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

Wrong Words Beget Causal Confusion

February 12th, 2018

In clinical medical and epidemiologic journals, most articles that report about associations will conclude with a discussion section in which the authors hold forth about

(1) how they have found that exposure to X “increases the risk” of Y, and

(2) how their finding makes sense because of some plausible (even if unproven) mechanism.

In an opinion piece in Significance,1 Dalmeet Singh Chawla cites to a study that suggests the “because” language frequently confuses readers into believing that a causal claim is being made. The study abstract explains:

Most researchers do not deliberately claim causal results in an observational study. But do we lead our readers to draw a causal conclusion unintentionally by explaining why significant correlations and relationships may exist? Here we perform a randomized study in a data analysis massive online open course to test the hypothesis that explaining an analysis will lead readers to interpret an inferential analysis as causal. We show that adding an explanation to the description of an inferential analysis leads to a 15.2% increase in readers interpreting the analysis as causal (95% CI 12.8% – 17.5%). We then replicate this finding in a second large scale massive online open course. Nearly every scientific study, regardless of the study design, includes explanation for observed effects. Our results suggest that these explanations may be misleading to the audience of these data analyses.”

Leslie Myint, Jeffrey T. Leek, and Leah R. Jager, “Explanation implies causation?” (Nov. 2017) (on line manuscript).

Invoking the principle of charity, these authors suggest that most researchers are not deliberately claiming causal results. Indeed, the language of biomedical science itself is biased in favor of causal interpretation. The term “statistical significance” suggests causality to naive readers, as does stats talk about “effect size,” and “fixed effect models,” for data sets that come no where near establishing causality.

Common epidemiologic publication practice tolerates if not encourages authors to state that their study shows (finds, demonstrates, etc.) that exposure to X “increases the risk” of Y in the studies’ samples. This language is deliberately causal, even if the study cannot support a causal conclusion alone or even with other studies. After all, a risk is the antecedent of a cause, and in the stochastic model of causation involved in much of biomedical research, causation will manifest in a change of a base rate to a higher or lower post-exposure rate. Given that mechanism is often unknown and not required, then showing an increased risk is the whole point. Eliminating chance, bias, confounding, and study design often is lost in the irrational exuberance of declaring the “increased risk.”

Tighter editorial control might have researchers qualify their findings by explaining that they found a higher rate in association with exposure, under the circumstances of the study, followed by an explanation that much more is needed to establish causation. But where is the fun and profit in that?

Journalists, lawyers, and advocacy scientists often use the word “link,” to avoid having to endorse associations that they know, or should know, have not been shown to be causal.2 Using “link” as a noun or a verb clearly implies a causal chain metaphor, which probably is often deliberately implied. Perhaps publishers would defend the use of “link” by noting that it is so much shorter than “association,” and thus saves typesetting costs.

More attention is needed to word choice, even and especially when statisticians and scientists are using their technical terms and jargon.3 If, for the sake of argument, we accept the sincerity of scientists who work as expert witnesses in litigation in which causal claims are overstated, we can see that poor word choices confuse scientists as well as lay people. Or you can just read the materials and methods and the results of published study papers; skip the introduction and discussion sections, as well as the newspaper headlines.

1 Dalmeet Singh Chawla, “Mind your language,” Significance 6 (Feb. 2018).

2 See, e.g., Perri Klass, M.D., “,” N.Y. Times (Dec. 4, 2017); Nicholas Bakalar, “Body Chemistry: Lower Testosterone Linked to Higher Death Risk,” N.Y. Times (Aug. 15, 2006).

3 Fang Xuelan & Graeme Kennedy, “Expressing Causation in Written English,” 23 RELC J. 62 (1992); Bengt Altenberg, “Causal Linking in Spoken and Written English,” 38 Studia Linguistica 20 (1984).

