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

Daubert Retrospective – Statistical Significance

January 5th, 2019

The holiday break was an opportunity and an excuse to revisit the briefs filed in the Supreme Court by parties and amici, in the Daubert case. The 22 amicus briefs in particular provided a wonderful basis upon which to reflect how far we have come, and also how far we have to go, to achieve real evidence-based fact finding in technical and scientific litigation. Twenty-five years ago, Rules 702 and 703 vied for control over errant and improvident expert witness testimony. With Daubert decided, Rule 702 emerged as the winner. Sadly, most courts seem to ignore or forget about Rule 703, perhaps because of its awkward wording. Rule 702, however, received the judicial imprimatur to support the policing and gatekeeping of dysepistemic claims in the federal courts.

As noted last week,1 the petitioners (plaintiffs) in Daubert advanced several lines of fallacious and specious argument, some of which was lost in the shuffle and page limitations of the Supreme Court briefings. The plaintiffs’ transposition fallacy received barely a mention, although it did bring forth at least a footnote in an important and overlooked amicus brief filed by American Medical Association (AMA), the American College of Physicians, and over a dozen other medical specialty organizations,2 all of which both emphasized the importance of statistical significance in interpreting epidemiologic studies, and the fallacy of interpreting 95% confidence intervals as providing a measure of certainty about the estimated association as a parameter. The language of these associations’ amicus brief is noteworthy and still relevant to today’s controversies.

The AMA’s amicus brief, like the brief filed by the National Academies of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, strongly endorsed a gatekeeping role for trial courts to exclude testimony not based upon rigorous scientific analysis:

The touchstone of Rule 702 is scientific knowledge. Under this Rule, expert scientific testimony must adhere to the recognized standards of good scientific methodology including rigorous analysis, accurate and statistically significant measurement, and reproducibility.”3

Having incorporated the term “scientific knowledge,” Rule 702 could not permit anything less in expert witness testimony, lest it pollute federal courtrooms across the land.

Elsewhere, the AMA elaborated upon its reference to “statistically significant measurement”:

Medical researchers acquire scientific knowledge through laboratory investigation, studies of animal models, human trials, and epidemiological studies. Such empirical investigations frequently demonstrate some correlation between the intervention studied and the hypothesized result. However, the demonstration of a correlation does not prove the hypothesized result and does not constitute scientific knowledge. In order to determine whether the observed correlation is indicative of a causal relationship, scientists necessarily rely on the concept of “statistical significance.” The requirement of statistical reliability, which tends to prove that the relationship is not merely the product of chance, is a fundamental and indispensable component of valid scientific methodology.”4

And then again, the AMA spelled out its position, in case the Court missed its other references to the importance of statistical significance:

Medical studies, whether clinical trials or epidemiologic studies, frequently demonstrate some correlation between the action studied … . To determine whether the observed correlation is not due to chance, medical scientists rely on the concept of ‘statistical significance’. A ‘statistically significant’ correlation is generally considered to be one in which statistical analysis suggests that the observed relationship is not the result of chance. A statistically significant correlation does not ‘prove’ causation, but in the absence of such a correlation, scientific causation clearly is not proven.95

In its footnote 9, in the above quoted section of the brief, the AMA called out the plaintiffs’ transposition fallacy, without specifically citing to plaintiffs’ briefs:

It is misleading to compare the 95% confidence level used in empirical research to the 51% level inherent in the preponderance of the evidence standard.”6

Actually the plaintiffs’ ruse was much worse than misleading. The plaintiffs did not compare the two probabilities; they equated them. Some might call this ruse, an outright fraud on the court. In any event, the AMA amicus brief remains an available, citable source for opposing this fraud and the casual dismissal of the importance of statistical significance.

One other amicus brief touched on the plaintiffs’ statistical shanigans. The Product Liability Advisory Council, National Association of Manufacturers, Business Roundtable, and Chemical Manufacturers Association jointly filed an amicus brief to challenge some of the excesses of the plaintiffs’ submissions.7  Plaintiffs’ expert witness, Shanna Swan, had calculated type II error rates and post-hoc power for some selected epidemiologic studies relied upon by the defense. Swan’s complaint had been that some studies had only 20% probability (power) to detect a statistically significant doubling of limb reduction risk, with significance at p < 5%.8

The PLAC Brief pointed out that power calculations must assume an alternative hypothesis, and that the doubling of risk hypothesis had no basis in the evidentiary record. Although the PLAC complaint was correct, it missed the plaintiffs’ point that the defense had set exceeding a risk ratio of 2.0, as an important benchmark for specific causation attributability. Swan’s calculation of post-hoc power would have yielded an even lower probability for detecting risk ratios of 1.2 or so. More to the point, PLAC noted that other studies had much greater power, and that collectively, all the available studies would have had much greater power to have at least one study achieve statistical significance without dodgy re-analyses.

1 The Advocates’ Errors in Daubert” (Dec. 28, 2018).

2 American Academy of Allergy and Immunology, American Academy of Dermatology, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Neurology, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Academy of Pain Medicine, American Association of Neurological Surgeons, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American College of Pain Medicine, American College of Physicians, American College of Radiology, American Society of Anesthesiologists, American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, American Urological Association, and College of American Pathologists.

3 Brief of the American Medical Association, et al., as Amici Curiae, in Support of Respondent, in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., U.S. Supreme Court no. 92-102, 1993 WL 13006285, at *27 (U.S., Jan. 19, 1993)[AMA Brief].

4 AMA Brief at *4-*5 (emphasis added).

5 AMA Brief at *14-*15 (emphasis added).

6 AMA Brief at *15 & n.9.

7 Brief of the Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc., National Association of Manufacturers, Business Roundtable, and Chemical Manufacturers Association as Amici Curiae in Support of Respondent, as Amici Curiae, in Support of Respondent, in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., U.S. Supreme Court no. 92-102, 1993 WL 13006288 (U.S., Jan. 19, 1993) [PLAC Brief].

8 PLAC Brief at *21.

The Advocates’ Errors in Daubert

December 28th, 2018

Over 25 years ago, the United States Supreme Court answered a narrow legal question about whether the so-called Frye rule was incorporated into Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Plaintiffs in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), appealed a Ninth Circuit ruling that the Frye rule survived, and was incorporated into, the enactment of a statutory evidentiary rule, Rule 702. As most legal observers can now discern, plaintiffs won the battle and lost the war. The Court held that the plain language of Rule 702 does not memorialize Frye; rather the rule requires an epistemic warrant for the opinion testimony of expert witnesses.

Many of the sub-issues of the Daubert case are now so much water over the dam. The case involved claims of birth defects from maternal use of an anti-nausea medication, Bendectin. Litigation over Bendectin is long over, and the medication is now approved for use in pregnant women, on the basis of a full new drug application, supported by clinical trial evidence.

In revisiting Daubert, therefore, we might imagine that legal scholars and scientists would be interested in the anatomy of the errors that led Bendectin plaintiffs stridently to maintain their causal claims. The oral argument before the Supreme Court is telling with respect to some of the sources of error. Two law professors, Michael H. Gottesman, for plaintiffs, and Charles Fried, for the defense, squared off one Tuesday morning in March 1993. A review of Gottesman’s argument reveals several fallacious lines of argument, which are still relevant today:

A. Regulation is Based Upon Scientific Determinations of Causation

In his oral argument, Gottesman asserted that regulators (as opposed to the scientific community) are in charge of determining causation,1 and environmental regulations are based upon scientific causation determinations.2 By the time that the Supreme Court heard argument in the Daubert case, this conflation of scientific and regulatory standards for causal conclusions was fairly well debunked.3 Gottesman’s attempt to mislead the Court failed, but the effort continues in courtrooms around the United States.

B. Similar Chemical Structures Have the Same Toxicities

Gottesman asserted that human teratogenicity can be determined from similarity in chemical structures with other established teratogens.4 Close may count in horseshoes, but in chemical structural activities, small differences in chemical structures can result in huge differences in toxicologic or pharmacologic properties. A silly little methyl group on a complicated hydrocarbon ring structure can make a world of difference, as in the difference between estrogen and testosterone.

C. All Animals React the Same to Any Given Substance

Gottesman, in his oral argument, maintained that human teratogenicity can be determined from teratogenicity in non-human, non-primate, murine species.5 The Court wasted little time on this claim, the credibility of which has continued to decline in the last 25 years.

