TORTINI

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

The Knowledge Remedy Proposal

November 14th, 2020

Alexandra D. Lahav is the Ellen Ash Peters Professor of Law at the University of Connecticut School of Law. This year’s symposium issue of the Texas Law Review has published Professor Lahav’s article, “The Knowledge Remedy,” which calls for the imposition of a duty to conduct studies by defendants, to provide evidence relevant to plaintiffs’ product liability claims. Alexandra D. Lahav, “The Knowledge Remedy,” 98 Texas L. Rev. 1361 (2020) [cited as Lahav].

Professor Lahav’s advocated reform is based upon the premises that (1) the requisite studies needed for causal assessment “are too costly for plaintiffs to fund,” (2) are not done by manufacturers, or (3) are not done in good faith, and (4) are not conducted or adequately funded by government. Lahav believes that plaintiffs are injured by exposure to chemicals but they cannot establish causation in court because the defendant “hid its head in the sand,” or worse, “engaged in misconduct to prevent or hide research into its products.”[1] Lahav thus argues that when defendants have been found to have engaged in misconduct, courts should order them to fund studies into risks posed by their products.

Lahav’s claims are either empty or non-factual. The suggestion that plaintiffs are injured by products but cannot “prove” causation begs the question how she knows that these people were injured by the products at issue. In law professors’ language, Lahav has committed the fallacy of petitio principia.

Lahav’s poor-mouthing on behalf of claimants is factually unsupported in this article. Lahav tells us that:

“studies are too expensive for individuals or even groups to fund.”

This is assertion is never backed up with any data or evidence about the expense involved. Case-control studies for rare outcomes suffer from potential threats to their validity, but they can be assembled relatively quickly and inexpensively. Perhaps a more dramatic refutation of Lahav’s assertions come from the cohort studies done in administrative databases, such as the national healthcare databases of Denmark or Sweden, or the Veterans’ Administration database in the United States. These studies involve querying existing databases for the exposures and outcomes of interest, with appropriate controls; such studies are frequently of as high quality and validity as can be had in observational analytical epidemiology.

There are, of course, examples of corporate defendants’ misconduct in sponsoring or conducting studies. There is also evidence of misconduct in plaintiffs’ sponsorship of studies,[2] and outright fraud.[3] And certainly there is evidence of misconduct or misdirection in governmentally funded and sponsored research, sometimes done in cahoots with plaintiffs’ counsel.[4]

Perhaps more important for the intended audience of the Texas Law Review, Lahav’s assertion is demonstrably false. Plaintiffs, plaintiffs’ counsel, and plaintiffs’ advocacy groups have funded studies, often surreptitiously, in many litigations, including those involving claims of harm from Bair Hugger, asbestos, silicone gel breast implants, welding fume, Zofran, isotretinoin, and others. Lahav’s repetition of the claim does not make it true.[5] Plaintiffs and their proxies, including scientific advocates, can and do conduct studies, very much with a view toward supporting litigation claims. Mass tort litigation is a big business, often run by lawyer oligarchs of the plaintiffs’ bar. Ignorantia facti is not an excuse for someone who argues for a radical re-ordering of an already fragile litigation system.

Lahav also complains that studies take so long that the statute of limitations will run on the injury claims before the scientific studies can be completed. There is a germ of truth in this complaint, but the issue could be resolved with minor procedural modifications. Plaintiffs could be allowed a procedure to propound a simple interrogatory to manufacturing firms to ask whether they believe that causality exists between their product and a specific kind of harm, or whether a claimant should reasonably know that such causality exists to warrant pursuing a legal claim. If the manufacturers answer in the negative, then the firms would not be able to assert a limitations defense for any injury that arose on or before the date of its answer. Perhaps the court could allow the matter to stay on its docket and require that the defendant answer the question annually. Plaintiffs and their proxies would be able to sponsor studies necessary to support their claims, and putative defendants would be on notice that such studies are underway.

Without any serious consideration of the extant regulations, Lahav even extends her claims of inadequate testing and lax regulation to pharmaceutical products, which are subject to extensive requirements of showing safety and efficacy, both before and after approval for marketing. Lahav’s advocacy ignores that an individual epidemiologic study rarely “demonstrates” causation, and many such studies are required before the scientific community can accept the causal hypothesis as “disproven.” Lahav’s knowledge remedy is mostly an ignorance ruse.


