TORTINI

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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).

Some High-Value Targets for Sander Greenland in 2018

December 27th, 2017

A couple of years ago, Sander Greenland and I had an interesting exchange on Deborah Mayo’s website. I tweaked Sander for his practice of calling out defense expert witnesses for statistical errors, while ignoring whoopers made by plaintiffs’ expert witnesses. SeeSignificance Levels Made a Whipping Boy on Climate-Change Evidence: Is p < 0.05 Too Strict?” Error Statistics (Jan. 6, 2015).1 Sander acknowledged that he received a biased sample of expert reports through his service as a plaintiffs’ expert witness, but protested that defense counsel avoided him like the plague. In an effort to be helpful, I directed Sander to an example of bad statistical analysis that had been proffered by Dr Bennett Omalu, in a Dursban case, Pritchard v. Dow Agro Sciences, 705 F. Supp. 2d 471 (W.D. Pa. 2010), aff’d, 430 F. App’x 102, 104 (3d Cir. 2011).2

Sander was unimpressed with my example of Dr. Omalu; he found the example “a bit disappointing though because [Omalu] was merely a county medical examiner, and his junk analysis was duly struck. The expert I quoted in my citations was a full professor of biostatistics at a major public university, a Fellow of the American Statistical Association, a holder of large NIH grants, and his analysis (more subtle in its transgressions) was admitted” (emphasis added). Sander expressed an interest in finding “examples involving similarly well-credentialed, professionally accomplished plaintiff experts whose testimony was likewise admitted… .”

Although it was heartening to read Sander’s concurrence in the assessment of Omalu’s analysis as “junk,” Sander’s rejection of Dr. Omalu as merely a low-value target was disappointing, given that Omalu also has a master’s degree in public health, from the University of Pittsburgh, where he claims he studied with Professor Lew Kuller. Omalu has also gained some fame and notoriety for his claim to have identified the problem of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among professional football players. After all, even Sander Greenland has not been the subject of a feature-length movie (Concussion), as has Omalu.

I lost track of our exchange in 2015, until recently I was reminded of it when reading an expert report by Professor Martin Wells. Unlike Omalu, Wells meets all the Greenland criteria for high-value targets. He is not only a full, chaired professor but also the statistics department chairman at an ivy-league school, Cornell University. Wells is a fellow of both the American Statistical Association and the Royal Statistical Society, but most important, Wells is a frequent plaintiffs’ expert witness, who is well known to Sander Greenland. Both Wells and Greenland served, side by side, as plaintiffs’ expert witnesses in the pain pump litigation.

So here is the passage in the Wells’ report that is worthy of Greenland’s attention:

If a 95% confidence interval is specified, the range encompasses the results we would expect 95% of the time if samples for new studies were repeatedly drawn from the same population.”

In re Testosterone Replacement Therapy Prods. Liab. Litig., Declaration of Martin T. Wells, Ph.D., at 2-3 (N.D. Ill., Oct. 30, 2016). Unlike the Dursban litigation involving Bennett Omalu, where the “junk analysis” was excluded, in the litigation against AbbVie for its manufacture and selling of prescription testosterone supplementation, Wells’ opinions were not excluded or limited. In re Testosterone Replacement Therapy Prods. Liab. Litig., No. 14 C 1748, MDL No. 2545, 2017 WL 1833173 (N.D. Ill. May 8, 2017) (denying Rule 702 motions).

Now this statement by Wells surely offends the guidance provided by Greenland and colleagues.3 And it was exactly the sort of misrepresentation that led to a confabulation of the American Statistical Association, and that Association’s consensus statement on statistical significance.4

And here is another example, which occurs not in a distorting litigation forum, but on the pages of an occupational health journal, where the editor in chief, Anthony L. Kiorpes, ranted about the need for better statistical editing and writing in his own journal. See Anthony L Kiorpes, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics,” 33 Toxicol. & Indus. Health 885 (2017). Kiorpes decried he misuse of statistics:

I am not implying that it is the intent of the scientists who publish in these pages to mislead readers by their use of statistics, but I submit that the misuse of statistics, whether intentional or otherwise, creates confusion and error.”

Id. at 885. Kiorpes then proceeded to hold himself up as Exhibit A to his screed:

Remember that p values are estimates of the probability that the null hypothesis (no difference) is true.”

Id. Uggh; we seem to be back sliding after the American Statistical Association’s consensus statement.

Almost all scientists have stated (or have been tempted to state) something like ‘the mean of Group A was greater than that of Group B, but the difference was not statistically significant’. With very few exceptions (which I will mention below), this statement is nonsense.”

* * * * *

What the statistics are indicating when the p-value is greater than 0.05 is that there is ‘no difference’ between group A and group B.”

Id. at 886.

Let’s hope that this gets Sander Greenland away from his biased sampling of expert witnesses, off the backs of defense expert witnesses, and on to some of the real culprits out there, in the new year.


See also Sander Greenland on ‘The Need for Critical Appraisal of Expert Witnesses in Epidemiology and Statistics’” (Feb. 8, 2015).