D. The Transposition Fallacy

Perhaps of greatest interest to me was Gottesman’s claim that the probability of the claimed causal association can be determined from the p-value or from the coefficient of confidence taken from the observational epidemiologic studies of birth defects among children of women who ingested Bendectin in pregancy; a.k.a. the transposition fallacy.6

All these errors are still in play in American courtrooms, despite efforts of scientists and scientific organizations to disabuse judges and lawyers. The transposition fallacy, which has been addressed in these pages and elsewhere at great length seems especially resilient to educational efforts. Still, the fallacy was as well recognized at the time of the Daubert argument as it is today, and it is noteworthy that the law professor who argued the plaintiffs’ case, in the highest court of the land, advanced this fallacious argument, and that the scientific and statistical community did little to nothing to correct the error.7

Although Professor Gottesman’s meaning in the oral argument is not entirely clear, on multiple occasions, he appeared to have conflated the coefficient of confidence, from confidence intervals, with the posterior probability that attaches to the alternative hypothesis of some association:

What the lower courts have said was yes, but prove to us to a degree of statistical certainty which would give us 95 percent confidence that the human epidemiological data is reflective, that these higher numbers for the mothers who used Bendectin were not the product of random chance but in fact are demonstrating the linkage between this drug and the symptoms observed.”8

* * * * *

“… what was demonstrated by Shanna Swan was that if you used a degree of confidence lower than 95 percent but still sufficient to prove the point as likelier than not, the epidemiological evidence is positive… .”9

* * * * *

The question is, how confident can we be that that is in fact probative of causation, not at a 95 percent level, but what Drs. Swan and Glassman said was applying the Rothman technique, a published technique and doing the arithmetic, that you find that this does link causation likelier than not.”10

Professor Fried’s oral argument for the defense largely refused or failed to engage with plaintiffs’ argument on statistical inference. With respect to the “Rothman” approach, Fried pointed out that plaintiffs’ statistical expert witness, Shanna swan, never actually employed “the Rothman principle.”11

With respect to plaintiffs’ claim that individual studies had low power to detect risk ratios of two, Professor Fried missed the opportunity to point out that such post-hoc power calculations, whatever validity they might possess, embrace the concept of statistical significance at the customary 5% level. Fried did note that a meta-analysis, based upon all the epidemiologic studies, rendered plaintiffs’ power complaint irrelevant.12

Some readers may believe that judging advocates speaking extemporaneously about statistical concepts might be overly harsh. How well then did the lawyers explain and represent statistical concepts in their written briefs in the Daubert case?

Petitioners’ Briefs

Petitioners’ Opening Brief

The petitioners’ briefs reveal that Gottesman’s statements at oral argument represent a consistent misunderstanding of statistical concepts. The plaintiffs consistently conflated significance probability or the coefficient of confidence with the civil burden of proof probability:

The crux of the disagreement between Merrell’s experts and those whose testimony is put forward by plaintiffs is that the latter are prepared to find causation more probable than not when the epidemiological evidence is strongly positive (albeit not at a 95% confidence level) and when it is buttressed with animal and chemical evidence predictive of causation, while the former are unwilling to find causation in the absence of an epidemiological study that satisfies the 95% confidence level.”13

After giving a reasonable fascimile of a definition of statistical significance, the plaintiffs’ brief proceeds to confuse the complement of alpha, or the coefficient of confidence (typically 95%), with probability that the observed risk ratio in a sample is the actual population parameter of risk:

But in toxic tort lawsuits, the issue is not whether it is certain that a chemical caused a result, but rather whether it is likelier than not that it did. It is not self-evident that the latter conclusion would require eliminating the null hypothesis (i.e. non-causation) to a confidence level of 95%.3014

The plaintiffs’ brief cited heavily to Rothman’s textbook, Modern Epidemiology, with the specious claim that the textbook supported the plaintiffs’ use of the coefficient of confidence to derive a posterior probability (> 50%) of the correctness of an elevated risk ratio for birth defects in children born to mothers who had taken Bendectin in their first trimesters of pregnancy:

An alternative mechanism has been developed by epidemiologists in recent years to give a somewhat more informative picture of what the statistics mean. At any given confidence level (e.g. 95%) a confidence interval can be constructed. The confidence interval identifies the range of relative risks that collectively comprise the 95% universe. Additional confidence levels are then constructed exhibiting the range at other confidence levels, e.g., at 90%, 80%, etc. From this set of nested confidence intervals the epidemiologist can make assessments of how likely it is that the statistics are showing a true association. Rothman, Tab 9, pp. 122-25. By calculating nested confidence intervals for the data in the Bendectin studies, Dr. Swan was able to determine that it is far more likely than not that a true association exists between Bendectin and human limb reduction birth defects. Swan, Tab 12, at 3618-28.”15

The heavy reliance upon Rothman’s textbook at first blush appears confusing. Modern Epidemiology makes one limited mention of nested confidence intervals, and certainly never suggests that such intervals can provide a posterior probability of the correctness of the hypothesis. Rothman’s complaints about reliance upon “statistical significance,” however, are well-known, and Rothman himself submitted an amicus brief16 in Daubert, a brief that has its own problems.17

In direct response to the Rothman Brief,18 Professor Alvin Feinstein filed an amicus brief in Daubert, wherein he acknowledged that meta-analyses and re-analyses can be valid, but these techniques are subject to many sources of invalidity, and their employment by careful practitioners in some instances should not be a blank check to professional witnesses who are supported by plaintiffs’ counsel. Similarly, Feinstein acknowledged that standards of statistical significance:

should be appropriately flexible, but they must exist if science is to preserve its tradition of intellectual discipline and high quality research.”19

Petitioners’ Reply Brief

The plaintiffs’ statistical misunderstandings are further exemplified in their Reply Brief, where they reassert the transposition fallacy and alternatively state that associations with p-values greater than 5%, or 95% confidence intervals that include the risk ratio of 1.0, do not show the absence of an association.20 The latter point was, of course irrelevant in the Daubert case, in which plaintiffs had the burden of persuasion. As in their oral argument through Professor Gottesman, the plaintiffs’ appellate briefs misunderstand the crucial point that confidence intervals are conditioned upon the data observed from a particular sample, and do not provide posterior probabilities for the correctness of a claimed hypothesis.

Defense Brief

The defense brief spent little time on the statistical issue or plaintiffs’ misstatements, but dispatched the issue in a trenchant footnote:

Petitioners stress the controversy some epidemiologists have raised about the standard use by epidemiologists of a 95% confidence level as a condition of statistical significance. Pet. Br. 8-10. See also Rothman Amicus Br. It is hard to see what point petitioners’ discussion establishes that could help their case. Petitioners’ experts have never developed and defended a detailed analysis of the epidemiological data using some alternative well-articulated methodology. Nor, indeed, do they show (or could they) that with some other plausible measure of confidence (say, 90%) the many published studies would collectively support an inference that Bendectin caused petitioners’ limb reduction defects. At the very most, all that petitioners’ theoretical speculations do is question whether these studies – as the medical profession and regulatory authorities in many countries have concluded – affirmatively prove that Bendectin is not a teratogen.”21

The defense never responded to the specious argument, stated or implied within the plaintiffs’ briefs, and in Gottesman’s oral argument, that a coefficient of confidence of 51% would have generated confidence intervals that routinely excluded the null hypothesis of risk ratio of 1.0. The defense did, however, respond to plaintiffs’ power argument by adverting to a meta-analysis that failed to find a statistically significant association.22

The defense also advanced two important arguments to which the plaintiffs’ briefs never meaningfully responded. First, the defense detailed the “cherry picking” or selective reliance engaged in by plaintiffs’ expert witnesses.23 Second, the defense noted that plaintiffs’ had a specific causation problem in that their expert witnesses had been attempting to infer specific causation based upon relative risks well below 2.0.24

To some extent, the plaintiffs’ statistical misstatements were taken up by an amicus brief submitted by the United States government, speaking through the office of the Solicitor General.25 Drawing upon the Supreme Court’s decisions in race discrimination cases,26 the government asserted that epidemiologists “must determine” whether a finding of an elevated risk ratio “could have arisen due to chance alone.”27

Unfortunately, the government’s brief butchered the meaning of confidence intervals. Rather than describe the confidence interval as showing what point estimates of risk ratios are reasonable compatible with the sample result, the government stated that confidence intervals show “how close the real population percentage is likely to be to the figure observed in the sample”:

since there is a 95 percent chance that the ‘true’ value lies within two standard deviations of the sample figure, that particular ‘confidence interval’ (i.e., two standard deviations) is therefore said to have a ‘confidence level’ of about 95 percent.” 28

The Solicitor General’s office seemed to have had some awareness that it was giving offense with the above definition because it quickly added:

“While it is customary (and, in many cases, easier) to speak of ‘a 95 percent chance’ that the actual population percentage is within two standard deviations of the figure obtained from the sample, ‘the chances are in the sampling procedure, not in the parameter’.”29

Easier perhaps but clearly erroneous to speak that way, and customary only among the unwashed. The government half apologized for misleading the Court when it followed up with a better definition from David Freedman’s textbook, but sadly the government lawyers were not content to let the matter sit there. The Solicitor General offices brief obscured the textbook definition with a further inaccurate and false précis:

if the sampling from the general population were repeated numerous times, the ‘real’ population figure would be within the confidence interval 95 percent of the time. The ‘real’ figure would be outside that interval the remaining five percent of the time.”30

The lawyers in the Solicitor General’s office thus made the rookie mistake of forgetting that in the long run, after numerous repeated samples, there would be numerous confidence intervals, not one. The 95% probability of containing the true population value belongs to the set of the numerous confidence intervals, not “the confidence interval” obtained in the first go around.

The Daubert case has been the subject of nearly endless scholarly comment, but few authors have chosen to revisit the parties’ briefs. Two authors have published a paper that reviewed the scientists’ amici briefs in Daubert.31 The Rothman brief was outlined in detail; the Feinstein rebuttal was not substantively discussed. The plaintiffs’ invocation of the transposition fallacy in Daubert has apparently gone unnoticed.