[1]  Lahav at 1361.

[2]  For a recent, egregious example, see In re Zofran Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1:15-md-2657-FDS, Order on Defendant’s Motion to De-Designate Certain Documents as Confidential Under the Protective Order (D.Mass. Apr. 1, 2020) (uncovering dark data and dark money behind April Zambelli‐Weiner, Christina Via, Matt Yuen, Daniel Weiner, and Russell S. Kirby, “First Trimester Pregnancy Exposure to Ondansetron and Risk of Structural Birth Defects,” 83 Reproductive Toxicology 14 (2019)). See also In re Zofran (Ondansetron) Prod. Liab. Litig., 392 F. Supp. 3d 179, 182-84 (D. Mass. 2019) (MDL 2657);  “April Fool – Zambelli-Weiner Must Disclose” (April 2, 2020); “Litigation Science – In re Zambelli-Weiner” (April 8, 2019); “Mass Torts Made Less Bad – The Zambelli-Weiner Affair in the Zofran MDL” (July 30, 2019). See also Nate Raymond, “GSK accuses Zofran plaintiffs’ law firms of funding academic study,” Reuters (Mar. 5, 2019).

[3]  See Hon. Jack B. Weinstein, “Preliminary Reflections on Administration of Complex Litigation” 2009 Cardozo L. Rev. de novo 1, 14 (2009) (“[t]he breast implant litigation was largely based on a litigation fraud. …  Claims—supported by medical charlatans—that enormous damages to women’s systems resulted could not be supported.”) (emphasis added).

[4]  See, e.g., Robert M. Park, Paul A. Schulte, Joseph D. Bowman, James T. Walker, Stephen C. Bondy, Michael G. Yost, Jennifer A. Touchstone, and Mustafa Dosemeci, “Potential Occupational Risks for Neurodegenerative Diseases,” 48 Am. J. Ind. Med. 63, 65 (2005).

[5]  Lahav at 1369-70.

Is Your Daubert Motion Racist?

July 17th, 2020

In this week’s New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait points out there is now a vibrant anti-racism consulting industry that exists to help white (or White?) people to recognize the extent to which their race has enabled their success, in the face of systematic inequalities that burden people of color. Chait acknowledges that some of what this industry does is salutary and timely, but he also notes that there are disturbing elements in this industry’s messaging, which is nothing short of an attack on individualism as racist myth that ignores that individuals are subsumed completely into their respective racial group. Chait argues that many of the West’s most cherished values – individualism, due process, free speech and inquiry, and the rule of law – are imperiled by so-called “radical progressivism” and “identity politics.”[1]

It is hard to fathom how anti-racism can collapse all identity into racial categories, even if some inarticulate progressives say so. Chait’s claim, however, seems to be supported by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, and its webpages on “Talking about Race,” which provides an extended analysis of “whiteness,” “white privilege,” and the like.

On May 31, 2020, the Museum’s website published a graphic that presented its view of the “Aspects & Assumptions of Whiteness and White Culture in the United States,” which made many startling claims about what is “white,” and by implication, what is “non-white.” [The chart is set out below.] I will leave it to the sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists to parse the discussion of “white-dominant culture,” and white “racial identity,” provided in the Museum’s webpages. In my view, the characterizations of “whiteness” were overtly racist and insulting to all races and ethnicities. As Chait points out, with an abundance of irony, Donald Trump would seem to be the epitome of non-white, by his disavowal of the Museum’s identification of white culture’s insistence that “hard work is the key to success.”

The aspect of the graphic summary of whiteness, which I found most curious, most racist, and most insulting to people of all colors and ethnicities, is the chart’s assertion that white culture places “Emphasis on the Scientific Method,” with its valuation of “[o]bjective, rational linear thinking; “[c]ause and effect relationships”; and “[q]uantitative emphasis.” The implication is that non-whites do not emphasize or care about the scientific method. So scientific method, with its concern over validity of inference, and ruling out random and systematic errors, is just white privilege, and a microaggression against non-white people.

