TORTINI

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

ASA Statement Goes to Court – Part 2

March 7th, 2019

It has been almost three years since the American Statistical Association (ASA) issued its statement on statistical significance. Ronald L. Wasserstein & Nicole A. Lazar, “The ASA’s Statement on p-Values: Context, Process, and Purpose,” 70 The American Statistician 129 (2016) [ASA Statement]. Before the ASA’s Statement, courts and lawyers from all sides routinely misunderstood, misstated, and misrepresented the meaning of statistical significance.1 These errors were pandemic despite the efforts of the Federal Judicial Center and the National Academies of Science to educate judges and lawyers, through their Reference Manuals on Scientific Evidence and seminars. The interesting question is whether the ASA’s Statement has improved, or will improve, the unfortunate situation.2

The ASA Statement on Testosterone

“Ye blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”
Matthew 23:24

To capture the state of the art, or the state of correct and flawed interpretations of the ASA Statement, reviewing a recent but now resolved, large so-called mass tort may be illustrative. Pharmaceutical products liability cases almost always turn on evidence from pharmaco-epidemiologic studies that compare the rate of an outcome of interest among patients taking a particular medication with the rate among similar, untreated patients. These studies compare the observed with the expected rates, and invariably assess the differences as either a “risk ratio,” or a “risk difference,” for both the magnitude of the difference and for “significance probability” of observing a rate at least as large as seen in the exposed group, given the assumptions that that the medication did not change the rate and that the data followed a given probability distribution. In these alleged “health effects” cases, claims and counterclaims of misuse of significance probability have been pervasive. After the ASA Statement was released, some lawyers began to modify their arguments to suggest that their adversaries’ arguments offend the ASA’s pronouncements.

One litigation that showcases the use and misuse of the ASA Statement arose from claims that AbbVie, Inc.’s transdermal testosterone medication (TRT) causes heart attacks, strokes, and venous thromboembolism. The FDA had reviewed the plaintiffs’ claims, made in a Public Citizen complaint, and resoundingly rejected the causal interpretation of two dubious observational studies, and an incomplete meta-analysis that used an off-beat composite end point.3 The Public Citizen petition probably did succeed in pushing the FDA to convene an Advisory Committee meeting, which again resulted in a rejection of the causal claims. The FDA did, however, modify the class labeling for TRT with respect to indication and a possible association with cardiovascular outcomes. And then the litigation came.

Notwithstanding the FDA’s determination that a causal association had not been shown, thousands of plaintiffs sued several companies, with most of the complaints falling on AbbVie, Inc., which had the largest presence in the market. The ASA Statement came up occasionally in pre-trial depositions, but became a major brouhaha, when AbbVie moved to exclude plaintiffs’ causation expert witnesses.4

The Defense’s Anticipatory Parry of the ASA Statement

As AbbVie described the situation:

Plaintiffs’ experts uniformly seek to abrogate the established methods and standards for determining … causal factors in favor of precisely the kind of subjective judgments that Daubert was designed to avoid. Tests for statistical significance are characterized as ‘misleading’ and rejected [by plaintiffs’ expert witnesses] in favor of non-statistical ‘estimates’, ‘clinical judgment’, and ‘gestalt’ views of the evidence.”5

AbbVie’s brief in support of excluding plaintiffs’ expert witnesses barely mentioned the ASA Statement, but in a footnote, the defense anticipated the Plaintiffs’ opposition would be based on rejecting the importance of statistical significance testing and the claim that this rejection was somehow supported by the ASA Statement:

The statistical community is currently debating whether scientists who lack expertise in statistics misunderstand p-values and overvalue significance testing. [citing ASA Statement] The fact that there is a debate among professional statisticians on this narrow issue does not validate Dr. Gerstman’s [plaintiffs’ expert witness’s] rejection of the importance of statistical significance testing, or undermine Defendants’ reliance on accepted methods for determining association and causation.”6

In its brief in support of excluding causation opinions, the defense took pains to define statistical significance, and managed to do so, painfully, or at least in ways that the ASA conferees would have found objectionable:

Any association found must be tested for its statistical significance. Statistical significance testing measures the likelihood that the observed association could be due to chance variation among samples. Scientists evaluate whether an observed effect is due to chance using p-values and confidence intervals. The prevailing scientific convention requires that there be 95% probability that the observed association is not due to chance (expressed as a p-value < 0.05) before reporting a result as “statistically significant. * * * This process guards against reporting false positive results by setting a ceiling for the probability that the observed positive association could be due to chance alone, assuming that no association was actually present.7

AbbVie’s brief proceeded to characterize the confidence interval as a tool of significance testing, again in a way that misstates the mathematical meaning and importance of the interval:

The determination of statistical significance can be described equivalently in terms of the confidence interval calculated in connection with the association. A confidence interval indicates the level of uncertainty that exists around the measured value of the association (i.e., the OR or RR). A confidence interval defines the range of possible values for the actual OR or RR that are compatible with the sample data, at a specified confidence level, typically 95% under the prevailing scientific convention. Reference Manual, at 580 (Ex. 14) (“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.”). * * * If the confidence interval crosses 1.0, this means there may be no difference between the treatment group and the control group, therefore the result is not considered statistically significant.”8

Perhaps AbbVie’s counsel should be permitted a plea in mitigation by having cited to, and quoted from, the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence’s chapter on epidemiology, which was also wide of the mark in its description of the confidence interval. Counsel would have been better served by the Manual’s more rigorous and accurate chapter on statistics. Even so, the above-quoted statements give an inappropriate interpretation of random error as a probability about the hypothesis being tested.9 Particularly dangerous, in terms of failing to advance AbbVie’s own objectives, was the characterization of the confidence interval as measuring the level of uncertainty, as though there were no other sources of uncertainty other than random error in the measurement of the risk ratio.

The Plaintiffs’ Attack on Significance Testing

The Plaintiffs, of course, filed an opposition brief that characterized the defense position as an attempt to:

elevate statistical significance, as measured by confidence intervals and so-called p-values, to the status of an absolute requirement to the establishment of causation.”10

Tellingly, the plaintiffs’ brief fails to point to any modern-era example of a scientific determination of causation based upon epidemiologic evidence, in which the pertinent studies were not assessed for, and found to show, statistical significance.

After citing a few judicial opinions that underplayed the importance of statistical significance, the Plaintiffs’ opposition turned to the ASA Statement for what it perceived to be support for its loosey-goosey approach to causal inference.11 The Plaintiffs’ opposition brief quoted a series of propositions from the ASA Statement, without the ASA’s elaborations and elucidations, and without much in the way of explanation or commentary. At the very least, the Plaintiffs’ heavy reliance upon, despite their distortions of, the ASA Statement helped them to define key statistical concepts more carefully than had AbbVie in its opening brief.

The ASA Statement, however, was not immune from being misrepresented in the Plaintiffs’ opposition brief. Many of the quoted propositions were quite beside the points of the dispute over the validity and reliability of Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ conclusions of causation about testosterone and heart attacks, conclusions not reached or shared by the FDA, any consensus statement from medical organizations, or any serious published systematic review:

P-values do not measure the probability that the studied hypothesis is true, … .”12

This proposition from the ASA Statement is true, but trivially true. (Of course, this ASA principle is relevant to the many judicial decisions that have managed to misstate what p-values measure.) The above-quoted proposition follows from the definition and meaning of the p-value; only someone who did not understand significance probability would confuse it with the probability of the truth of the studied hypothesis. P-values’ not measuring the probability of the null hypothesis, or any alternative hypothesis, is not a flaw in p-values, but arguably their strength.

A p-value, or statistical significance, does not measure the size of an effect or the importance of a result.”13

Again, true, true, and immaterial. The existence of other importance metrics, such as the magnitude of an association or correlation, hardly detracts from the importance of assessing the random error in an observed statistic. The need to assess clinical or practical significance of an association or correlation also does not detract from the importance of the assessed random error in a measured statistic.

By itself, a p-value does not provide a good measure of evidence regarding a model or hypothesis.”14

The Plaintiffs’ opposition attempted to spin the above ASA statement as a criticism of p-values involves an elenchi ignoratio. Once again, the p-value assumes a probability model and a null hypothesis, and so it cannot provide a “measure” or the model or hypothesis’ probability.