1 Oral Argument in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., U.S. Supreme Court no. 92-102, 1993 WL 754951, *5 (Tuesday, March 30, 1993) [Oral Arg.]

2 Oral Arg. at *6.

3 In re Agent Orange Product Liab. Litig., 597 F. Supp. 740, 781 (E.D.N.Y.1984) (“The distinction between avoidance of risk through regulation and compensation for injuries after the fact is a fundamental one.”), aff’d in relevant part, 818 F.2d 145 (2d Cir. 1987), cert. denied sub nom. Pinkney v. Dow Chemical Co., 484 U.S. 1004 (1988).

4 Org. Arg. at *19.

5 Oral Arg. at *18-19.

6 Oral Arg. at *19.

7 See, e.g., “Sander Greenland on ‘The Need for Critical Appraisal of Expert Witnesses in Epidemiology and Statistics’” (Feb. 8, 2015) (noting biostatistician Sander Greenland’s publications, which selectively criticize only defense expert witnesses and lawyers for statistical misstatements); see alsoSome High-Value Targets for Sander Greenland in 2018” (Dec. 27, 2017).

8 Oral Arg. at *19.

9 Oral Arg. at *20

10 Oral Arg. at *44. At the oral argument, this last statement was perhaps Gottesman’s clearest misstatement of statistical principles, in that he directly suggested that the coefficient of confidence translates into a posterior probability of the claimed association at the observed size.

11 Oral Arg. at *37.

12 Oral Arg. at *32.

13 Petitioner’s Brief in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., U.S. Supreme Court No. 92-102, 1992 WL 12006442, *8 (U.S. Dec. 2, 1992) [Petitioiner’s Brief].

14 Petitioner’s Brief at *9.

15 Petitioner’s Brief at *n. 36.

16 Brief Amici Curiae of Professors Kenneth Rothman, Noel Weiss, James Robins, Raymond Neutra and Steven Stellman, in Support of Petitioners, 1992 WL 12006438, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., U.S. S. Ct. No. 92-102 (Dec. 2, 1992).

18 Brief Amicus Curiae of Professor Alvan R. Feinstein in Support of Respondent, in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., U.S. Supreme Court no. 92-102, 1993 WL 13006284, at *2 (U.S., Jan. 19, 1993) [Feinstein Brief].

19 Feinstein Brief at *19.

20 Petitioner’s Reply Brief in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., U.S. Supreme Court No. 92-102, 1993 WL 13006390, at *4 (U.S., Feb. 22, 1993).

21 Respondent’s Brief in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., U.S. Supreme Court No. 92-102, 1993 WL 13006277, at n. 32 (U.S., Jan. 19, 1993) [Respondent Brief].

22 Respondent Brief at *4.

23 Respondent Brief at *42 n.32 and 47.

24 Respondent Brief at *40-41 (citing DeLuca v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 911 F.2d 941, 958 (3d Cir. 1990)).

25 Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae Supporting Respondent in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., U.S. Supreme Court No. 92-102, 1993 WL 13006291 (U.S., Jan. 19, 1993) [U.S. Brief].

26 See, e.g., Hazelwood School District v. United States, 433 U.S. 299, 308-312

(1977); Castaneda v. Partida, 430 U.S. 482, 495-499 & nn.16-18 (1977) (“As a general rule for such large samples, if the difference between the expected value and the observed number is greater than two or three standard deviations, then the hypothesis that the jury drawing was random would be suspect to a social scientist.”).

27 U.S. Brief at *3-4. Over two decades later, when politically convenient, the United States government submitted an amicus brief in a case involving alleged securities fraud for failing to disclose adverse events of an over-the-counter medication. In Matrixx Initiatives Inc. v. Siracusano, 131 S. Ct. 1309 (2011), the securities fraud plaintiffs contended that they need not plead “statistically significant” evidence for adverse drug effects. The Solicitor General’s office, along with counsel for the Food and Drug Division of the Department of Health & Human Services, in their zeal to assist plaintiffs disclaimed the necessity, or even the importance, of statistical significance:

[w]hile statistical significance provides some indication about the validity of a correlation between a product and a harm, a determination that certain data are not statistically significant … does not refute an inference of causation.”

Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae Supporting Respondents, in Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano, 2010 WL 4624148, at *14 (Nov. 12, 2010).

28 U.S. Brief at *5.

29 U.S. Brief at *5-6 (citing David Freedman, Freedman, R. Pisani, R. Purves & A. Adhikari, Statistics 351, 397 (2d ed. 1991)).

30 U.S. Brief at *6 (citing Freedman’s text at 351) (emphasis added).

31 See Joan E. Bertin & Mary S. Henifin, Science, Law, and the Search for Truth in the Courtroom: Lessons from Dauburt v. Menell Dow,” 22 J. Law, Medicine & Ethics 6 (1994); Joan E. Bertin & Mary Sue Henifin, “Scientists Talk to Judges: Reflections on Daubert v. Merrell Dow,” 4(3) New Solutions 3 (1994). The authors’ choice of the New Solutions journal is interesting and curious. New Solutions: A journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy was published by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, under the control of Anthony Mazzocchi (June 13, 1926 – Oct. 5, 2002), who was the union’s secretary-treasurer. Anthony Mazzocchi, “Finding Common Ground: Our Commitment to Confront the Issues,” 1 New Solutions 3 (1990); see also Steven Greenhouse, “Anthony Mazzocchi, 76, Dies; Union Officer and Party Father,” N.Y. Times (Oct. 9, 2002). Even a cursory review of this journal’s contents reveals how concerned, even obsessed, the union was interested and invested in the litigation industry and that industry’s expert witnesses. 


Selikoff Timeline & Asbestos Litigation History

December 20th, 2018

The critics and cheerleaders of Dr. Irving John Selikoff agree that he was a charming, charismatic, and courageous man, a compassionate physician, and a zealous advocate for worker safety and health. The consensus falls apart over the merits of Selikoff’s actual research, his credentials, and his advocacy tactics.1

Selikoff’s collaborators, protégés, and fellow travelers tend to brand any challenge or criticism as “scurrilous.”2 They attack the messenger for attacking the messenger. Certainly in his lifetime, Selikoff attracted harsh and vituperative attacks, some of which were mean-spirited and even anti-semitic.

Although I am not a Jew, I am, following Jonathan Miller, “Jew-ish, just not the whole hog.” As such, I can appreciate the ire of some of Selikoff’s defenders over the nature of these attacks. Selikoff’s legitimate achievements should not be diminished, and his defenders are correct to bemoan the ad hominem attacks on Selikoff, based upon ethnicity and personal characteristics.

Selikoff’s defenders are wrong, however, to claim that Selikoff’s training, scientific acumen, advocacy, and false positive claims are somehow off limits. Selikoff advanced his scientific and political agenda by promoting his reputation and work, and he thus put his credentials, work, and methods into issue. Selikoff’s contributions to public health in publicizing the dangers of high exposure, long-term asbestos exposure do not privilege every position he took. Selikoff is a difficult case because he was wrong on many issues, and his reputation, authority and prestige ultimately became much greater than the evidence would ultimately support.

Although Selikoff died in 1992, his legacy lives on in the perpetual litigation machine that is run by the litigation industry and Selikoff’s juniors and imitators, who serve as testifying expert witnesses. One of Selikoff’s great achievements, the federalization of worker safety and health in the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970,3 languishes because of inadequate resources for enforcement and frivolous efforts to address non-existent problems, such as the lowering of the crystalline silica permissible exposure limit. Activists have taken to redress the problem by advocating for nugatory “warnings” from remote suppliers, in the face of employer failures to monitor and supervise workers and the workplace, and to provide administrative, engineering, and personal protective controls.

Selikoff diverted regulatory attention from asbestos fiber type, with the result that the OSHA PELs were lowered for both chrysotile and amphibole asbestos, thus leaving the ultra-hazardous crocidolite asbestos in use. Selikoff perpetuated a good deal of mischief and misinformation to keep his myth that all fiber types are the same (and that “asbestos is asbestos is asbestos”). In doing so, he actually hurt people.

An anonymous snark on Wikipedia noted some of my blog posts about Selikoff, and offered the lame criticism that my writings were not peer reviewed.4 The snark (Tweedale?) was of course correct on this limited point, but generally in this field, peer review is worth a warm bucket of spit.And the Selikoffophiles continue to tell tall tales about Selikoff’s work and in particular about how he became involved in asbestos medicine. See, e.g., Philip Landrigan, “Stephen Levin, MD, honored with the Collegium Ramazzini’s Irving J. Selikoff Memorial Award in 2009.”So here is a timeline of Selikoff’s life and asbestos work. If anyone notes an error or inconsistency in this time line, please contact me, provide better sources, and ask for a correction. If I am wrong, I will readily note the correction and eat my words, but I am sure they will be quite digestible.5  

Jan. 15, 1915.  Irving John Selikoff was born as Irving Selecoff in the brain basket of America, Brooklyn, New York, to Abraham and Matilda (Tillie) Selecoff.6 His father, Abraham, was born on April 6, 1885, in the Kiev oblast of what is now Ukraine.7

1920.  According to the 1920 census, the Selekoff family lived at 816 179th Street, in the Bronx. Irving’s father, Abraham, was self-employed as a hat manufacturer, doing business later as United Headwear Corporation.8 The family had two children, Irving, and his older sister, Gladys.