Really? Can the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture really mean that scientific punctilio is just another manifestation of racism and cultural imperialism. Chait seems to think so, quoting Glenn Singleton, president of Courageous Conversation, a racial-sensitivity training firm, who asserts that valuing “written communication over other forms” is “a hallmark of whiteness,” as is “scientific, linear thinking. Cause and effect.”

The Museum has apparently removed the graphic from its website, in response to a blitz of criticism from right-wing media and pundits.[2]  According to the Washington Post, the graphic has its origins in a 1978 book on White Awareness.[3] In response to the criticism, museum director Spencer Crew apologized and removed the graphic, agreeing that “it did not contribute to the discussion as planned.”[4]

The removal of the graphic is not really the point. Many people will now simply be bitter that they cannot publicly display their racist tropes. More important yet, many people will continue to believe that causal, rational, linear thinking is white, exclusionary, and even racist. Something to remember when you make your next Rule 702 motion.


[1]  Jonathan Chait, “Is the Anti-Racism Training Industry Just Peddling White Supremacy?” New York Magazine (July 16, 2020).

[2]  Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore “‘DEEPLY INSULTING’ African American museum accused of ‘racism’ over whiteness chart linking hard work and nuclear family to white culture,” The Sun (Jul 16 2020); “DC museum criticized for saying ‘delayed gratification’ and ‘decision-making’ are aspects of ‘whiteness’,” Fox News (July 16, 2020) (noting that the National Museum of African American History and Culture received a tremendous outcry after equating the nuclear family and self-reliance to whiteness); Sam Dorman, “African-American museum removes controversial chart linking ‘whiteness’ to self-reliance, decision-making The chart didn’t contribute to the ‘productive conversation’ they wanted to see,” Fox News (July 16, 2020); Mairead McArdle, “African American History Museum Publishes Graphic Linking ‘Rational Linear Thinking,’ ‘Nuclear Family’ to White Culture,” Nat’l Rev. (July 15, 2020).

[3]  Judy H. Katz, White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training (1978).

[4]  Peggy McGlone, “African American Museum site removes ‘whiteness’ chart after criticism from Trump Jr. and conservative media,” Wash. Post (July 17, 2020).

ACGIH TLVs Lack Scientific Integrity & Transparency – The Mica NIC

June 2nd, 2020

The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH®) is a non-profit corporation established in 1938, to advance occupational and environmental health.  The corporation’s motto, included in its logo, hubristically announces:  “Defining the Science of Occupational and Environmental Health.”

Philosophers of science may demur from “the” in “the Science,” as well as from the intellectual arrogance in suggesting that this private organization has any such ability to commandeer the complex social nature of scientific knowledge. And yet, in the small area of setting permissible exposure limits to potential environmental or occupational toxic substances, the ACGIH is in the business of “defining” safety. Starting in 1941, the group started to review and recommend “exposure limits.” In 1956, the group coined (literally and figuratively) the term “threshold limit values” (TLVs®), and started to publish documentation for its recommended values.

From the beginning, the ACGIH has asserted that TLVs® are not standards; rather they are guidelines for use, with other information, in determining safe levels of workplace and environmental exposure. The ACGIH maintains that its TLVs are based upon published, peer-reviewed scientific studies in industrial hygiene, toxicology, occupational medicine, and epidemiology, without consideration for economic or technical feasibility.

Beginning in the 1980s, “the Lobby”[1] started to throw brushback pitches at the ACGIH to bully the organization out of positions that the Lobby thought were too comforting to manufacturing industry.[2]  The result was a dramatic shift in the ACGIH’s perspective. The bullying created a “white-hat” bias that operates as a one-way ratchet to push the ACGIH always to lower TLVs, regardless whether there was a scientific warrant for doing so. Efforts to curb ACGIH overreach by litigation have generally failed. The TLVs have becoming increasingly controversial and non-evidence-based.[3]

What follows is what a hypothetical stakeholder might submit in response to a recent ACGIH Notice of Intended change for its TLV for mica dust. Like other mineral dusts, mica when inhaled in large quantities over long time periods, causes a pneumoconiosis. Documenting a “reasonable safe” level requires studies with adequate quantification of exposure. I will leave the reader to decide whether the ACGIH has that evidence in hand, based upon the following.

[1]  F.D.K. Liddell, “Magic, Menace, Myth and Malice,” 41 Ann. Occup. Hyg. 3, 3 (1997); seeThe Lobby Lives – Lobbyists Attack IARC for Conducting Scientific Research” (Feb. 19, 2013).