The Plaintiffs’ final harrumph on the ASA Statement was their claim that the ASA Statement’s conclusion was “especially significant” to the testosterone litigation:

Good statistical practice, as an essential component of good scientific practice, emphasizes principles of good study design and conduct, a variety of numerical and graphical summaries of data, understanding of the phenomenon under study, interpretation of results in context, complete reporting and proper logical and quantitative understanding of what data summaries mean. No single index should substitute for scientific reasoning.”15

The existence of other important criteria in the evaluation and synthesis of a complex body of studies does not erase or supersede the importance of assessing stochastic error in the epidemiologic studies. Plaintiffs’ Opposition Brief asserted that the Defense had attempted to:

to substitute the single index, the p-value, for scientific reasoning in the reports of Plaintiffs’ experts should be rejected.”16

Some of the defense’s opening brief could indeed be read as reducing causal inference to the determination of statistical significance. A sympathetic reading of the entire AbbVie brief, however, shows that it had criticized the threats to validity in the observational epidemiologic studies, as well as some of the clinical trials, and other rampant flaws in the Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ reasoning. The Plaintiffs’ citations to the ASA Statement’s “negative” propositions about p-values (to emphasize what they are not) appeared to be the stuffing of a strawman, used to divert attention from other failings of their own claims and proffered analyses. In other words, the substance of the Rule 702 application had much more to do with data quality and study validity than statistical significance.

What did the trial court make of this back and forth about statistical significance and the ASA Statement? For the most part, the trial court denied both sides’ challenges to proffered expert witness testimony on causation and statistical issues. In sorting the controversy over the ASA Statement, the trial court apparently misunderstood key statistical concepts and paid little attention to the threats to validity other than random variability in study results.17 The trial court summarized the controversy as follows:

In arguing that the scientific literature does not support a finding that TRT is associated with the alleged injuries, AbbVie emphasize [sic] the importance of considering the statistical significance of study results. Though experts for both AbbVie and plaintiffs agree that statistical significance is a widely accepted concept in the field of statistics and that there is a conventional method for determining the statistical significance of a study’s findings, the parties and their experts disagree about the conclusions one may permissibly draw from a study result that is deemed to possess or lack statistical significance according to conventional methods of making that determination.”18

Of course, there was never a controversy presented to the court about drawing a conclusion from “a study.” By the time the briefs were filed, both sides had multiple observational studies, clinical trials, and meta-analyses to synthesize into opinions for or against causal claims.

Ironically, AbbVie might claim to have prevailed in having the trial court adopt its misleading definitions of p-values and confidence intervals:

Statisticians test for statistical significance to determine the likelihood that a study’s findings are due to chance. *** According to conventional statistical practice, such a result *** would be considered statistically significant if there is a 95% probability, also expressed as a “p-value” of <0.05, that the observed association is not the product of chance. If, however, the p-value were greater than 0.05, the observed association would not be regarded as statistically significant, according to prevailing conventions, because there is a greater than 5% probability that the association observed was the result of chance.”19

The MDL court similarly appeared to accept AbbVie’s dubious description of the confidence interval:

A confidence interval consists of a range of values. For a 95% confidence interval, one would expect future studies sampling the same population to produce values within the range 95% of the time. So if the confidence interval ranged from 1.2 to 3.0, the association would be considered statistically significant, because one would expect, with 95% confidence, that future studies would report a ratio above 1.0 – indeed, above 1.2.”20

The court’s opinion clearly evidences the danger in stating the importance of statistical significance without placing equal emphasis on the need to exclude bias and confounding. Having found an observational study and one meta-analysis of clinical trial safety outcomes that were statistically significant, the trial court held that any dispute over the probativeness of the studies was for the jury to assess.

Some but not all of AbbVie’s brief might have encouraged this lax attitude by failing to emphasize study validity at the same time as emphasizing the importance of statistical significance. In any event, trial court continued with its précis of the plaintiffs’ argument that:

a study reporting a confidence interval ranging from 0.9 to 3.5, for example, should certainly not be understood as evidence that there is no association and may actually be understood as evidence in favor of an association, when considered in light of other evidence. Thus, according to plaintiffs’ experts, even studies that do not show a statistically significant association between TRT and the alleged injuries may plausibly bolster their opinions that TRT is capable of causing such injuries.”21

Of course, a single study that reported a risk ratio greater than 1.0, with a confidence interval 0.9 to 3.5 might be reasonably incorporated into a meta-analysis that in turn could support, or not support a causal inference. In the TRT litigation, however, the well-conducted, most up-to-date meta-analyses did not report statistically significant elevated rates of cardiovascular events among users of TRT. The court’s insistence that a study with a confidence interval 0.9 to 3.5 cannot be interpreted as evidence of no association is, of course, correct. Equally correct would be to say that the interval shows that the study failed to show an association. The trial court never grappled with the reality that the best conducted meta-analyses failed to show statistically significant increases in the rates of cardiovascular events.