Ninth Circuit Quashes Harkonen’s Last Chance

January 8th, 2018

With the benefit of hindsight, even the biggest whopper can be characterized as a strategic choice for trial counsel. As are result of this sort of thinking, the convicted have a very difficult time in pressing claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. After the fact, a reviewing or an appellate court can always imagine a strategic reason for trial counsel’s decisions, even if they contributed to the client’s conviction.

In the Harkonen case, a pharmaceutical executive was indicted and tried for wire fraud and misbranding. His crime was to send out a fax with a preliminary assessment of a recently unblinded clinical trial. In his fax, Dr Harkonen described the trial’s results as “demonstrating” a survival benefit in study participants with mild and moderate disease. Survival (or mortality) was not a primary outcome of the trial, but it was a secondary outcome, and arguably the most important one of all. The subgroup of “mild and moderate” was not pre-specified, but it was highly plausible.

Clearly, Harkonen’s post hoc analysis would not be sufficient normally to persuade the FDA to approve a medication, but Harkonen did not assert or predict that the company would obtain FDA approval. He simply claimed that the trial “demonstrated” a benefit. A charitable interpretation of his statement, which was several pages long, would include the prior successful clinical trial, as important context for Harkonen’s statement.

The United States government, however, was not interested in the principle of charity, the context, or even its own pronouncements on the issue of statistical significance. Instead, the United States Attorney pushed for draconian sentences under the Wire Fraud Act, and the misbranding sections of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act. A jury acquitted on the misbranding charge, but convicted on wire fraud. The government’s request for an extreme prison term and fines was rebuffed by the trial court, which imposed a term of six months of house arrest, and a small fine.1 The conviction, however, effectively keeps Dr Harkonen from working again in the pharmaceutical industry.

In post-verdict challenges to the conviction, Harkonen’s lawyers were able to marshal support from several well-renown statisticians and epidemiologists, but the trial court was reluctant to consider these post-verdict opinions when the defense called no expert witness at trial. The trial situation, however, was complicated and confused by the government’s pre-trial position that it would not call expert witnesses on the statistical and clinical trial interpretative issues. Contrary to these representations, the government called Dr Thomas Fleming, as statistician, who testified at some length, and without objection, to strict criteria for assessing statistical significance and causation in clinical trials.

Having read Fleming’s testimony, I can say that the government got away with introducing a great deal of expert witness opinion testimony, without effective contradiction or impeachment. With the benefit of hindsight, the defense decision not to call an expert witness looks like a serious deviation from the standard of care. Fleming’s “facts” about how the FDA would evaluate the success or failure of the clinical trial were not relevant to whether Harkonen’s claim of a demonstrated benefit were true or false. More importantly, Harkonen’s claim involved an inference, which is not a fact, but an opinion. Fleming’s contrary opinion really did not turn Harkonen’s claim into a falsehood. A contrary rule would have many expert witnesses in civil and in criminal litigation behind bars on similar charges of wire or mail fraud.

After Harkonen exhausted his direct appeals,2 he petitioned for a writ of coram nobis. The trial court denied the petition,3 and in a non-precedential opinion [sic], the Ninth Circuit affirmed the denial of coram nobis.4 United States v. Harkonen, slip op., No. 15-16844 (9th Cir., Dec. 4, 2017) [cited below as Harkonen].

The Circuit rejected Harkonen’s contention that the Supreme Court had announced a new rule with respect to statistical significance, in Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano, 563 U.S. 27 (2011), which change in law required that his conviction be vacated. Harkonen’s lawyer, like much of the plaintiffs’ tort bar, oversold the Supreme Court’s comments about statistical significance, which were at best dicta, and not very well considered or supported dicta, at that. Still, there was an obvious tension, and duplicity, between positions that the government, through the Solicitor General’s office, had taken in Siracusano, and positions the government took in the Harkonen case.5 Given the government’s opportunistic double-faced arguments about statistical significance, the Ninth Circuit held that Harkonen’s proffered evidence was “compelling, especially in light of Matrixx,” but the panel concluded that his conviction was not the result of a “manifest injustice” that requires the issuance of the writ of coram nobis. Harkonen at 2 (emphasis added). Apparently, Harkonen had suffered an injustice of a less obvious and blatant variety, which did not rise to the level of manifest injustice.