[2]  Barry I. Castleman & Grace E. Ziem, “Corporate influence on threshold limit values,” 13 Am. J. Indus.  Med. 531 (1988); Grace Ziem & Barry I. Castleman, “Threshold limit values: historical perspectives and current practice,” 31 J. Occup. Med. 910 (1989); S.A. Roach & S.M. Rappaport, “But they are not thresholds:  a critical analysis of the documentation of Threshold Limit Values,” 17 Am. J. Indus. Med. 727 (1990).

[3]  Philip E. Karmel, “The Threshold Limit Values Controversy,” N.Y. L. J. (Jan. 3, 2008).

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These comments are in response to the proposed change in the ACGIH® TLV® for Mica, as explained in the ACGIH “Mica: TLV® Chemical Substances Draft Documentation, Notice of Intended Change” (“NIC”).  For the reasons stated below, the change in the Mica TLV-TWA (time-weighted average) in the NIC is not warranted and the existing Mica TLV should not be changed.

The ACGIH® TLVs® are important non-governmental standards, largely because a number of government entities incorporate TLVs by reference into regulations and thus give TLVs the force of law.[4]  For example, some states and Canadian provinces simply adopt TLVs as state or provincial occupational exposures levels, and some states have established “maximum allowable ambient concentrations” or similar limits on “toxic air contaminants” based entirely or in part on TLVs.  The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) uses the 1973 ACGIH TLV for crystalline silica (quartz) as a legally enforceable permissible exposure level.[5]  The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) Hazard Communication Standard requires that ACGIH TLVs be disclosed in required Safety Data Sheets.  The process by which the ACGIH develops TLVs is critically important, and furthermore, given the regulatory and legal significance of the ACGIH TLVs, the ACGIH has the burden to support proposed changes in TLVs by an adequate process, which includes transparency and evidence sufficient to support any proposed change.

The flaws in the ACGIH TLV setting process are well known and the subject of several publications, most recently in paper titled “142 ACGIH Threshold Limit Values® established from 2008-2018 lack consistency and transparency.”

The following specific comments address the ACGIH’s process disclosed in the ACGIH’s NIC in support of its proposed change for the TLV-TWA for mica, which illustrate the process problem — the ACGIH NIC for the proposed Mica TLV-TWA change does not support the change proposed by the ACGIH.   Again, the ACGIH TLVs have regulatory and legal significance; therefore, the ACGIH should not make TLV changes arbitrarily and capriciously.  Instead, the changes should be made pursuant to a transparent process, and the ACGIH should support the proposed changes with the weight of the available evidence, and the evidence in support of and the reasons for the proposed change should be publicly disclosed.  It has not done that in this case, and its own NIC makes it clear that it has not:

  1. There is no evidence that “mica is an important cause of disabling occupational pneumoconiosis” as stated in the NIC. 

The NIC provides no citation or other supporting evidence for this conclusion; it merely states the conclusion as “fact” and a premise for the proposed change.[6] The NIC fails to estimate the number of workers currently potentially exposed to mica in the U.S. (or elsewhere), what industries these workers work in, what forms of mica these workers may be exposed to, what levels of respirable mica these workers may be exposed to, and to what extent pneumoconiosis caused by the inhalation of respirable mica exists.[7]

  1. The NIC proposes to materially lower the TLV for mica, but, other than noting that there are “nine different major species”, does not adequately address the mineralogical differences between the different species of mica, makes no attempt to assess the potential adverse health effects for the different species of mica, does not examine the “dose-response” data (as inadequate as it is) for the different species of mica, and so on. 

The “Chemical and Physical Properties” section of the NIC suggests the wide variety of materials that fall within the general term “mica”.  In spite of this, the ACGIH appears to have ignored differences and concluded that the TLV for “mica” as a general category of substances should be applicable to all forms of mica, with no support for this conclusion in the NIC.[8]

  1. The human studies (sic) cited in the NIC are inadequate to support a decision to change the mica TLV and do not support the mica TLV proposed.

The first cited study involved four employees in a muscovite milling plant, with an alleged exposure to respirable mica (as muscovite) dust between 1.86 and 5.77 mg/m3.