The American Statistical Association and its members would likely have been deeply disappointed by how both parties used the ASA Statement for their litigation objectives. AbbVie’s suggestion that the ASA Statement reflects a debate about “whether scientists who lack expertise in statistics misunderstand p-values and overvalue significance testing” would appear to have no support in the Statement itself or any other commentary to come out of the meeting leading up to the Statement. The Plaintiffs’ argument that p-values properly understood are unimportant and misleading similarly finds no support in the ASA Statement. Conveniently, the Plaintiffs’ brief ignored the Statement’s insistence upon transparency in pre-specification of analyses and outcomes, and in handling of multiple comparisons:

P-values and related analyses should not be reported selectively. Conducting multiple analyses of the data and reporting only those with certain p-values (typically those passing a significance threshold) renders the reported p-values essentially uninterpretable. Cherrypicking promising findings, also known by such terms as data dredging, significance chasing, significance questing, selective inference, and ‘p-hacking’, leads to a spurious excess of statistically significant results in the published literature and should be vigorously avoided.”22

Most if not all of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ reliance materials would have been eliminated under this principle set forth by the ASA Statement.


1 See, e.g., In re Ephedra Prods. Liab. Litig., 393 F.Supp. 2d 181, 191 (S.D.N.Y. 2005). See alsoConfidence in Intervals and Diffidence in the Courts” (March 4, 2012); “Scientific illiteracy among the judiciary” (Feb. 29, 2012).

3Letter of Janet Woodcock, Director of FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, to Sidney Wolfe, Director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group (July 16, 2014) (denying citizen petition for “black box” warning).

4 Defendants’ (AbbVie, Inc.’s) Motion to Exclude Plaintiffs Expert Testimony on the Issue of Causation, and for Summary Judgment, and Memorandum of Law in Support, Case No. 1:14-CV-01748, MDL 2545, Document #: 1753, 2017 WL 1104501 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 20, 2017) [AbbVie Brief].

5 AbbVie Brief at 3; see also id. at 7-8 (“Depending upon the expert, even the basic tests of statistical significance are simply ignored, dismissed as misleading… .”) AbbVie’s definitions of statistical significance occasionally wandered off track and into the transposition fallacy, but generally its point was understandable.

6 AbbVie Brief at 63 n.16 (emphasis in original).

7 AbbVie Brief at 13 (emphasis in original).

8 AbbVie Brief at 13-14 (emphasis in original).

9 The defense brief further emphasized statistical significance almost as though it were a sufficient basis for inferring causality from observational studies: “Regardless of this debate, courts have routinely found the traditional epidemiological method—including bedrock principles of significance testing—to be the most reliable and accepted way to establish general causation. See, e.g., In re Zoloft, 26 F. Supp. 3d 449, 455; see also Rosen v. Ciba-Geigy Corp., 78 F.3d 316, 319 (7th Cir. 1996) (“The law lags science; it does not lead it.”). AbbVie Brief at 63-64 & n.16. The defense’s language about “including bedrock principles of significance testing” absolves it of having totally ignored other necessary considerations, but still the defense might have advantageously pointed out at the other needed considerations for causal inference at the same time.

10 Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee’ Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Motion of AbbVie Defendants to Exclude Plaintiffs’ Expert Testimony on the Issue of Causation, and for Summary Judgment at p.34, Case No. 1:14-CV-01748, MDL 2545, Document No. 1753 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 23, 2017) [Opp. Brief].

11 Id. at 35 (appending the ASA Statement and the commentary of more than two dozen interested commentators).

12 Id. at 38 (quoting from the ASA Statement at 131).

13 Id. at 38 (quoting from the ASA Statement at 132).

14 Id. at 38 (quoting from the ASA Statement at 132).

15 Id. at 38 (quoting from the ASA Statement at 132).

16 Id. at 38

17  In re Testosterone Replacement Therapy Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 2545, C.M.O. No. 46, 2017 WL 1833173 (N.D. Ill. May 8, 2017) [In re TRT]

18 In re TRT at *4.

19 In re TRT at *4.

20 Id.

21 Id. at *4.

22 ASA Statement at 131-32.

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. 

