sponsored studies gone awry. Why then is there no concern at the CSPI about researchers’ ties with advocacy groups, labor unions, and most important, and the litigation industry? The obvious answer is that the CSPI is engaging in advocacy for certain conclusions. The CSPI wants to put its hand on one side of the balance, and do its best to ensure that scientific debates and discussions come out a certain way, a way that favors conclusions it desires. The CSPI wants to disqualify dissenters from the conversation. The so-called “Integrity” project thus appears to be a pretense, exactly the opposite of what it purports to be.

In 2004, the CSPI’s Integrity in Science Project sponsored a conference on, among other topics, Corporate and Government Suppression of Research. Actually, there was barely any discussion of governmental suppression; the speakers spoke almost entirely on corporate conduct.

One speaker on the panel presented about corporate conflicts of interest in the starkest Marxist terms. Corporations must cheat and lie because they are capable only of acting to maximize profits, and they will inevitably see safety as a dispensable cost. The speaker, who is a frequent testifier in mass tort litigation, held forth that the problem with corporations is not that there are some rotten apples, but that the entire barrel is rotten. Suppression of scientific research, according to this speaker is not an anomaly, but totally determined by the nature of the firm. Ethical companies cannot compete, and they go out of business; ergo, any company in business is unethical.

Of course, the same uncharitable determinist views can be applied to expert witnesses, to plaintiffs’ counsel, to labor unions, and to advocacy groups. Remarkably, this speaker acknowledged that is ideology is a much larger bias than money, and then confessed that

My bias is ideological.”

This speaker testifies frequently for the litigation industry, and his zeal is so uncabined that he has been held in contempt and fined as part of his litigation activities. When one federal court judge excluded his testimony, he attacked the bona fides of the judge and sought to appeal his exclusion personally. And yet the Integrity project featured him as a speaker!

The CSPI and its cadre of anti-industry scientists brings me to the question du jour: Can an expert witness be too biased or prejudiced in a matter to serve as an expert witness? We exclude judges and jurors who have potential conflicts of interest. Surely there are fact or expert witnesses, who are so untrustworthy that they should not be allowed to testify. Consider whether an expert witnesses who, having demonstrated that they will violate court orders or other laws, want the court to qualify them as “expert witnesses” to give their opinions in a pending case. The trial court does not necessarily endorse the opinions proffered, but should the court give its imprimatur to the witnesses’ standing as having opinions that could be considered, relied upon to the exclusion of competing opinions, and form the basis for verdicts for the parties offering these suspect witnesses?

Just asking.

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