The second cited study involved a (one) South African man who worked in a mica milling factory.  As noted in the NIC, “[q]uantitative exposure data were not reported.”

The third cited study involved a (one) 65-year old who worked in the rubber industry for 40 years, where he was exposed to numerous dusts, including mica.  There was no exposure data reported.

The fourth study involved a (one) 62-year old woman allegedly exposed to “pure mica” for seven years; no quantitative exposure data were available.

The NIC cites the case of a worker who bagged mica flake for 36 years.  In this case, there were, apparently, two dust samples taken – one at the time of a medical exam of the worker at age 54, total dust of 0.2 mg/m3 — and one taken 17 years earlier – 0.7 mg/m3.  The bulk mica samples disclosed 7.1% to 8.4% silica (presumably, respirable crystalline silica as quartz).  The reference to the silica content of the “bulk samples” suggests that there was no analysis of the material collected in the two air samples taken.

The NIC cites the case of two British men who worked as “grinders of imported muscovite,” one starting in 1957. The “workplace dust concentrations were not quantified.”

The next paper cited in the NIC was from 1940 and involved employees who were exposed to the dust caused by “mica-scrap” grinding.  There was actually an attempt to quantify mica exposures (the data from before 1940), but it was done by particle count.  The NIC notes that the available information regarding mica health effects may be “limited by potential uncertainty converting from mppcf (million particles per cubic foot) to mg/m3 (which might not apply to all dust exposure scenarios).”  The difficulties associated with converting from mppcf to mg/m3 are well known in the cases of minerals far more extensively studied than mica (e.g., crystalline silica as quartz).  In addition to the conversion factor issue, there are other concerns raised by relying upon a paper published in 1940 to support a TLV today, such as, the quality of the sampling, the quality of the chest x-rays, and issues with the classification of the chest x-rays.  With that said, the NIC noted that “[n]one of the workers exposed at less than 10 mppcf (1.8 mg/m3), irrespective of employment duration, developed pneumoconiosis.”

The remaining studies cited in the NIC are similar.  But, to close this section of the comments, I will refer to the last study, a study of 71 South African workers employed in mica milling.  Twelve personal and static samples were taken during the course of the study.  The results of the personal samples indicated a range of respirable dust (or was it mica?) between 0.4 to 1.68 mg/m3.  The radiologic examination disclosed that 19 of the 71 workers had changes consistent with one or more of asbestos, silica and/or mica.  “The specific dust concentrations to which the individuals presenting with lung changes were exposed were not reported.”

The ACGIH is proposing a reduction in the mica TLV based on the studies as described in the NIC.  We submit that this is a process and transparency problem – there is simply no way to conclude that a reduction in the mica TLV is warranted based on the Human Studies (the “evidence”) cited in the NIC.  In most cases, the Human Studies are simply case reports involving one, two, or a few people, with no quantitative exposure data.  The studies with exposure data are inadequate, i.e., date from before 1940, and among other things measured exposure as mppcf, with one study literally including two samples.  Given the legal and regulatory significance of ACGIH TLVs, the evidence cited in support of the change in the mica TLV, and the reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence cited, should exceed some threshold and meet some burden.  The evidence in the NIC is grossly insufficient to support the proposed change.

  1. The NIC for mica does not disclose any evidence to support the proposed TLV of a TWA of 0.1 mg/m3

The comparison to OSHA’s notice of proposed rulemaking for occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is instructive.  The supporting documentation sets forth a preliminary quantitative risk assessment outlining life-time risks for various disease end points associated with occupational exposure to RCS at various levels.  The preliminary quantitative risk assessment disclosed all of the underlying studies and methodology, sufficient to allow a reader to understand the basis for the risk assessment conclusions and agree or disagree with the conclusions.  Based on the risks (and other factors not considered by the ACGIH) set forth in the documentation, OSHA proposed a PEL (permissible exposure level) for RCS.

By contrast, the ACGIH simply contends for its proposed mica TLV: “Consequently, a TLV-TWA of 0.1 mg/m3 measured as respirable fraction (containing no asbestos and <1% crystalline silica) is recommended.”  The materials preceding “[c]consequently”, which in normal reading would be expected to support the conclusion following, are not a risk assessment or anything similar to one, and in no way even superficially support the conclusion – the recommendation – stated.[9]  Therefore, the ACGIH proposed a TLV-TWA of 0.1. The NIC materials do not support a TLV of 0.1 mg/m3, any more than they support a TLV of 0.0001 or 10.  It cannot be stated too emphatically that the NIC is devoid of any evidence to support any TLV, including the recommended TLV-TWA of 0.1 mg/m3.