See alsoPritchard v. Dow Agro – Gatekeeping Exemplified” (Aug. 25, 2014); Omalu and Science — A Bad Weld” (Oct. 22, 2016); Brian v. Association of Independent Oil Distributors, No. 2011-3413, Westmoreland Cty. Ct. Common Pleas, Order of July 18, 2016 (excluding Dr. Omalu’s testimony on welding and solvents and Parkinson’s disease).

3 See, e.g., Sander Greenland, Stephen J. Senn, Kenneth J. Rothman, John B. Carlin, Charles Poole, Steven N. Goodman, and Douglas G. Altman, “Statistical tests, P values, confidence intervals, and power: a guide to misinterpretations,” 31 Eur. J. Epidem. 337 (2016).

4 Ronald L. Wasserstein & Nicole A. Lazar, “American Statistical Association Statement on statistical significance and p values,” 70 Am. Statistician 129 (2016)

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.

Quackers & Cheese – Trump Picks Kennedy to Study Vaccine Safety

January 11th, 2017

Science necessarily involves a willingness to follow evidence to whatever conclusions are warranted, if conclusions properly can be had. When it comes to vaccination conspiracies, Democrats have it in their political DNA to distrust pharmaceutical companies that research, develop, and manufacture vaccines. The current Republican party, which has been commandeered by theocrats and populists, see vaccination as federal government aggrandizement, and resist vaccination policy as contrary to God’s will. Science is often the loser in the cross-fire.

And so we now have the public spectacle of watching the left and the right join in similar scientific apostasies. Consider how both McCain and Obama both suggested that vaccines and autism were related in the 2008 election. (Although both candidates were to some extent slippery in their suggestions, which might have been appropriate given how little they knew about the controversies.) And consider Michelle Bachmann was converted to a similar view about the HPV vaccine on the basis of a woman’s anecdote about her child. And then on the far left, you have the uplifting story of Robert F. Kennedy Jr, and his brief on how thimerosal supposedly causes autism.

So it should be no surprise that Donald Trump, a Birther, a Mirther, a mid-night Twitterer, should embrace the anti-vaccination movement. Trump has made it clear that he rejects evidence-based policy, and so no one should expect him to embrace a scientific policy that is driven by high-quality scientific evidence. According to Kennedy, Trump wants Kennedy to head up a “commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” Michael D. Shear, Maggie Haberman & Pam Belluckjan, “Anti-Vaccine Activist Says Trump Wants Him to Lead Panel on Immunization Safety,” N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 2017); Domenico Montanaro, “Despite The Facts, Trump Once Again Embraces Vaccine Skeptics,” National Public Radio (Jan. 10, 2017).

Who needs the National Academy of Medicine when you can put a yutzball lawyer in charge of a “commission”?

Some of the media refer to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as a vaccine skeptic, but their terminology is grossly inaccurate and misleading. Kennedy is a vaccine denier; he has engaged in a vitriolic campaign against the safety and efficacy of vaccines. He has aligned himself with the most extreme deniers of science, medicine, and public safety, including the likes of Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy. Kennedy has not merely engaged hyperbolic rhetoric against vaccines, he has used his radio show on the lawsuit industry’s Ring of Fire, to advance his campaign against public health as well as to shill for the lawsuit industry on other issues. SeeRFK, Jr.: Science Shows That Autism — Mercury Link Exists – PT. ½,” Ring of Fire (Mar 8, 2011).

Kennedy should not be characterized as a skeptic, when he is a shrill ideologue, for whom science has no method that he is bound to respect. Back in July 2005, Kennedy published an article, “Deadly Immunity,” in both Rolling Stone and on Slate’s website. The article was a hateful screed against Big Pharma and government health agencies for an alleged conspiracy to hide the autism risks of thimerosal preservatives in vaccines. Several years later, on January 16, 2011, Salon retracted the article. Seehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deadly_Immunity” entry in Wikipedia. See also Phil Plait, “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Anti-Vaxxer,” Slate (June 5 2013) (describing Kennedy as a full-blown anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist); Rahul K. Parikh, M.D., “Inside the vaccine-and-autism scare: A pediatrician traces the rise of the anti-vaccine movement that falsely linked thimerosal with autism and turned parents away from the most lifesaving medicine in history,” Salon (Sept. 22, 2008); Keith Kloor,Is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Anti-Science?” Discover Magazine (June 1, 2013); Steven Novella, “RFK Jr.s Autism Conspiracy Theory,” (Jun 20 2007).

Back in 2008, President Obama apparently considered Robert Kennedy for a cabinet-level position, but on sober reflection, thought better of it. See Steven Novella, “Politics and Science – The RFK Jr. Test,” (Nov. 07 2008). The Wall Street Journal, joined by many others, are now urging Trump to think harder and better about the issue, perhaps with some evidence as well. See Alex Berezow & Hank Campbell, “Ignore Anti-Vaccine Hysteria, Mr. Trump: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s conspiracy theories have no place in the White House,” Wall Street J. (Jan. 10, 2017).