1930. Asbestos workers’ journal published a story about the (non-malignant) risks of asbestos exposure. See The Asbestos Menace,” The Asbestos Worker 9-11 (Sept. 1930).

June 1935.  Selikoff was graduated from Columbia University, with a B.S. degree.

December 1935.  Selikoff arrived Boston from Yarmouth, on the S.S. Yarmouth, on December 24, 1935, apparently en route from Scotland.

August 1936.  Selikoff sat for the university entrance boards in Scotland.

September 1936.  Selikoff married Lydia Kapilian, in the Bronx.9

October 1936.  Selikoff entered Anderson’s College of Medicine, in Glasgow, Scotland.10

1936.  Alice Hamilton published an article on the risks and benefits of industrial asbestos use, in a key labor unionist journal. Alice Hamilton, “Industrial Poisons,” 43 The American Federationist 707-13 (1936).

April 26, 1937.  Selikoff arrived in New York, from Greenock, Scotland, on the S.S. Carinthia.

July 14, 1938.  Selikoff arrived in Quebec, from Greenock, Scotland, on the S.S. Duchess Atholl.

June 24, 1939.  Selikoff arrived in New York, from Liverpool, London, on the S.S. Mauretania. Because of the developing hostilities in Europe, Selikoff apparently did not return to Glasgow, in the fall of 1939.

November 1939.  Unable to return to Scotland, Selikoff applied to Melbourne University for coursework to finish his non-degree course of qualification for medication practice in the United Kingdom.11

Mar. 4, 1940.  Selecoff (as his name was then often spelled) arrived in Vancouver from Sydney, on the S.S. Aorangi.

April 1940.  Irving Selikoff was living with his parents, and his married sister and her family, in Rye, New York, according to the 1940 census, taken on April 10, 1940.

May 27, 1940.  Selikoff enrolled in the University of Melbourne as a non-degree student, for coursework to finish his qualification for medical license in Scotland.12

Mar. 24, 1941.  Selikoff arrived in Los Angeles, California, from Sydney, Australia, on the S.S. Mariposa. According to Bartrip, Selikoff had completed his last course at the University of Melbourne, for his “tailor-made” program, on February 27, 1941. Selikoff never gained entrance to a degree program at Melbourne.13

1941.  Selikoff joined the Mount Sinai Hospital as an assistant in Anatomy and Pathology, “immediately following his university training.”14

November 1, 1943.  Selikoff received an M.D., degree from Middlesex University,15 after two semesters in residence. This school was regarded as “substandard” and not approved by the American Medical Association. The school lost its accreditation in 1946, and closed.16 After receiving this degree, Selikoff continued his efforts to return to Scotland, to complete his “triple qualification” for medical licensure in Scotland, which would allow him to sit for the licensing examination in one of the United States.

1943 – 1944.  Selikoff served as an intern, at the Beth Israel Hospital, in Newark, New Jersey.17

1944 – 1946.  Selikoff served as a resident, at the Sea View Hospital, in New York City.18

April 23, 1945.  Selikoff was listed in the British Medical Registry, based upon his qualification by the Scottish Conjoint Board for his work at Anderson’s and his non-degree work at the University of Melbourne.19

June 2, 1945.  Selikoff arrived in Montreal, Quebec, from Liverpool, England, on the S.S. Axel Johnson.

February 1946.  Selikoff married Celia Schiffrin in Manhattan.20 It was the second marriage for both bride and groom.

1947.  After having left Mt. Sinai Hospital, in 1943, for an internship and a residency, Selikoff resumed his association with Mt. Sinai Hospital.21

1949.  Selikoff opened a medical office at 707 Broadway, Paterson, New Jersey,22 not far from a factory run by the Union Asbestos and Rubber Company (UNARCO). In the same year, the Selikoffs were living at 965 Fifth Avenue, near 78th Street, in Manhattan.23 By the early 1950s, Selikoff and his wife had moved to 505 Upper Boulevard, Ridgewood, New Jersey.

1950.  Selikoff’s medical practice in Paterson, New Jersey, afforded him the opportunity to observe “the incidence of lung disease among workers at the Union Asbestos and Rubber Company (UNARCO),”24 which operated one of its factories in Paterson.

1951.  New Jersey lawyer Carl Gelman retained Dr. Irving Selikoff to examine 17 workers from the Paterson plant of Union Asbestos and Rubber Company (UNARCO). Gelman filed workers’ compensation claims on behalf of the UNARCO workers.25

1952.  Supported by Selikoff’s report, UNARCO worker Anton Szczesniak settled his worker’s compensation case, involving “intestinal cancer,” for $2,000 in 1952.26 Selikoff published data on the carcinogenicity of amosite in 1972,27 a delay of twenty years.28

1952.  Selikoff and colleagues published the results of a clinical trial of isoniazid for tuberculosis patients.29

1952.  Selikoff was featured in Life magazine coverage of isoniazid, a chemotherapy for tuberculosis.30

1952.  Selikoff was an assistant attending physician for thoracic diseases in the department of thoracic diseases at Mt. Sinai Hospital. In this year, Selikoff delivered the monthly Physiological Chemistry Seminar lecture at Mt. Sinai Hospital on: “Antitubercular Hydrazines,” along with Drs. H. H. Fox and Richard J. Schnitzer, of Hoffman-La Roche.

1955.  Selikoff received the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award for his work on the clinical trial of isoniazid to treat tuberculosis, along with Walsh McDermott and Carl Muschenheim, of the Hoffmann-La Roche Research Laboratories, and Edward H. Robitzek, of the Squibb Institute for Medical Research.31

1954.  UNARCO closed its Paterson, New Jersey plant, and moved it to Tyler, Texas.32

1955.  Selikoff’s involvement in the isoniazid clinical trials continued to attract media attention. His first television appearance was panned, but he would later develop considerable public speaking skills.33

1955.  Sir Richard Doll published his epidemiologic study of lung cancer among British asbestos workers.34 This study was known to Selikoff, who relied upon it in his litigation reports to support the compensation claims of asbestos workers in the 1950s.35  Labor unions were aware of the causal claim. Herbert K. Abrams, union physician and the Medical Director of Local 25 Chicago, Building Service Employees International Union, concluded that asbestos causes cancer in a prominent union journal. Herbert K. Abrams, “Cancer in Industry,” American Federationist (1955). Dr. Abrams’ article was republished in many union newsletters. See also Lester Breslow, LeMar Hoaglin, Gladys Rasmussen & Herbert K. Abrams, “Occupations and Cigarette Smoking as Factors in Lung Cancer,” 44 Am. J. Pub. Health. 171, 171 (1954).

1956.  Selikoff became an associate attending physician for thoracic disease at Mt. Sinai Hospital.

1957.  Attorney William L. Brach filed perhaps the first civil action (as opposed to worker’s compensation claim), on behalf of Frederick LeGrande, against Johns-Manville, for asbestos-related disease, on July 17, 1957. Frederick LeGrande v. Johns-Manville Prods. Corp., No. 741-57 (D.N.J.).

1957. President Sickles, International Convention of the Asbestos Heat, Frost and Insulators Union, reported to his unions delegates that he “[b]eing well aware of the health hazards in the Asbestos industry, requested authority for the General Executive Board to make a study of the health hazards … that will enable the Board to adopt any policies that will tend to protect the health of our International membership.” The Asbestos Worker at 1 (Oct, 1957) (reporting on the Asbestos Workers’ 19th General Convention).

1960.  Dr. J. Christopher Wagner published a case series of mesothelioma among persons exposed to crocidolite, in the region of South Africa where crocidolite is mined and milled. After this publication, the causal role of crocidolite became quickly accepted in the scientific and medical community.36

1960-1961.  Selikoff published two papers on the patho-physiology of asbestosis, based on data from 17 UNARCO workers,37 obtained from his medico-legal evaluations of the men.38

Irving and Celia Selikoff in 1961 Brazilian visa documents

1961. Asbestos insulators’ union discussed collaboration with scientists to discuss lung cancer and other diseases among its membership.39 Union members, intensely interested in legal redress for compensation, became aware of Selikoff’s research hypothesis in advance of Selikoff’s survey of the members’ smoking habits, which the workers had a motive to under report.

November 1961. The Asbestos insulators’ union’s magazine featured a full page warning of the grim reaper urging insulators to Wear Your Respirator.” The Asbestos Worker (Nov. 1961). The warning was developed under the guidance of C. V. Krieger of Local No. 28, Safety Superintendent at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard.

July 12, 1962.  Selikoff visited Asbestos Corporation of America, an intermediary broker of asbestos fibers. In a memorandum Selikoff prepared from his discussions with Wade I. Duym, the general manager of the company, and others, he detailed the widespread use of amphibole asbestos fibers in a variety of products. He noted that amosite was used primarily in the insulation trade, and that it was the asbestos “of choice” for sprayed-on products, high temperature insulating cements and pipecovering (magnesia and calcium silicates). Selikoff described crocidolite, from Africa and Bolivia, as a strong, chemically resistant, relatively inexpensive fiber that was used in asbestos cement products, and in Kent cigarette filters.