The Ninth Circuit gave similarly short shrift to Harkonen’s challenge to the competency of his counsel. His trial lawyers had averred that they thought that they were doing well enough not to risk putting on an expert witness, especially given that the defense’s view of the evidence came out in the testimony of the government’s witnesses. The Circuit thus acquiesced in the view that both sides had chosen to forgo expert witness testimony, and overlooked the defense’s competency issue for not having objected to Fleming’s opinion trial testimony. Harkonen at 2-4. Remarkably, the appellate court did not look at how Fleming was allowed to testify on statistical issues, without being challenged on cross-examination.

2 United States v. Harkonen, 510 F. App’x 633, 638 (9th Cir. 2013), cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 824 (2013).

4 Dave Simpson, “9th Circuit Refuses To Rethink Ex-InterMune CEO’s Conviction,” Law360 (Dec. 5, 2017).

The Amicus Curious Brief

January 4th, 2018

Friends – Are They Boxers or Briefers*

Amicus briefs help appellate courts by bringing important views to bear on the facts and the law in disputes. Amicus briefs ameliorate the problem of the common law system, in which litigation takes place between specific parties, with many interested parties looking on, without the ability to participate in the discussion or shape the outcome.

There are dangers, however, of hidden advocacy in the amicus brief. Even the most unsophisticated court is not likely to be misled by the interests and potential conflicts of interest of groups such as the American Association for Justice or the Defense Research Institute. If the description of the group is not as fully forthcoming as one might like, a quick trip to its website will quickly clarify the group’s mission on Earth. No one is fooled, and the amicus briefs can be judged on their merits.

What happens when the amici are identified only by their individual names and institutional affiliations? A court might be misled into thinking that the signatories are merely disinterested academics, who believe that important information or argument is missing from the appellate discussion.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has offered itself up as an example of a court snookered by “58 physicians and scientists.”1 Rost v. Ford Motor Co., 151 A.3d 1032, 1052 (Pa. 2016). Without paying any attention to the provenance of the amicus brief or the authors’ deep ties with the lawsuit industry, the court cited the brief’s description of:

“the fundamental notion that each exposure to asbestos contributes to the total dose and increases the person’s probability of developing mesothelioma or other cancers as an ‘irrefutable scientific fact’. According to these physicians and scientists, cumulative exposure is merely an extension of the ancient concept of dose-response, which is the ‘oldest maxim in the field’.”

Id. (citing amicus brief at 2).

Well, irrefutable in the minds of the 58 amici curious perhaps, who failed to tell the court that not every exposure contributes materially to cumulative exposure such that it must be considered a “substantial contributing factor.” These would-be friends also failed to tell the court that the human body has defense mechanisms to carcinogenic exposures, which gives rise to a limit on, and qualification of, the concept of dose-response in the form of biological thresholds, below which exposures do not translate into causative doses. Even if these putative “friends” believed there was no evidence for a threshold, they certainly presented no evidence against one. Nonetheless, a confused and misguided Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the judgment below in favor of the plaintiffs.

The 58 amici also misled the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on several other issues. By their failure to disclose important information about themselves, and holding themselves out (falsely but successfully) as “disinterested” physicians and scientists, these so-called friends misled the court by failing to disclose the following facts:

1. Some of them were personal friends, colleagues, and fellow-party expert witnesses of the expert witness (Arthur Frank), whose opinion was challenged in the lower courts;

2. Some of the amici had no reasonable claim to expertise on the issues addressed in the brief;

3. Some of the amici have earned substantial fees in other asbestos cases, involving the same issues raised in the Rost case;

4. Some of the amici have been excluded from testifying in similar cases, to the detriment of their financial balance sheets;

5. Some of the amici are zealous advocates, who not only have testified for plaintiffs, but have participated in highly politicized advocacy groups such as the Collegium Ramazzini.