Of course, the ACGIH TLV process is not a federal rulemaking.  And readers should be aware of the ACGIH Position Statement regarding TLVs (“TLVs … are not quantitative levels of risk at different exposure levels…”). But the same Position Statement notes that “TLVs®…represent conditions under which ACGIH® believes that nearly all workers may be repeatedly exposed without adverse health effects.”  So, presumably, the ACGIH concluded that its proposed mica TLV was that level, and yet there is simply no evidence in the NIC to support that conclusion.  Given the regulatory and legal significance of TLVs, the process of establishing TLVs should have some basis in science and evidence.

References

ACGIH® TLV/BEI® Position Statement, available at: https://www.acgih.org/tlv-bei-guidelines/policies-procedures-presentations/tlv-bei-position-statement

ACGIH® TLV/BEI® Policy Statement, available at: https://www.acgih.org/tlv-bei-guidelines/policies-procedures-presentations/tlv-bei-policy-statement

30 C.F.R. § 56.5001 (MSHA exposure to airborne contaminants)

29 C.F.R. § 1910.1200 (OSHA Hazard Communications)

D. Davies & R. Cotton, “Mica pneumoconiosis,” 40 Br. J. Indus. Med. 22 (1983)

Subhabrata Moitra, “Mica pneumoconiosis: a neglected occupational lung disease – letter,” 6 The Lancet Respir. Med. e39 (2018), available at: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(18)30178-4/fulltext

Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) for Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica, 56 Fed. Reg. 56273 (Sept. 12, 2013)

Knut R. Skulburg, “Mica pneumoconiosis – a literature review,” 11 Scand. J. Work & Envt’l Health 65 (1985)

Carl J. Smith & Thomas A. Perfetti, “142 ACGIH Threshold Limit Values® (TLV®s) established from 2008-2018 lack consistency and transparency,” 3 Toxicol. Research & Application 1 (2019)


[4] ACGIH states that TLVs are not intended to be legal standards, but the ACGIH recognizes the broad use of TLVs and should reasonably anticipate that TLVs will be used in ways beyond the scope of the legal disclaimers that the ACGIH publishes.

[5] 30 C.F.R. 56.5001

[6] The problems cited by Moitra — illegally operated mica mines exploiting vulnerable populations to work without protections in India and some African countries — speak to the need to eliminate illegal mining and protect vulnerable populations from exploitation, not the adequacy or inadequacy of any TLV.

[7] By comparison, see the OSHA documentation for the NPRM for Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica published September 12, 2013.  The citation to the 1985 Skulberg article (in “Major Sources of Exposure”) is inadequate on its face in 2020; the article summarizes world mica use from 1905-1981, and provides no information regarding use post-1981.  Likewise, the citation to the “Campaign for Safe Cosmetics” does not provide information on occupational exposure.

[8] The case of crystalline silica again provides a useful contrast.  There is no ACGIH TLV for “crystalline silica,” which as a general term includes many polymorphs.

[9] Actually, the materials that precede “consequently” explicitly refute the conclusion stated by the ACGIH (the TLV-TWA of 0.1 mg/m3) — “the published literature has established an association between mica exposure and pneumoconiosis typically at concentrations in the range of 1-6 mg/m3,”  and “no cases were observed among workers exposed to mica dusts at concentrations of 1.8 mg/m3 or less….”

Counter Cancel Culture – The NAS Conference on Irreproducibility

February 9th, 2020

The meaning of the world is the separation of wish and fact.”  Kurt Gödel

Back in October 2019, David Randall, the Director of Research, of the National Association of Scholars, contacted me to ask whether I would be interested in presenting at a conference, to be titled “Fixing Science: Practical Solutions for the Irreproducibility Crisis.” David explained that the conference would be aimed at a high level consideration of whether such a crisis existed, and if so, what salutary reforms might be implemented.