September 1962. Selikoff presented to a meeting of the Asbestos Workers, to request their help in conducting his study of insulator mortality and morbidity. Irving Selikoff, “Speech at Asbestos Workers Union Annual Meeting,” The Asbestos Worker 8 (Sept. 1962).

1962.  Asbestos insulators’ union acknowledged that its leadership has been collaborating with Dr. Irving Selikoff.40 In September 1962, Selikoff and colleagues began physical examinations of members of the New York and New Jersey locals.41`

1962.  In a publication for Naval personnel, with virtually no circulation in the general industrial community, the United States government acknowledged that shipyard and on-board exposures greatly exceeded the ACGIH’s then current TLV for asbestos.42

1963.  Selikoff established the Environmental Sciences Laboratory, later known as the Division of Environmental and Occupational Medicine, in the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine’s Department of Community Medicine.

1964.  Selikoff published his first article on cancer in a cohort of union asbestos insulators from New York and New Jersey.43 Selikoff and his co-authors failed to disclose funding from the union, or the union members’ awareness of the research hypotheses under investigation.

1964.  In October 1964, Selikoff organized and co-chaired (with Dr. Jacob Churg) a conference, “The Biological Effects of Asbestos, for the New York Academy of Sciences, in New York City. The conference featured presentations and papers from many international investigators. Several presenters, including Selikoff, documented the prevalent use of amphibole asbestos (both crocidolite and amosite) in the United States.44

1965.  Papers presented at the 1964 New York Academy of Sciences conference were published in late 1965, in a non-peer reviewed publication, volume 132, of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

1966.  Selikoff testified on behalf of insulator claiming that his asbestos exposure caused his colorectal cancer.45 Forty years later, the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) comprehensively reviewed the extant evidence and announced that the evidence was “suggestive but not sufficient to infer a causal relationship between asbestos exposure and pharyngeal, stomach, and colorectal cancers.”46

1966 – 1972.  Selikoff testified frequently in civil action and in worker compensation proceedings for claimants who alleged asbestos-related injuries.47 In 1972, Andrew Haas, President of the asbestos workers’ union thanked Selikoff for his “frequent” expert witness testimony on behalf of union members.48

September 1967. In an address to the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers, Selikoff acknowledged the widespread use of amosite, particularly in shipyards, the absence of lung cancer among non-smoking insulation workers, and the failure of more than 9 out of 10 insulators to wear respirators on dusty jobs. See Irving J. Selikoff, Address to the delegates of the twenty-first convention of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers at 8, 9-10, 24 (Chicago, Illinois, Sept. 1967) (“I have yet to see a lung cancer in an asbestos worker who didn’t smoke cigarettes. … “[C]ancer of the lung could be wiped out in your trade if you people wouldn’t smoke cigarettes, period.”).

September 1968.  Selikoff “warns” the United States of asbestos hazards that existed and continue to exist in the government’s shipyards.49 The warning was largely about seeking media attention by Selikoff; the government, and especially the Navy, had long known of asbestos hazards.50

May 1968.  Selikoff testified that all fibers are equally potent, to Congress in support of a bill that would become the OSH Act.

1969.  Selikoff served as president of the New York Academy of Sciences.

1972.  Selikoff was shown to consistently over-read chest radiographs for potential asbestos-related abnormalities.51

1973.  Selikoff  testified for the government in United States v. Reserve Mining Co., No. 5-72 Civil 19 (D. Minn. Sept. 21, 1973).52 On September 20, Selikoff testified about the town where Reserve Mining’s taconite mine was located: “I think we ought to have a sign at the entrance to sections of the town ‘Please Close Your Windows Before Driving Through’. I certainly would want to close mine.” When his testimony continued the following day, Selikoff acknowledged that he had been “facetious” in his previous day’s testimony.53

1974. After having given “facetious” testimony, Selikoff stopped testifying. Marxist historians Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedale suggest that Selikoff “ avoided the drama of the courtroom and the role of the expert witness” because of the drain on his time, his desire to avoid antagonizing industry, and his need to prevent discovery of trade union medical files.54

1974.  Selikoff published a review on asbestos and gastrointestinal cancer, without disclosing his funding from the asbestos insulation union or his receipt of fees for litigation work in which he maintained a causal relationship in advance of any data.55

July 1978.  The National Cancer Institute (NCI) invited Dr. Hans Weill to co-chair a conference on lung cancer surveillance. Ten days later, the NCI retracted the invitation. When Weill inquired about the reasons for the shoddy treatment, an NCI official (Margaret Sloan) told him that “representatives of organized labor” objected to his participation. Sloan’s superior at NCI stated that Selikoff had raised the question whether the conference’s recommendations would lose credibility if Weill were a co-chair. When asked about his role in this sordid affair, Selikoff equivocated, saying he had “simply” said that “[s]ince Weill was a consultant to the Asbestos Information Center, I didn’t know if this would enhance or detract from hearing all points of view.”56

Nov. 5, 1979.  Barry Castleman, career testifier for asbestos claimants, prepared a memorandum to Selikoff to urge him to resist allowing discovery of asbestos worker union members’ knowledge of the hazards of asbestos.57

1981.  Sir Richard Doll and Professor Richard Peto published a rebuttal to wildly exaggerated asbestos risk assessments based upon Selikoff’s insulator studies.58

1984.  Selikoff prepared a report on his group’s epidemiologic study of Electric Boat employees, who were engaged in the construction of submarines.59 The data did not fit the Mt. Sinai Catechism of large increased risks.60 Selikoff never published these data in a medical journal or a textbook.61

March 1986.  Selikoff’s wife, Celia, died.62

1987 – 1989.  Selikoff’s insulator cohort study data took on an outsize importance in litigation because of plaintiffs’ heavy reliance upon his studies in court cases. When litigants asked for these data, Selikoff consistently refused to share, which necessitated federal court intervention.63

1988.  Selikoff and William Nicholson prepared a manuscript report of a study of the mortality experience at a New Jersey asbestos product manufacturing plant of Johns Manville.64 Their report documented the substantial use of crocidolite in various products, and the resulting horrific mesothelioma mortality. Selikoff never published this crocidolite-exposed cohort, although he tirelessly republished his insulator cohort data repeatedly with the misrepresentation that the insulators were not exposed to crocidolite.

June 7 to June 9, 1990. Selikoff conspired with Ron Motley and others to pervert the course of justice by inviting judges with active asbestos dockets to a one-sided conference on asbestos science, and to pay for their travel and lodging. In his invitation to this ex parte soirée, Selikoff failed to mention that the funding came from plaintiffs’ counsel.65  Shortly after the Third Circuit spoke on the Mt. Sinai dress rehearsal for the plaintiffs’ asbestos property damage trial case, Judge Jack Weinstein issued a curious mea culpa. Because of a trial in progress, Judge Weinstein did not attend the “Third Wave” conference, but he and a state judge (Justice Helen Freedman) attended an ex parte private luncheon meeting with Dr. Selikoff. Here is how Judge Weinstein described the event:

But what I did may have been even worse [than Judge Kelly’s conduct that led to his disqualification]. A state judge and I were attempting to settle large numbers of asbestos cases. We had a private meeting with Dr. Irwin [sic] J. Selikoff at his hospital office to discuss the nature of his research. He had never testified and would never testify. Nevertheless, I now think that it was a mistake not to have informed all counsel in advance and, perhaps, to have had a court reporter present and to have put that meeting on the record.”66

What is curious is that Judge Weinstein, usually a careful judge and scholar, was so incorrect about Dr. Selikoff’s having never testified. His account suggests that Dr. Selikoff was the source for this falsehood. 67

Oct. 2, 1990.  Selikoff wrote to Judge Jack Weinstein and Justice Helen Freedman, presumably after the “regrettable” ex parte luncheon meeting, to hold forth with his views on the health effects of occupational and para-occupational exposure to asbestos.

May 20, 1992.  Selikoff dies several months before the U.S. Court of Appeals condemns the Selikoff-Motley conspiracy.68

2013.  Follow up of the national insulator cohort fails to support multiplicative interaction between smoking and asbestos for lung cancer outcomes in the absence of asbestosis.69

1 Rachel Maines, Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk 155 (2005) (“charming, courageous, and compassion medical professional with more charisma than credentials”).

2 Jock McCulloch & Geoffrey Tweedale, Shooting the messenger: the vilification of Irving J. Selikoff,” 37 Internat’l J. Health Services 619 (2007); Scientific Prestige, Reputation, Authority & The Creation of Scientific Dogmas” (Oct. 4, 2014); David Egilman, Geoffrey Tweedale, Jock McCulloch, William Kovarik, Barry Castleman, William Longo, Stephen Levin, and Susanna Rankin Bohme, “P.W.J. Bartrip’s Attack on Irving J. Selikoff,” 46 Am. J. Indus. Med. 151, 152 (2004) [Egilman (2004)].

3 84 Stat. 1590, et seq., 29 U.S.C. § 651, et seq.