Two of the amici are historians (Rosner and Markowitz), who have never conducted scientific research on asbestos-related disease. Their work as labor historians added no support to the scientific concepts that were put over the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Both of these historians have testified in multiple asbestos cases, and one of them (Markowitz) has been excluded in a state court case, under a Daubert-like standard. They have never been qualified to give expert witness testimony on medical causation issues. Margaret Keith, an adjunct assistant professor of sociology, appears never to have written about medical causation between asbestos and cancer, but she at least is married to another amicus, James Brophy, who has.

Barry Castleman,2 David F. Goldsmith, John M. Dement, Richard A. Lemen, and David Ozonoff have all testified in asbestos or other alleged dust-induced disease cases, with Castleman having the distinction of having made virtually his entire livelihood in connection with plaintiffs-side asbestos litigation testifying and consulting. Castleman, Goldsmith, and Ozonoff have all been excluded from, or severely limited in, testifying for plaintiffs in chemical exposure cases.

(Rabbi) Daniel Thau Teitelbaum has the distinction of having been excluded in case that went to the United States Supreme Court (Joiner), but Shira Kramer,3 Richard Clapp, and Peter F. Infante probably make up for the lack of distinction with the number of testimonial adventures and misadventures. L. Christine Oliver and Colin L. Soskolne have also testified for the lawsuit industry, in the United States, and for Soskolne, in Canada, as well.

Lennart Hardell has testified in cellular telephone brain cancer cases,4 for plaintiffs of course, which qualified as an expert for the IARC on electromagnetic frequency and carcinogenesis.5

Celeste Monforton has earned credentials serving with fellow skapper David Michaels in the notorious Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) organization.6 Laura S. Welch, like Monforton, another George Washington lecturer, has served the lawsuit industry in asbestos personal injury and other cases.

Exhibit A to the Amicus brief lists the institutional affiliations of each amicus. Although some of the amici described themselves as “consultants,” only one amicus (Massimiliano Bugiani) listed his consultancy as specifically litigation related, with an identification of the party that engaged him: “Consultant of the Plaintiff in the Turin and Milan Courts.” Despite Bugiani’s honorable example, none of the other amici followed suit.

* * * * * * * *

Although many judges and lawyers agree that amicus briefs often bring important factual expertise to appellate courts, there are clearly some abuses. I, for one, am proud to have been associated with a few amicus briefs in various courts. One law professor, Allison Orr Larsen, in a trenchant law review article, has identified some problems and has suggested some reforms.7 Regardless of what readers think of Larsen’s proposed reforms, briefs should not be submitted by testifying and consulting expert witnesses for one side in a particular category of litigation, without disclosing fully and accurately their involvement in the underlying cases, and their financial enrichment from perpetuating the litigation in question.

* Thanks to Ramses Delafontaine for having alerted me to other aspects of the lack of transparency in connection with amicus briefs filed by professional historian organizations.

1 Brief of Muge Akpinar-Elci, Xaver Bauer, Carlos Bedrossian, Eula Bingham, Yv Bonnier-Viger, James Brophy, Massimiliano Buggiani, Barry Castleman, Richard Clapp, Dario Consonni, Emilie Counil, Mohamed Aquiel Dalvie, John M. Dement, Tony Fletcher, Bice Fubini, Thomas H. Gassert, David F. Goldsmith, Michael Gochfeld, Lennart Hadell [sic, Hardell], James Huff, Peter F. Infante, Moham F. Jeebhay, T. K. Joshi, Margaret Keith, John R. Keyserlingk, Kapil Khatter, Shira Kramer, Philip J. Landrigan, Bruce Lanphear, Richard A. Lemen, Charles Levenstein, Abby Lippman, Gerald Markowitz, Dario Mirabelli, Sigurd Mikkelsen, Celeste Monforton, Rama C. Nair, L. Christine Oliver, David Ozonoff, Domyung Paek, Smita Pakhale, Rolf Petersen, Beth Rosenberg, Kenneth Rosenman, David Rosner, Craig Slatin, Michael Silverstein, Colin L. Soskolne, Leslie Thomas Stayner, Ken Takahashi, Daniel Thau Teitelbaum, Benedetto Terracini, Annie Thebaud-Mony, Fernand Turcotte, Andrew Watterson, David H. Wegman, Laura S. Welch, Hans-Joachim Woitowitz as Amici Curiae in Support of Appellee, 2015 WL 3385332, filed in Rost v. Ford Motor Co., 151 A.3d 1032 (Pa. 2016).