 

The “Rothman” Amicus Brief in Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals

November 17th, 2018

Then time will tell just who fell
And who’s been left behind”

                  Dylan, “Most Likely You Go Your Way” (1966)

 

When the Daubert case headed to the Supreme Court, it had 22 amicus briefs in tow. Today that number is routine for an appeal to the high court, but in 1992, it was a signal of intense interest in the case among both the scientific and legal community. To the litigation industry, the prospect of judicial gatekeeping of expert witness testimony was an anathema. To the manufacturing industry, the prospect was precious to defend against specious claiming.

With the benefit of 25 years of hindsight, a look at some of those amicus briefs reveals a good deal about the scientific and legal acumen of the “friends of the court.” Not all amicus briefs in the case were equal; not all have held up well in the face of time. The amicus brief of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Science was a good example of advocacy for the full implementation of gatekeeping on scientific principles of valid inference.1 Other amici urged an anything goes approach to judicial oversight of expert witnesses.

One amicus brief often praised by Plaintiffs’ counsel was submitted by Professor Kenneth Rothman and colleagues.2 This amicus brief is still cited by parties who find support in the brief for their excuses for not having consistent, valid, strong, and statistically significance evidence to support their claims of causation. To be sure, Rothman did target statistical significance as a strict criterion of causal inference, but there is little support in the brief for the loosey-goosey style of causal claiming that is so prevalent among lawyers for the litigation industry. Unlike the brief filed by the AAAS and the National Academy of Science, Rothman’s brief abstained from the social policies implied by judicial gatekeeping or its rejection. Instead, Rothman’s brief wet out to make three narrow points:

(1) courts should not rely upon strict statistical significance testing for admissibility determinations;

(2) peer review is not an appropriate touchstone for the validity of an expert witness’s opinion; and

(3) unpublished, non-peer-reviewed “reanalysis” of studies is a routine part of the scientific process, and regularly practiced by epidemiologists and other scientists.

Rothman was encouraged to target these three issues by the lower courts’ opinions in the Daubert case, in which the courts made blanket statements about the role of absent statistical significance and peer review, and the illegitimacy of “re-analyses” of published studies.

Professor Rothman has made many admirable contributions to epidemiologic practice, but the amicus brief submitted by him and his colleagues falls into the trap of making the sort of blanket general statements that they condemned in the lower courts’ opinions. Of the brief’s three points, the first, about statistical significance is the most important for epidemiologic and legal practice. Despite reports of an odd journal here or there “abolishing” p-values, most medical journals continue to require the presentation of either p-values or confidence intervals. In the majority of medical journals, 95% confidence intervals that exclude a null hypothesis risk ratio of 1.0, or risk difference of 0, are labelled “statistically significant,” sometimes improvidently in the presence of multiple comparisons and lack of pre-specification of outcome.

For over three decades, Rothman has criticized the prevailing practice on statistical significance. Professor Rothman is also well known for his advocacy for the superiority of confidence intervals over p-values in conveying important information about what range of values are reasonably compatible with the observed data.3 His criticisms of p-values and his advocacy for estimation with intervals have pushed biomedical publishing to embrace confidence intervals as more informative than just p-values. Still, his views on statistical significance have never gained complete acceptance at most clinical journals. Biomedical scientists continue to interpret 95% confidence intervals, at least in part, as to whether they show “significance” by excluding the null hypothesis value of no risk difference or of risk ratios equal to 1.0.