5 See Wikipedia, “Irving Selikoff” (last visited Dec. 4, 2018).

6 Kings County Birth Certificate no. 4595 (Jan. 15, 1915). His family later adopted the surname Selikoff. Irving Selikoff’s social security records list his father as Abraham Selikoff and his mother as Tillie Katz.

7 Abraham Selecoff World War II draft registration, serial no. U1750.

8 Abraham Selecoff World War II draft registration, serial no. U1750.

9 Bronx marriage certificate no. 8246 (Sept. 27, 1936); Bronx marriage license no. 8652 (Sept. 24, 1936). Irving’s parents were listed as Abraham Selikoff and Tillie Katz. His residence was at 109 W. 112th Street. Lydia was listed as the daughter of Mendel Kapilian and Bessie Weller. Irving and Lydia were divorced sometime between 1939 and 1941. The marriage certificates stated Lydia to have been 21 years old. Her Social Security records (SSN 112-052-2143), however, gave her birth date as April 22, 1917, (making her 19), and subsequent marriage names of Quint and Teichner.

10 This and other details of Selikoff’s checkered medical education come from Peter Bartrip’s exposé. Although Bartrip’s research was attacked for its allegedly gratuitous attacks on Selikoff’s research prowess, Bartrip’s account of Selikoff’s medical education in Scotland, Australia, and the United States has gone largely unrebutted, and must for the present be accepted. Peter W.J. Bartrip, “Irving John Selikoff and the Strange Case of the Missing Medical Degrees,” 58 J. History Med. 8 (2003) [Bartrip 2003]; Peter Bartrip, “Around the World in Nine Years: A Medical Education Revisited,” 59 J. History of Med. 135 (2004). One group of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses took Bartrip to task for not disclosing that he had served as a defense expert witness, but none of the complainants disclosed their substantial testimonial adventures for the litigation industry! While making some interesting points, these critics of Bartrip did not really contest his historical work on Selikoff: “Bartrip’s critiques of Anderson’s College (AC) and Middlesex University School of Medicine (MSUM) may be accurate, but are beside the point.” David Egilman, Geoffrey Tweedale, Jock McCulloch, William Kovarik, Barry Castleman, William Longo, Stephen Levin, and Susanna Rankin Bohme, “P.W.J. Bartrip’s Attack on Irving J. Selikoff,” 46 Am. J. Indus. Med. 151, 152 (2004).

11 Bartrip 2003, at 15 & n.44-51.

12 Bartrip 2003, at 17 & n.54-55.

13 Bartrip 2003 at 18.

14 William J. Nicholson & Alvin S. Teirstein, “Remembering Irving J. Selikoff,” 61 Mt. Sinai J. Med. 500 (1994) [Nicholson & Teirstein]. This account seems doubtful.

15 See Stephen Rushmore, “Middlesex University School of Medicine,” 230 New Engl. J. Med. 217 (1944).

16 Anthony Seaton, “The Strange Case of Irving Selikoff,” 60 Occup. Med. 53 (2010); Peter W.J. Bartrip, “Irving John Selikoff and the Strange Case of the Missing Medical Degrees,” 58 J. History Med. 3, 27 & n.88-92 (2003).

17 Bartrip 2003 at 22.

18 Bartrip 2003 at 22.

19 Bartrip 2003 at 21.

20 New York County marriage license no. 3879 (Feb. 2, 1946). Celia had been married to Nathan Michaels in 1937. Manhattan Marriage License no. 21454 (1937).

21 Nicholson & Teirstein.

22 City Directory of Paterson, New Jersey at p. 218 (1949).

23 Manhattan Telephone Directory (1949).

24 George W. Conk, “Deadly Dust: Occupational Health and Safety as a Driving Force in Workers’ Compensation Law and the Development of Tort Doctrine,” 69 Rutgers L. Rev. 1140, 1154 & n. 136 (2017).

25 Jon L. Gelman, “History of Asbestos and the Law” (Jan. 2, 2001). Carl Gelman was a life-long Paterson resident. His legal practice specialized in workers’ compensation, and he chaired state bar association’s workers’ compensation section for several years. His practice represented claimants from 1936, until his retirement in 1986. In the mid-1970s, with Karl Asch, Gelman’s firm sued asbestos suppliers to Raybestos Manhattan on behalf of multiple employees.Gelman died on February 24, 2009. “Obituary for Carl Gelman,” The Record/Herald News (Mar. 16, 2009); “163 Who Had Jobs at Raybestos Sue,” N.Y. Times (May 7, 1975). The suit for $326 million settled for $15.5 million.

26 Barry I. Castleman, Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects at 142 (1984); Matt Mauney, “Unarco,” Mesothelioma Center (Nov. 2018). Of course, there were no data to support this claim in 1952. Selikoff was publically and positionally committed to his causal hypothesis as a conclusion well in advance of conducting any studies or having any supporting data.

27 Irving J. Selikoff, E. Cuyler Hammond, and Jacob Churg, “The carcinogenicity of amosite asbestos,” 25 Arch. Envt’l Health 183 (1972). This 1972 publication was the first epidemiologic study on the carcinogenicity of amosite.

28 David E. Lilienfeld, “The Silence: The Asbestos Industry and Early Occupational Cancer Research – A Case Study,” 81 Am. J. Pub. Health 791 (1991).

29 Irving J. Selikoff, Edward H. Robitzek, and George G. Ornstein, “Treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis with hydrazine derivatives of isonicotinic acid,” 150 J. Am. Med. Ass’n 973 (1952).

30 “TB Milestone,” Life (Mar. 3, 1952).

32 Irving J. Selikoff, “Asbestos in Paterson, New Jersey and Tyler, Texas – A Tale of Two Cities,” Transcript of Lecture (Houston, Texas, Oct. 11, 1979).

33 See “Medical Horizons,” Broadcasting * Telecasting at 14 (Nov. 21, 1955) (describing Selikoff as a plodding presenter). See also Irving Selikoff – Media Plodder to Media Zealot” (Sept. 9, 2014).

35 Selikoff letter to Thomas Mancuso (Mar. 30, 1989).

36 See J. Christopher Wagner, C.A. Sleggs, and Paul Marchand, “Diffuse pleural mesothelioma and asbestos exposure in the North Western Cape Province,” 17 Br. J. Indus. Med. 260 (1960); J. Christopher Wagner, “The discovery of the association between blue asbestos and mesotheliomas and the aftermath,” 48 Br. J. Indus. Med. 399 (1991).

37 Arthur M. Langer, “Asbestos Studies in the Environmental Sciences Laboratory Mount Sinai School of Medicine 1965 – 1985: Investigations Reflecting State-of-the-Art; Contributions to the Understanding of Asbestos Medicine” (Unpublished MS, Nov. 7, 2008).

38 Alvin S. Tierstein, A. Gottlieb, Mortimer E. Bader, Richard A. Bader & Irving Selikoff, “Pulmonary mechanics in asbestosis of the lungs,” 8 Clin. Res. 256 (1960); Mortimer E. Bader, Richard A. Bader & Irving Selikoff, “Pulmonary function in asbestosis of the lung; an alveolar-capillary block syndrome, 30 Am. J. Med. 235 (1961).

39 Asbestos Worker (May 1961) (“The subject matter of Health Hazards was discussed and President Sickles reported on the possibility of an early meeting with people connected with the Medical Association for the purpose of running various tests on certain materials used by our membership in order to determine the extent of their contribution to lung cancer, silicosis, asbestosis, tuberculosis, etc.”).

40 Asbestos Worker (May 1962) (“President Sickles advised the Board as to a meeting which had been held with Vice President Rider and a Dr. Irving Selikoff, of the Paterson Clinic in connection with our issue on Health Hazards and the Committee on Health Hazards with the approval of the Board instructed President Sickles to continue his efforts in this direction.”)

41 Asbestos Worker at 25 (Feb. 1963).

42 Capt. H.M. Robbins & William T. Marr, “Asbestosis,” 19 Safety Review 10 (1962) (noting that asbestos dust counts of 200 million particles per cubic foot were not uncommon during insulation ripouts onboard naval vessels).

43 Irving J. Selikoff, Jacob Churg, and E. Cuyler Hammond, “Asbestos Exposure and Neoplasia,” 188 J. Am. Med. Ass’n 22 (1964).

44 Irving J. Selikoff, Jacob Churg, E. Cuyler Hammond, “The Occurrence of Asbestosis among Insulation Workers in the United States,” 132 Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 139, 142 (1965) (“In later specimens so obtained, crocidolite has also been found. Moreover, materials used for ship insulation, while containing the same amounts of asbestos as above, began in 1934 to have significant amounts of amosite in addition to chrysotile, because of the lighter weight of the material.”); Harrington, “Chemical Studies of Asbestos,” 132 Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 31, 41 (1965) (reporting the finding of chrysotile and crocidolite asbestos in equal proportions in specimens of 85% magnesia pipe-covering sections); N.W. Hendry, “The Geology, Occurrences, and Major Uses of Asbestos 132 Annals N.Y. Acad. Sci. 12, 19 (1965) (reporting that, in 1963, the U.S. used  22,000 tons of amosite in manufactured products, and 17,000 tons of crocidolite in acid-resistent filters, packings, insulations, and certain types of lagging. United States Department of Commerce statistics show that for the years 1957 to 1962, more crocidolite was used in the United States than was amosite. In 1962, the use of blue was twice as great as that for brown. 132 Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. at 753, Table 17 (1965); see also id. at 762, Table 23 (1965) (South African blue fiber imports exceeded brown fiber imports, starting about 1954). See alsoSelikoff and the Mystery of the Disappearing Amphiboles (Dec. 10, 2010); James R. Millette, Steven Compton, and Christopher DePasquale, “Microscopical Analyses of Asbestos-Cement Pipe and Board,” 66 The Microscope 3 (2018) (reporting analyses of cement formulations with substantial crocidolite).