2 SeeThe Selikoff – Castleman Conspiracy” (Mar. 13, 2011).

4 Newman v. Motorola, Inc., 218 F. Supp. 2d 769 (D. Md. 2002) (excluding Hardell’s proposed testimony), aff’d, 78 Fed. Appx. 292 (4th Cir. 2003) (affirming exclusion of Hardell).

6 See, e.g., SKAPP A LOT” (April 30, 2010); Manufacturing Certainty” (Oct. 25, 2011); “David Michaels’ Public Relations Problem” (Dec. 2, 2011); “Conflicted Public Interest Groups” (Nov. 3, 2013).

7 See Allison Orr Larsen, “The Trouble with Amicus Facts,” 100 Virginia L. Rev. 1757 (2014). See also Caitlin E. Borgmann, “Appellate Review of Social Facts in Constitutional Rights Cases,” 101 Calif. L. Rev. 1185, 1216 (2013) (“Amicus briefs, in particular, are often submitted by advocates and may be replete with dubious factual assertions that would never be admitted at trial.”).

Failed Gatekeeping in Ambrosini v. Labarraque (1996)

December 28th, 2017

The Ambrosini case straddled the Supreme Court’s 1993 Daubert decision. The case began before the Supreme Court clarified the federal standard for expert witness gatekeeping, and ended in the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, after the high court adopted the curious notion that scientific claims should be based upon reliable evidence and valid inferences. That notion has only slowly and inconsistently trickled down to the lower courts.

Given that Ambrosini was litigated in the District of Columbia, where the docket is dominated by regulatory controversies, frequently involving dubious scientific claims, no one should be surprised that the D.C. Court of Appeals did not see that the Supreme Court had read “an exacting standard” into Federal Rule of Evidence 702. And so, we see, in Ambrosini, this Court of Appeals citing and purportedly applying its own pre-Daubert decision in Ferebee v. Chevron Chem. Co., 552 F. Supp. 1297 (D.D.C. 1982), aff’d, 736 F.2d 1529 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1062 (1984).1 In 2000, the Federal Rule of Evidence 702 was revised in a way that extinguishes the precedential value of Ambrosini and the broad dicta of Ferebee, but some courts and commentators have failed to stay abreast of the law.

Escolastica Ambrosini was using a synthetic progestin birth control, Depo-Provera, as well as an anti-nausea medication, Bendectin, when she became pregnant. The child that resulted from this pregnancy, Teresa Ambrosini, was born with malformations of her face, eyes, and ears, cleft lip and palate, and vetebral malformations. About three percent of all live births in the United States have a major malformation. Perhaps because the Divine Being has sovereign immunity, Escolastica sued the manufacturers of Bendectin and Depo-Provera, as well as the prescribing physician.

The causal claims were controversial when made, and they still are. The progestin at issue, medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA), was embryotoxic in the cynomolgus monkey2, but not in the baboon3. The evidence in humans was equivocal at best, and involved mostly genital malformations4; the epidemiologic evidence for the MPA causal claim to this day remains unconvincing5.