The first point in Rothman’s amicus brief is styled:

THE LOWER COURTS’ FOCUS ON SIGNIFICANCE TESTING IS BASED ON THE INACCURATE ASSUMPTION THAT ‘STATISTICAL SIGNIFICANCE’ IS REQUIRED IN ORDER TO DRAW INFERENCES FROM EPIDEMIOLOGICAL INFORMATION”

The challenge by Rothman and colleagues to the “assumption” that statistical significance is necessary is what, of course, has endeared this brief to the litigation industry. A close read of the brief, however, shows that Rothman’s critique of the assumption is equivocal. Rothman et amici characterized the lower courts as having given:

blind deference to inappropriate and arcane publication standards and ‘significance testing’.”4

The brief is silent about what might be knowing deference, or appropriate publication standards. To be sure, judges have often poorly expressed their reasoning for deciding scientific evidentiary issues, and perhaps poor communication or laziness by judges was responsible for Rothman’s interest in joining the Daubert fray. Putting aside the unclear, rhetorical, and somewhat hyperbolic use of “arcane” in the quote above, the suggestion of inappropriate blind deference is itself expressed in equivocal terms in the brief. At times the authors rail at the use of statistical significance as the “sole” criterion, and at times, they seem to criticize its use at all.

At least twice in their brief, Rothman and friends declare that the lower court:

misconstrues the validity and appropriateness of significance testing as a decision making tool, apparently deeming it the sole test of epidemiological hypotheses.”5

* * * * * *

this Court should reject significance testing as the sole acceptable criterion of scientific validity in epidemiology.”6

Characterizing “statistical significance” as not the sole test or criterion of scientific inference is hardly controversial, and it implies that statistical significance is one test, criterion, or factor among others. This position is consistent with the current ASA Statement on Significance Testing.7 There is, of course, much more to evaluate in a study or a body of studies, than simply whether they individually or collectively help us to exclude chance as an explanation for their findings.

Statistical Significance Is Not Necessary At All

Elsewhere, Rothman and friends take their challenge to statistical significance testing beyond merely suggesting that such testing is only one test or criterion among others. Indeed, their brief in other places states their opinion that significance testing is not necessary at all:

Testing for significance, however, is often mistaken for a sine qua non of scientific inference.”8

And at other times, Rothman and friends go further yet and claim not only that significance is not necessary, but that it is not even appropriate or useful:

Significance testing, however, is neither necessary nor appropriate as a requirement for drawing inferences from epidemiologic data.”9

Rothman compares statistical significance testing with “scientific inference,” which is not a mechanical, mathematical procedure, but rather a “thoughtful evaluation[] of possible explanations for what is being observed.”10 Significance testing, in contrast,” is “merely a statistical tool,” used inappropriately “in the process of developing inferences.”11 Rothman suggests that the term “statistical significance” could be eliminated from scientific discussions without loss of meaning, and this linguistic legerdemain shows that the phrase is unimportant in science and in law.12 Rothman’s suggestion, however, ignores that causal assessments have always required an evaluation of the play of chance, especially for putative causes, which are neither necessary nor sufficient, and which modify underlying stochastic processes by increasing or decreasing the probability of a specified outcome. Asserting that statistical significance is misleading because it never describes the size of an association, which the Rothman brief does, is like telling us that color terms tell us nothing about the mass of a body.

The Rothman brief does make the salutary point that labeling a study outcome as not “statistically significant” carries the danger that the study’s data have no value, or that the study may be taken to reject the hypothesized association. In 1992, such an interpretation may have been more common, but today, in the face of the proliferation of meta-analyses, the risk of such interpretations of single study outcomes is remote.

Questionable History of Statistics

Rothman suggests that the development of statistical hypothesis testing occurred in the context of agricultural and quality-control experiments, which required yes-no answers for future action.13 This suggestion clearly points at Sir Ronald Fisher and Jerzy Neyman, and their foundational work on frequentist statistical theory and practice. In part, the amici correctly identified the experimental milieu in which Fisher worked, but the description of Fisher’s work is neither accurate nor fair. Fisher spent a lifetime thinking and writing about statistical tests, in much more nuanced ways than implied by the claim that such testing occurred in context of agricultural and quality-control experiments. Although Fisher worked on agricultural experiments, his writings acknowledged that when statistical tests and analyses were applied to observational studies, much more searching analyses of bias and confounding were required. Fisher’s and Berkson’s reactions to the observational studies of Hill and Doll on smoking and lung cancer are telling in this regard. These statisticians criticized the early smoking lung cancer studies, not for lack of statistical significance, but for failing to address confounding by a potential common genetic propensity to smoke and to develop lung cancer.