45 Asbestos Worker at 13 (May 1966).

46 Jonathan Samet, et al., eds., Institute of Medicine Review of Asbestos: Selected Cancers (2006); see also Richard Doll & Julian Peto, Asbestos: Effects on health of exposure to asbestos 8 (1985) (“In particular, there are no grounds for believing that gastrointestinal cancers in general are peculiarly likely to be caused by asbestos exposure.”).

47Selikoff and the Mystery of the Disappearing Testimony” (Dec. 3, 2010); see, e.g., Barros v. United States, 147 F.Supp. 340, 343-44 (E.D.N.Y. 1957) (noting that Dr. Selikoff testified for seaman suing for maintenance and cure as a result of a slip and fall; finding for respondent against libelant); Bradshaw v. Twin City Insulation Co. Ltd., Indus. Ct. Indiana, Claim No. O.D.1454 (Oct. 14, 1966); Bradshaw v. Johns-Manville Sales Corp., Civ. Action No. 29433, E. D. Mich. S. Div. (July 6, 1967); Bambrick v. Asten Hill Mfg. Co., Pa. Cmwlth. Ct. 664 (1972); Tomplait v. Combustion Engineering Inc.., E. D. Tex. Civ. Action No. 5402 (March 4, 1968); Babcock & Wilcox, Inc. v. Steiner, 258 Md. 468, 471, 265 A.2d 871 (1970) (affirming workman compensation award for asbestosis); Rogers v. Johns-Manville Products Corp., Cir. Ct. Mo., 16th Jud. Cir., Div. 9, Civ. Action No. 720,071 (Feb. 19, 1971); Utter v. Asten-Hill Mfg. Co., 453 Pa. 401 (1973); Karjala v Johns-Manville Products Corp., D. Minn., Civ. Action Nos. 5–71 Civ. 18, and Civ. 40 (Feb. 8, 1973); Culp Industrial Insulation v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Workmen’s Compensation Appeal Board, 57 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 599, 601-602 (1981).

48 Andrew Haas, Comments from the General President, 18 Asbestos Worker (Nov. 1972); see also Peter W.J. Bartrip, “Irving John Selikoff and the Strange Case of the Missing Medical Degrees,” 58 J. History Med. 3, 27 & n.88-92 (2003) (citing Haas).

49 Thomas O’Toole, “U.S. Warned of Asbestos Peril,” Wash. Post. A4 (Dec. 4, 1968).

50 The United States Government’s Role in the Asbestos Mess” (Jan. 31, 2012). See also Kara Franke & Dennis Paustenbach, “Government and Navy knowledge regarding health hazards of Asbestos: A state of the science evaluation (1900 to 1970),” 23(S3) Inhalation Toxicology 1 (2011); Capt. H.M. Robbins & W.T. Marr, “Asbestosis,” Safety Review (Oct. 1962); See also Walter Olson, “Asbestos awareness pre-Selikoff,” (Oct. 19, 2007).

51 See Charles E. Rossiter, “Initial repeatability trials of the UICC/Cincinnati classification of the radiographic appearances of pneumoconioses,” 29 Brit. J. Indus. Med. 407 (1972) (among physician readers of chest radiographs, Selikoff was at the extreme of least likely to call a film normal (less than half the average of all readers), and the most likely to interpret films to show excess profusion of small irregular linear densities). See Selikoff and the Mystery of the Disappearing Asbestosis” (Dec. 6, 2010). The unions, of course, interested in maximizing compensation for their members loved Selikoff’s over-reading of chest films. Selikoff’s colleagues (Ruth Lilis?) routinely teased Selikoff about not being able to read chest radiographs. Selikoff was rumored to have taken and failed the NIOSH B-Reader examination, a rumor which needs to be resolved by a FOIA request.

52 United States v. Reserve Mining Co. See United States v. Reserve Mining Co., 56 F.R.D. 408 (D.Minn.1972); Armco Steel Corp. v. United States, 490 F.2d 688 (8th Cir. 1974); United States v. Reserve Mining Co., 380 F.Supp. 11 (D.Minn.1974); Reserve Mining Co. v. United States, 498 F.2d 1073 (8th Cir. 1974); Minnesota v. Reserve Mining Co., 418 U.S. 911 (1974); Minnesota v. Reserve Mining Co., 419 U.S. 802 (1974); United States v. Reserve Mining Co., 394 F.Supp. 233 (D.Minn.1974); Reserve Mining Co. v. Environmental Protection Agency, 514 F.2d 492 (8th Cir. 1975); Minnesota v. Reserve Mining Co., 420 U.S. 1000, 95 S.Ct. 1441, 43 L.Ed.2d 758 (1975); Reserve Mining Co. v. Lord, 529 F.2d 181 (8th Cir. 1976); United States v. Reserve Mining Co., 408 F.Supp. 1212 (D.Minn.1976); United States v. Reserve Mining Co., 412 F.Supp. 705 (D.Minn.1976); United States v. Reserve Mining Co., 417 F.Supp. 789 (D.Minn.1976); United States v. Reserve Mining Co., 417 F.Supp. 791 (D.Minn.1976); 543 F.2d 1210 (1976).

53 Robert V. Bartlett, The Reserve Mining Controversy: Science, Technology, and Environmental Quality 140-41 (1980) (describing Selikoff’s testimony).

54 Jock McCulloch & Geoffrey Tweedale, Defending the Indefensible : The Global Asbestos Industry and its Fight for Survival: The Global Asbestos Industry and its Fight for Survival 95 & n.36 (2008). These authors ignored more reasons Selikoff stood down from the witness chair: his self-serving insistence upon the importance of his own research detracted from the work of previous authors (e.g., Sir Richard Doll, J. Christopher Wagner, et al.) in litigation of personal injury claims of asbestos health effects. Plaintiffs’ counsel needed to push back the dates of first knowledge of asbestos health effects well before Selikoff’s first insulator study in 1964. The litigation industry needed Selikoff to continue to generate publicity, and to stop testifying. Selikoff surely must have had some concerns about how further testifying would eventually lead to questions about his credentials. Furthermore, Selikoff had an entire generation of younger, less politically visible colleagues at Mt. Sinai to fill the ranks of expert witnesses for the litigation industry (Miller, Levin, Nicholson, Lillis, Daum, Anderson, et al.).

55 Irving J. Selikoff, “Epidemiology of gastrointestinal cancer,” 9 Envt’l Health Persp. 299 (1974) (arguing for his causal conclusion between asbestos and all gastrointestinal cancers).

56 Nicholas Wade, “The Science and Politics of a Disinvitation,” 201 Science 892 (1978) (commenting that the NCI was negligent in failing to evaluate the ad hominem opinions given to it by Selikoff).

57 SeeThe Selikoff – Castleman Conspiracy” (Mar. 13, 2011); What Happens When Historians Have Bad Memories” (Mar. 15, 2014); “Castleman-Selikoff – Can Their Civil Conspiracy Survive Death? (Dec. 3, 2018). In 2014, Castleman testifies that he has no recollection of the memorandum.

58 See Richard Doll & Richard Peto, “The causes of cancer: quantitative estimates of avoidable risks of cancer in the United States today,” 66 J. Nat’l Cancer Inst. 1191 (1981).

60 The Mt. Sinai Catechism” (June 5, 2013).

62 Celia Selikoff Social Security Records, SSN 064-12-6401. Celia was born on Sept. 12, 1908.

63 A New York state trial court initially sided with Selikoff over this subpoena battle. In re R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 136 Misc.2d 282, 518 N.Y.S.2d 729 (N.Y. Sup. Ct., N.Y. Cty. 1987). The federal court subsequently required Selikoff to honor another litigant’s subpoena. In re American Tobacco Co., 866 F.2d 552 (2d Cir. 1989).

64 William J. Nicholson & Irving J. Selikoff, “Mortality experience of asbestos factory workers; effect of differing intensities of asbestos exposure”: unpublished manuscript produced in litigation (1988) (“[O]ther asbestos varieties (amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite) were also used for some products. In general, chrysotile was used for textiles, roofing materials, asbestos cements, brake and friction products, fillers for plastics, etc.; chrysotile with or without amosite for insulation materials; chrysotile and crocidolite for a variety of asbestos cement products.”)