At the close of discovery in Ambrosini, Upjohn (the manufacturer of the progestin) moved for summary judgment, with a supporting affidavit of a physician and geneticist, Dr. Joe Leigh Simpson. In his affidavit, Simpson discussed three epidemiologic studies, as well as other published papers, in support of his opinion that the progestin at issue did not cause the types of birth defects manifested by Teresa Ambrosini.

Ambrosini had disclosed two expert witnesses, Dr. Allen S. Goldman and Dr. Brian Strom. Neither Goldman nor Strom bothered to identify the papers, studies, data, or methodology used in arriving at an opinion on causation. Not surprisingly, the district judge was unimpressed with their opposition, and granted summary judgment for the defendant. Ambrosini v. Labarraque, 966 F.2d 1462, 1466 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

The plaintiffs appealed on the remarkable ground that Goldman’s and Strom’s crypto-evidence satisfied Federal Rule of Evidence 703. Even more remarkably, the Circuit, in a strikingly unscholarly opinion by Judge Mikva, opined that disclosure of relied-upon studies was not required for expert witnesses under Rules 703 and 705. Judge Mikva seemed to forget that the opinions being challenged were not given in testimony, but in (late-filed) affidavits that had to satisfy the requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26. Id. at 1468-69. At trial, an expert witness may express an opinion without identifying its bases, but of course the adverse party may compel disclosure of those bases. In discovery, the proffered expert witness must supply all opinions and evidence relied upon in reach the opinions. In any event, the Circuit remanded the case for a hearing and further proceedings, at which the two challenged expert witnesses, Goldman and Strom, would have to identify the bases of their opinions. Id. at 1471.

Not long after the case landed back in the district court, the Supreme Court decided Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). With an order to produce entered, plaintiffs’ counsel could no longer hide Goldman and Strom’s evidentiary bases, and their scientific inferences came under judicial scrutiny.

Upjohn moved again to exclude Goldman and Strom’s opinions. The district court upheld Upjohn’s challenges, and granted summary judgment in favor of Upjohn for the second time. The Ambrosinis appealed again, but the second case in the D.C. Circuit resulted in a split decision, with the majority holding that the exclusion of Goldman and Strom’s opinions under Rule 702 was erroneous. Ambrosini v. Labarraque, 101 F.3d 129 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

Although issued two decades ago, the majority’s opinion remains noteworthy as an example of judicial resistance to the existence and meaning of the Supreme Court’s Daubert opinion. The majority opinion uncritically cited the notorious Ferebee6 and other pre-Daubert decisions. The court embraced the Daubert dictum about gatekeeping being limited to methodologic consideration, and then proceeded to interpret methodology as superficially as necessary to sustain admissibility. If an expert witness claimed to have looked at epidemiologic studies, and epidemiology was an accepted methodology, then the opinion of the expert witness must satisfy the legal requirements of Daubert, or so it would seem from the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Despite the majority’s hand waving, a careful reader will discern that there must have been substantial gaps and omissions in the explanations and evidence cited by plaintiffs’ expert witnesses. Seeing anything clearly in the Circuit’s opinion is made difficult, however, by careless and imprecise language, such as its descriptions of studies as showing, or not showing “causation,” when it could have meant only that such studies showed associations, with more or less random and systematic error.

Dr. Strom’s report addressed only general causation, and even so, he apparently did not address general causation of the specific malformations manifested by the plaintiffs’ child. Strom claimed to have relied upon the “totality of the data,” but his methodologic approach seems to have required him to dismiss studies that failed to show an association.

Dr. Strom first set forth the reasoning he employed that led him to disagree with those studies finding no causal relationship [sic] between progestins and birth defects like Teresa’s. He explained that an epidemiologist evaluates studies based on their ‘statistical power’. Statistical power, he continued, represents the ability of a study, based on its sample size, to detect a causal relationship. Conventionally, in order to be considered meaningful, negative studies, that is, those which allege the absence of a causal relationship, must have at least an 80 to 90 percent chance of detecting a causal link if such a link exists; otherwise, the studies cannot be considered conclusive. Based on sample sizes too small to be reliable, the negative studies at issue, Dr. Strom explained, lacked sufficient statistical power to be considered conclusive.”