Questionable History of Drug Development

Twice in Rothman’s amicus brief, the authors suggest that “undue reliance” on statistical significance has resulted in overlooking “effective new treatments” because observed benefits were considered “not significant,” despite an “indication” of efficacy.14 The brief never provided any insight on what is due reliance and what is undue reliance on statistical significance. Their criticism of “undue reliance” implies that there are modes or instances of “due reliance” upon statistical significance. The amicus brief fails also to inform readers exactly what “effective new treatments” have been overlooked because the outcomes were considered “not significant.” This omission is regrettable because it leaves the reader with only abstract recommendations, without concrete examples of what such effective treatments might be. The omission was unfortunate because Rothman almost certainly could have marshalled examples. Recently, Rothman tweeted just such an example:15

“30% ↓ in cancer risk from Vit D/Ca supplements ignored by authors & editorial. Why? P = 0.06. http://bit.ly/2oanl6w http://bit.ly/2p0CRj7. The 95% confidence interval for the risk ratio was 0.42–1.02.”

Of course, this was a large, carefully reported randomized clinical trial, with a narrow confidence interval that just missed “statistical significance.” It is not an example that would have given succor to Bendectin plaintiffs, who were attempting to prove an association by identifying flaws in noisy observational studies that generally failed to show an association.

Readers of the 1992 amicus brief can only guess at what might be “indications of efficacy”; no explanation or examples are provided.16 The reality of FDA approvals of new drugs is that pre-specified 5% level of statistical significance is virtually always enforced.17 If a drug sponsor has “indication of efficacy,” it is, of course, free to follow up with an additional, larger, better-designed clinical trial. Rothman’s recent tweet about the vitamin D clinical trial does provide some context and meaning to what the amici may have meant over 25 years ago by indication of efficacy. The tweet also illustrates Rothman’s acknowledgment of the need to address random variability in a data set, whether by p-value or confidence interval, or both. Clearly, Rothman was criticizing the authors of the vitamin D trial for stopping short of claiming that they had shown (or “demonstrated”) a cancer survival benefit. There is, however, a rich literature on vitamin D and cancer outcomes, and such a claim could be made, perhaps, in the context of a meta-analysis or meta-regression of multiple clinical trials, with a synthesis of other experimental and observational data.18

Questionable History of Statistical Analyses in Epidemiology

Rothman’s amicus brief deserves credit for introducing a misinterpretation of Sir Austin Bradford Hill’s famous paper on inferring causal associations, which has become catechism in the briefs of plaintiffs in pharmaceutical and other products liability cases:

No formal tests of significance can answer those questions. Such tests can, and should, remind us of the effects that the play of chance can create, and they will instruct us in the likely magnitude of those effects. Beyond that they contribute nothing to the ‘proof’ of our hypothesis.”

Austin Bradford Hill, “The Environment and Disease: Association or Causation?” 58 Proc. Royal Soc’y Med. 295, 290 (1965) (quoted at Rothman Brief at *6).

As exegesis of Hill’s views, this quote is misleading. The language quoted above was used by Hill in the context of his nine causal viewpoints or criteria. The Rothman brief ignores Hill’s admonition to his readers, that before reaching the nine criteria, there is a serious, demanding predicate that must be shown:

Disregarding then any such problem in semantics we have this situation. Our observations reveal an association between two variables, perfectly clear-cut and beyond what we would care to attribute to the play of chance. What aspects of that association should we especially consider before deciding that the most likely interpretation of it is causation?”

Id. at 295 (emphasis added). Rothman and co-authors did not have to invoke the prestige and authority of Sir Austin, but once they did, they were obligated to quote him fully and with accurate context. Elsewhere, in his famous textbook, Hill expressed his view that common sense was insufficient to interpret data, and that the statistical method was necessary to interpret data in medical studies.19

Rothman complains that statistical significance focuses the reader on conjecture on the role of chance in the observed data rather than the information conveyed by the data themselves.20 The “incompleteness” of statistical analysis for arriving at causal conclusions, however, is not an argument against its necessity.

The Rothman brief does make the helpful point that statistical significance cannot be sufficient to support a conclusion of causation because many statistically significant associations or correlations will be non-causal. They give a trivial example of wearing dresses and breast cancer, but the point is well-taken. Associations, even when statistically significant, are not necessarily causal conclusions. Who ever suggested otherwise, other than expert witnesses for the litigation industry?