As for the character and commitments of the sponsoring organizations, David was candid and forthcoming. I will quote him, without his permission, and ask his forgiveness later:

The National Association of Scholars is taken to be conservative by many scholars; the Independent Institute is (broadly speaking) in the libertarian camp. The NAS is open to but currently agnostic about the degree of human involvement in climate change. The Independent Institute I take to be institutionally skeptical of consensus climate change theory–e.g., they recently hosted Willie Soon for lecture. A certain number of speakers prefer not to participate in events hosted by institutions with these commitments.”

To me, the ask was for a presentation on how the so-called replication crisis, or the irreproducibility crisis, affected the law. This issue was certainly one I have had much occasion to consider. Although I am aware of the “adjacency” arguments made by some that people should be mindful of whom they align with, I felt that nothing in my participation would compromise my own views or unduly accredit institutional positions of the sponsors.

I was flattered by the invitation, but I did some due diligence on the sponsoring organizations. I vaguely recalled the Independent Institute from my more libertarian days, but the National Association of Scholars (NAS, not to be confused with Nathan A. Schachtman) was relatively unknown to me. A little bit of research showed that the NAS had a legitimate interest in the irreproducibility crisis. David Randall had written a monograph for the organization, which was a nice summary of some of the key problems. The Irreproducibility Crisis of Modern Science: Causes, Consequences,and the Road to Reform (2018).

On other issues, the NAS seemed to live up to its description as “an organization of scholars committed to higher education as the catalyst of American freedom.” I listened to some of the group’s podcasts, Curriculum Vitae, and browsed through its publications. I found myself agreeing with many positions articulated by or through the NAS, and disagreeing with a few positions very strongly.

In looking over the list of other invited speakers, I saw great diversity of view points and approaches, One distinguished speaker, Daniele Fanelli, had criticized the very notion that there was a reproducibility crisis. In the world of statistics, there were strong defenders of statistical tests, and vociferous critics. I decided to accept the invitation, not because I was flattered, but because the replication issue was important, and I believed that I could add something to the discussion before an audience of professional scientists, statisticians, and educated lay persons. In writing to David Randall to accept the invitation, I told him that with respect to the climate change issues, I was not at all put off by healthy skepticism in the face all dogmas. Every dogma will have its day.

I did not give any further consideration to the political aspect of the conference until early January, when I received an email from a scientist, Lenny Teytelman, Ph.D., the C.E.O. of a company protocols.io, which addresses reproducibility issues. Dr Teytelman’s interest in improving reproducibility seemed quite genuine, but he wrote to express his deep concern about the conference and the organizations that were sponsoring it.

Perhaps a bit pedantically, he cautioned me that the NAS was not the National Academy of Sciences, a confusion that never occurred to me because the National Academies has been known as the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine for several years now. Dr. Teytelman’s real concern seemed to be that the NAS is a “‘politically conservative advocacy group’.” (The internal scare quotes were Teytelman’s, but I was not afraid.) According to Dr. Teytelman, the NAS sought to undermine climate science and environmental protection by advancing a call for more reproducible science. He pointed me to what he characterized as an exposé on NAS, in Undark,1 and he cautioned me that the National Association of Scholars’ work is “dangerous.” Finally, Dr. Teytelman urged me to reconsider my decision to participate in the conference.

I did reconsider my decision, but reaffirmed it in an email I sent back to Dr. Teytelman. I realized that I could be wrong, in which case, I would eat my words, confident that they would be most digestible:

Dear Dr Teytelman,

Thank you for your note. I was aware of the piece on Undark’s website, as well as the difference between the NAS and the NASEM. I don’t believe anyone involved in science education would likely to be confused between the two organizations. A couple of years ago, I wrote a teaching module on biomedical causation for the National Academies. This is my first presentation at the request of the NAS, and frankly I am honored by the organization’s request that I present at its conference.

I have read other materials that have been critical of the NAS and its publications on climate change and other issues. I know that there are views of the organization from which I would dissent, but I do not see my disagreement on some issues as a reason not to attend, and present at a conference on an issue of great importance to the legal system.

I am hardly an expert on climate change issues, and that is my failing. Most of my professional work involves health effects regulation and litigation. If the NAS has advanced sophistical arguments against a scientific claim, then the proper antidote will be to demonstrate its fallacious reasoning and misleading marshaling of evidence. I should think, however, as someone interested in improving the reproducibility of scientific research, you will agree that there is much common ground for discussion and reform of scientific practice, on a broader arrange [sic] of issues than climate change.