Id. at 1367.

Putting aside the problem of suggesting that an observational study detects a “causal relationship,” as opposed to an association in need of further causal evaluation, the Court’s précis of Strom’s testimony on power is troublesome, and typical of how other courts have misunderstood and misapplied the concept of statistical power. Statistical power is a probability of observing an association of a specified size at a specified level of statistical significance. The calculation of statistical power turns indeed on sample size, the level of significance probability preselected for “statistical significance, an assumed probability distribution of the sample, and, critically, an alternative hypothesis. Without a specified alternative hypothesis, the notion of statistical power is meaningless, regardless of what probability (80% or 90% or some other percentage) is sought for finding the alternative hypothesis. Furthermore, the notion that the defense must adduce studies with “sufficient statistical power to be considered conclusive” creates an unscientific standard that can never be met, while subverting the law’s requirement that the claimant establish causation.

The suggestion that the studies that failed to find an association cannot be considered conclusive because they “lacked sufficient statistical power” is troublesome because it distorts and misapplies the very notion of statistical power. No attempt was made to describe the confidence intervals surrounding the point estimates of the null studies; nor was there any discussion whether the studies could be aggregated to increase their power to rule out meaningful associations.

The Circuit court’s scientific jurisprudence was thus seriously flawed. Without a discussion of the end points observed, the relevant point estimates of risk ratios, and the confidence intervals, the reader cannot assess the strength of the claims made by Goldman and Strom, or by defense expert Simpson, in their reports. Without identifying the study endpoints, the reader cannot evaluate whether the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses relied upon relevant outcomes in formulating their opinions. The court viewed the subject matter from 30,000 feet, passing over at 600 mph, without engagement or care. A strong dissent, however, suggested serious mischaracterizations of the plaintiffs’ evidence by the majority.

The only specific causation testimony to support plaintiff’s claims came from Goldman, in what appears to have been a “differential etiology.” Goldman purported to rule out a genetic cause, even though he had not conducted a critical family history or ordered a state-of-the-art chromosomal study. Id. at 140. Of course, nothing in a differential etiology approach would allow a physician to rule out “unknown” causes, which, for birth defects, make up the most prevalent and likely causes to explain any particular case. The majority acknowledged that these were short comings, but rhetorically characterized them as substantive, not methodologic, and therefore as issues for cross-examination, not for consideration by a judicial gatekeeping. All this is magical thinking, but it continues to infect judicial approaches to specific causation. See, e.g., Green Mountain Chrysler Plymouth Dodge Jeep v. Crombie, 508 F. Supp. 2d 295, 311 (D.Vt. 2007) (citing Ambrosini for the proposition that “the possibility of uneliminated causes goes to weight rather than admissibility, provided that the expert has considered and reasonably ruled out the most obvious”). In Ambrosini, however, Dr. Goldman had not ruled out much of anything.

Circuit Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson dissented in a short, but pointed opinion that carefully marshaled the record evidence. Drs. Goldman and Strom had relied upon a study by Greenberg and Matsunaga, whose data failed to show a statistically significant association between MPA and cleft lip and palate, when the crucial issue of timing of exposure was taken into consideration. Ambrosini, 101 F.3d at 142.

Beyond the specific claims and evidence, Judge Henderson anticipated the subsequent Supreme Court decisions in Joiner, Kumho Tire, and Weisgram, and the year 2000 revision of Rule 702, in noting that the majority’s acceptance of glib claims to have used a “traditional methodology” would render Daubert nugatory. Id. at 143-45 (characterizing Strom and Goldman’s methodologies as “wispish”). Even more importantly, Judge Henderson refused to indulge the assumption that somehow the length of Goldman’s C.V. substituted for evidence that his methods satisfied the legal (or scientific) standard of reliability. Id.