65 In re School Asbestos Litigation, 977 F.2d 764 (3d Cir. 1992). See Cathleen M. Devlin, “Disqualification of Federal Judges – Third Circuit Orders District Judge James McGirr Kelly to Disqualify Himself So As To Preserve ‘The Appearance of Justice’ Under 28 U.S.C. § 455 – In re School Asbestos Litigation (1992),” 38 Villanova L. Rev. 1219 (1993); Bruce A. Green, “May Judges Attend Privately Funded Educational Programs? Should Judicial Education Be Privatized?: Questions of Judicial Ethics and Policy,” 29 Fordham Urb. L.J. 941, 996-98 (2002).

66 Jack B. Weinstein, “Learning, Speaking, and Acting: What Are the Limits for Judges?” 77 Judicature 322, 326 (May-June 1994) (emphasis added). Judge Weinstein’s false statement that Selikoff “had never testified” not only reflects an incredible and uncharacteristic naiveté by His Honor; the false statement was in a journal, Judicature, which was widely circulated to state and federal judges.

67 Jack B. Weinstein, “Learning, Speaking, and Acting: What Are the Limits for Judges?” 77 Judicature 322, 326 (May-June 1994). The point apparently weighed on Judge Weinstein’s conscience. He repeated his mea culpa almost verbatim, along with the false statement about Selikoff’s never having testified, in a law review article in 1994, and then incorporated the misrepresentation into a full-length book. See Jack B. Weinstein, “Limits on Judges’ Learning, Speaking and Acting – Part I- Tentative First Thoughts: How May Judges Learn?” 36 Ariz. L. Rev. 539, 560 (1994) (“He [Selikoff] had never testified and would never testify.); Jack B. Weinstein, Individual Justice in Mass Tort Litigation: The Effect of Class Actions, Consolidations, and other Multi-Party Devices 117 (1995) (“A court should not coerce independent eminent scientists, such as the late Dr. Irving Selikoff, to testify if, like he, they prefer to publish their results only in scientific journals.”).

68 Social Security records for Irving John Selikoff, social sec. no. 085-16-1882. See Bruce Lambert, “Irving J. Selikoff Is Dead at 77; TB Researcher Fought Asbestos,” N.Y. Times (May 22, 1992).

69 Steve Markowitz, Stephen Levin, Albert Miller, and Alfredo Morabia, “Asbestos, Asbestosis, Smoking and Lung Cancer: New Findings from the North American Insulator Cohort,” Am. J. Respir. & Critical Care Med. (2013)).

“Each and Every Exposure” Is a Substantial Factor

December 3rd, 2018

“Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings”
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Every time a plaintiff shows the smallest imaginable exposure, there is a full recovery.
… The American tort system.


In 1984, Philadelphia County had a non-jury system for asbestos personal injury cases, with a right to “appeal” for a de novo trial with a jury. The non-jury trials were a wonderful training ground for a generation of trial lawyers, and for a generation or two of testifying expert witnesses. When I started to try asbestos cases as a young lawyer, the plaintiffs’ counsel had already taught their expert witnesses to include the “each and every exposure” talismanic language in their direct examination testimonies on the causation of the plaintiffs’ condition. The litigation industry had figured out that this expression would help avoid a compulsory non-suit on proximate causation.

Back in those wild, woolly frontier days, I encountered the slick Dr. Joseph Sokolowski (“Sok”), a pulmonary physician in private practice in New Jersey. Sok, like many other pulmonary physicians in the Delaware Valley area, had seen civilian workers referred by Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to be evaluated for asbestosis. When the plaintiff-friendly physicians diagnosed asbestosis, a few preferred firms would then pursue their claims under the Federal Employees Compensation Act (FECA). The United States government would notify the workers of their occupational disease, and urge them to pursue the government’s outside vendors of asbestos-containing materials, with a reminder that the government had a lien against any civil action recovery. The federal government thus made common cause with the niche law practices of workers’ compensation lawyers,1 and helped launch the tsunami of asbestos litigation.2

Sok was perfect for his role in the federal kick-back scheme. He could deliver the most implausible testimony, and weather brutal cross-examination without flinching. He had the face of a choir boy, and his service as an outside examiner for the Navy Yard employees gave his diagnoses the apparent imprimatur of the federal government. Although Sok had no real understanding of epidemiology, he could readily master the Selikoff litany of 5-10-50, for relative risks for lung cancer, from asbestos alone (supposedly), from smoking alone, and from asbestos and smoking combined, respectively. And he similarly mastered his lines that “each and every exposure” is substantial, when pressed on whether and how exposure to a minor vendor’s product was a substantial factor. Back in those days, before Johns-Manville (JM) Corporation went bankrupt, honest witnesses at the Navy Yard acknowledged that JM supplied the vast majority of asbestos products, but that testimony changed literally over the course of a trial day, when the plaintiffs’ bar learned of the JM bankruptcy.

It was into this topsy-turvy litigation world, I was thrown. I had the sense that there was no basis for the “each and every exposure” opinion, but my elders at the defense bar seemed to avoid the opinion studiously on cross-examination. I recall co-defendants’ counsels’ looks of horror and disapproval when I broached the topic in my first cross-examination. Sok had known to incorporate the “each and every exposure” opinion into his direct testimony, but he had no intelligible response to my question about what possible basis there was for the opinion. “Well, we have to blame each and every exposure because we have no way distinguish among exposures.” I could not let it lie there, and so I asked: “So your opinion about each and every exposure is based upon your ignorance?” My question was quickly met with an objection, and just as quickly with a rather loud and disapproving, “Sustained!” When Sok finished his testimony, I moved to strike his substantial factor opinion as having no foundation, but my motion was met with by judicial annoyance and apathy.

And so I learned that science and logic had nothing to do with asbestos litigation. Some determined defense counsel persevered, however, and in the face of over one hundred bankruptcies,3 a few courts started to take the evidence and arguments against the “every exposure” testimony, seriously. Last week, the New York Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, agreed to state out loud that the plaintiffs’ “every exposure” theory had no clothes, no foundation, and no science. Juni v. A.O. Smith Water Products Co., No. 123, N.Y. Court of Appeals (Nov. 27, 2018).4

In a short, concise opinion, with a single dissent, the Court held that plaintiffs’ evidence (any exposure, no matter how trivial) in a mesothelioma death case was “insufficient as a matter of law to establish that respondent Ford Motor Co.’s conduct was a proximate cause of the decedent’s injuries.” The ruling affirmed the First Department’s affirmance of a trial court’s judgment notwithstanding the $11 million jury verdict against Ford.5 Arguing for the proposition that every exposure is substantial, over three dozen scientists, physicians, and historians, most of whom regularly support and testify for the litigation industry, filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs.6 The Atlantic Legal Foundation filed an amicus brief on behalf of several scientists,7 and I had the privilege of filing an amicus brief on behalf of the Coalition for Litigation Justice and nine other organizations in support of Ford’s positions.8

It has been 34 years since I first encountered the “every exposure is substantial” dogma in a Philaddelphia courtroom. Some times in litigation, it takes a long time to see the truth come out.

1 E.g., Shein and Brookman; Greitzer & Locks; both of Philadelphia.

2 Encouraging litigation against its suppliers, the federal government pulled off a coup of misdirection. First, it deflected public censure from the Navy and other governmental branches for its own carelessness in the use, installation, and removal of asbestos-containing insulations. Second, the government winnowed the ranks of older, better compensated workers. Third, and most diabolically, the government, which was self-insured for FECA claims, recovered most of their outlay when its former employees recovered judgments or settlements against the government’s outside asbestos product vendors. “The United States Government’s Role in the Asbestos Mess” (Jan. 31, 2012). See also Walter Olson, “Asbestos awareness pre-Selikoff,” Point of Law (Oct. 19, 2007); “The U.S. Navy and the asbestos calamityPoint of Law (Oct. 9, 2007).

4 The plaintiffs were represented by Alani Golanski of Weitz & Luxenberg LLP.

6 Abby Lippman, Annie Thebaud Mony, Arthur L. Frank, Barry Castleman, Bruce P. Lanphear,

Celeste Monforton, Colin L. Soskolne, Daniel Thau Teitelbaum, Dario Consonni, Dario Mirabelli, David Egilman, David F. Goldsmith, David Ozonoff, David Rosner, Fiorella Belpoggi, James Huff, John Heinzow, John M. Dement, John Coulter Maddox, Karl T. Kelsey, Kathleen Ruff, Kenneth D. Rosenman, L. Christine Oliver, Laura Welch, Leslie Thomas Stayner, Morris Greenberg, Nachman Brautbar, Philip J. Landrigan, Xaver Baur, Hans-Joachim Woitowitz, Bice Fubini, Richard Kradin, T.K. Joshi, Theresa S. Emory, Thomas H. Gassert,

Tony Fletcher, and Yv Bonnier Viger.

7 John Henderson Duffus, Ronald E. Gots, Arthur M. Langer, Robert Nolan, Gordon L. Nord, Alan John Rogers, and Emanuel Rubin.

8 Amici Curiae Brief of Coalition for Litigation Justice, Inc., Business Council of New York State, Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, New York Insurance Association, Inc., Northeast Retail Lumber Association, National Association of Manufacturers, Chamber of Commerce of the U.S.A., American Tort Reform Association, American Insurance Association, and NFIB Small Business Legal Center Supporting Defendant-Respondent Ford Motor Company.