As for the political ‘conservatism’, of the organization, I am not sure why that is a reason to eschew participation in a conference that should be of great importance to people of all political views. My own politics probably owe much to the influence of Michael Oakeshott, which puts me in perhaps the smallest political tribe of any in the United States. If conservatism means antipathy to post-modernism, identity politics, political orthodoxies, and assaults on Enlightenment values and the Rule of Law, then count me in.

In any event, thanks for your solicitude. I think I can participate and return with my soul intact.

All the best.

Nathan

To his credit, Dr. Teytelman tenaciously continued. He acknowledged that the political leanings of the organizers were not a reason to boycott, but he politely pressed his case. We were now on a first name basis:

Dear Nathan,

I very much applaud all efforts to improve the rigour of our science. The problem here is that this NAS organization has a specific goal – undermining the environmental protection and denying climate change. This is why 7 out of the 21 speakers at the event are climate change deniers. [https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/136FNLtJzACc6_JbbOxjy2urbkDK7GefRZ/edit?usp=sharing] And this isn’t some small fringe effort to be ignored. Efforts of this organization and others like them have now gotten us to the brink of a regulatory change at the United States Environmental Protection Agency which can gut the entire EPA (see a recent editorial against this I co-authored). This conference is not a genuine effort to talk about reproducibility. The reproducibility part is a clever disguise for pushing a climate change denialism agenda.

Best,

Lenny

I looked more carefully at Lenny’s spreadsheet, and considered the issue afresh. We were both pretty stubborn:

Dear Lenny,

Thank you for this information. I will review with interest.

I do not see that the conference is primarily or even secondarily about climate change vel non. There are two scientists, Trafimow and Wasserstein with whom I have some disagreements about statistical methodology. Tony Cox and Stan Young, whatever their political commitments or views on climate change may be, are both very capable statisticians, from whom I have learned a great deal. The conference should be a lively conversation about reproducibility, not about climate change. Given your interests and background, you should go.

I believe that your efforts here are really quite illiberal, although they are in line with the ‘cancel culture’, so popular on campuses these days.

Forty three years ago, I entered a Roman Catholic Church to marry the woman I love. There were no lightning bolts or temblors, even though I was then and I am now an atheist. Yes, I am still married to my first wife. Although I share the late Christopher Hitchins’ low view of the Catholic Church, somehow I managed to overcome my antipathy to being married in what some would call a house of ill repute. I even manage to agree with some Papist opinions, although not for the superstitious reasons’ Papists embrace.

If I could tolerate the RC Church’s dogma for a morning, perhaps you could put aside the dichotomous ‘us and them’ view of the world and participate in what promises to be an interesting conference on reproducibility?

All the best.

Nathan

Lenny kindly acknowledged my having considered his issues, and wrote back a nice note, which I will quote again in full without permission, but with the hope that he will forgive me and even acknowledge that I have given his views an airing in this forum.

Hi Nathan,

We’ll have to agree to disagree. I don’t want to give a veneer of legitimacy to an organization whose goal is not improving reproducibility but derailing EPA and climate science.

Warmly,

Lenny

The business of psychoanalyzing motives and disparaging speakers and conference organizers is a dangerous business for several reasons. First motives can be inscrutable. Second, they can be misinterpreted. And third, they can be mixed. When speaking of organizations, there is the further complication of discerning a corporate motive among the constituent members.

The conference was an exciting, intellectually challenging event, which took place in Oakland, California, on February 7 and 8. I can report back to Lenny that his characterizations of and fears about the conference were unwarranted. While there were some assertions of climate change skepticism made with little or no evidence, the evidence-based presentations essentially affirmed climate change and sought to understand its causes and future course in a scientific way. But climate change was not why I went to this conference. On the more general issue of reform of scientific procedures and methods, we had open debates, some agreement on important principles, and robust and reasoned disagreement.

Lenny, you were correct that the NAS should not be ignored, but you should have gone to the meeting and participated in the conversation.


1 Michael Schulson, “A Remedy for Broken Science, Or an Attempt to Undercut It?Undark (April 18, 2018).