The good news is that little or nothing in Ambrosini survives the 2000 amendment to Rule 702. The bad news is that not all federal judges seem to have noticed, and that some commentators continue to cite the case, as lovely.

Probably no commentator has promiscuously embraced Ambrosini as warmly as Carl Cranor, a philosopher, and occasional expert witness for the lawsuit industry, in several publications and presentations.8 Cranor has been particularly enthusiastic about Ambrosini’s approval of expert witness’s testimony that failed to address “the relative risk between exposed and unexposed populations of cleft lip and palate, or any other of the birth defects from which [the child] suffers,” as well as differential etiologies that exclude nothing.9 Somehow Cranor, as did the majority in Ambrosini, believes that testimony that fails to identify the magnitude of the point estimate of relative risk can “assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.”10 Of course, without that magnitude given, the trier of fact could not evaluate the strength of the alleged association; nor could the trier assess the probability of individual causation to the plaintiff. Cranor also has written approvingly of lumping unrelated end points, which defeats the assessment of biological plausibility and coherence by the trier of fact. When the defense expert witness in Ambrosini adverted to the point estimates for relevant end points, the majority, with Cranor’s approval, rejected the null findings as “too small to be significant.”11 If the null studies were, in fact, too small to be useful tests of the plaintiffs’ claims, intellectual and scientific honesty required an acknowledgement that the evidentiary display was not one from which a reasonable scientist would draw a causal conclusion.

1Ambrosini v. Labarraque, 101 F.3d 129, 138-39 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (citing and applying Ferebee), cert. dismissed sub nom. Upjohn Co. v. Ambrosini, 117 S.Ct. 1572 (1997) See also David E. Bernstein, “The Misbegotten Judicial Resistance to the Daubert Revolution,” 89Notre Dame L. Rev. 27, 31 (2013).

2 S. Prahalada, E. Carroad, M. Cukierski, and A.G. Hendrickx, “Embryotoxicity of a single dose of medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) and maternal serum MPA concentrations in cynomolgus monkey (Macaca fascicularis),” 32 Teratology 421 (1985).

3 S. Prahalada, E. Carroad, and A.G. Hendrick, “Embryotoxicity and maternal serum concentrations of medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) in baboons (Papio cynocephalus),” 32 Contraception 497 (1985).

4 See, e.g., Z. Katz, M. Lancet, J. Skornik, J. Chemke, B.M. Mogilner, and M. Klinberg, “Teratogenicity of progestogens given during the first trimester of pregnancy,” 65 Obstet Gynecol. 775 (1985); J.L. Yovich, S.R. Turner, and R. Draper, “Medroxyprogesterone acetate therapy in early pregnancy has no apparent fetal effects,” 38 Teratology 135 (1988).

5 G. Saccone, C. Schoen, J.M. Franasiak, R.T. Scott, and V. Berghella, “Supplementation with progestogens in the first trimester of pregnancy to prevent miscarriage in women with unexplained recurrent miscarriage: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials,” 107 Fertil. Steril. 430 (2017).

6 Ferebee v. Chevron Chemical Co., 736 F.2d 1529, 1535 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1062 (1984).

7 Dr. Strom was also quoted as having provided a misleading definition of statistical significance: “whether there is a statistically significant finding at greater than 95 percent chance that it’s not due to random error.” Ambrosini at 101 F.3d at 136. Given the majority’s inadequate description of the record, the description of witness testimony may not be accurate, and error cannot properly be allocated.

8 Carl F. Cranor, Toxic Torts: Science, Law, and the Possibility of Justice 320, 327-28 (2006); see also Carl F. Cranor, Toxic Torts: Science, Law, and the Possibility of Justice 238 (2d ed. 2016).

9 Carl F. Cranor, Toxic Torts: Science, Law, and the Possibility of Justice 320 (2006).

10 Id.

11 Id. ; see also Carl F. Cranor, Toxic Torts: Science, Law, and the Possibility of Justice 238 (2d ed. 2016).