Unnecessary Fears

The motivation for Rothman’s challenge to the assumption that statistical significance is necessary is revealed at the end of the argument on Point I. The authors plainly express their concern that false negatives will shut down important research:

To give weight to the failure of epidemiological studies to meet strict ‘statistical significant’ standards — to use such studies to close the door on further inquiry — is not good science.”21

The relevance of this concern to the proceedings is a mystery. The judicial decisions in the case are not referenda on funding initiatives. Scientists were as free in 1993, after Daubert was decided, as they were in 1992, when Rothman wrote, to pursue the hypothesis that Bendectin caused birth defects. The decision had the potential to shut down tort claims, and left scientists to their tasks.

Reanalyses Are Appropriate Scientific Tools to Assess and Evaluate Data, and to Forge Causal Opinions

The Rothman brief took issue with the lower courts’ dismissal of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ re-analyses of data in published studies. The authors argued that reanalyses were part of the scientific method, and not “an arcane or specialized enterprise,” deserving of heightened or skeptical scrutiny.22

Remarkably, the Rothman brief, if accepted by the Supreme Court on the re-analysis point, would have led to the sort of unthinking blanket acceptance of a methodology, which the brief’s authors condemned in the context of blanket acceptance of significance testing. The brief covertly urges “blind deference” to its authors on the blanket approval of re-analyses.

Although amici have tight page limits, the brief’s authors made clear that they were offering no substantive opinions on the data involved in the published epidemiologic studies on Bendectin, or on the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ re-analyses. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the sweeping language used by the Ninth Circuit on re-analyses might have been taken to foreclose important and valid meta-analyses or similar approaches. The Rothman brief is not terribly explicit on what re-analysis techniques were part of the scientific method, but meta-analyses surely had been on the authors’ minds:

by focusing on inappropriate criteria applied to determine what conclusions, if any, can be reached from any one study, the trial court forecloses testimony about inferences that can be drawn from the combination of results reported by many such studies, even when those studies, standing alone, might not justify such inferences.”23

The plaintiffs’ statistical expert witness in Daubert had proffered a re-analysis of at least one study by substituting a different control sample, as well as a questionable meta-analyses. By failing to engage on the propriety of the specific analyses at issue in Daubert, the Rothman brief failed to offer meaningful guidance to the appellate court.

Reanalyses Are Not Invalid Just Because They Have Not Been Published

Rothman was certainly correct that the value of peer review was overstated by the defense in Bendectin litigation.24 The quality of pre-publication peer review is spotty, at best. Predatory journals deploy a pay-to-play scheme, which makes a mockery of scientific publishing. Even at respectable journals, peer review cannot effectively guard against fraud, or ensure that statistical analyses have been appropriately done.25 At best, peer review is a weak proxy for study validity, and an unreliable one at that.

The Rothman brief may have moderated the Supreme Court’s reaction to the defense’s argument that peer review is a requirement for studies, or “re-analyses,” relied upon by expert witnesses. The Court in Daubert opined, in dicta, that peer review is a non-dispositive consideration:

The fact of publication (or lack thereof) in a peer reviewed journal … will be a relevant, though not dispositive, consideration in assessing the scientific validity of a particular technique or methodology on which an opinion is premised.”26

To the extent that Rothman and colleagues might have been disappointed in this outcome, they missed some important context of the Bendectin cases. Most of the cases had been resolved by a consolidated causation issues trial, but many opt-out cases had to be tried in state and federal courts around the country.27 The expert witnesses challenged in Daubert (Drs. Swan and Done) participated in many of these opt-out cases, and in each case, they opined that Bendectin was a public health hazard. The failure of these witnesses to publish their analyses and re-analyses spoke volumes about their bona fides. Courts (and juries if the Swan and Done proffered testimony were admissible) could certainly draw negative inferences from the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ failure to publish their opinions and re-analyses.

The Fate of the “Rothman Approach” in the Courts

The so-called “Rothman approach” was urged by Bendectin plaintiffs in opposing summary judgment in a case pending in federal court, in New Jersey, before the Supreme Court decided Daubert. Plaintiffs resisted exclusion of their expert witnesses, who had relied upon inconsistent and statistically non-significant studies on the supposed teratogenicity of Bendectin. The trial court excluded the plaintiffs’ witnesses, and granted summary judgment.28

On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed and remanded the DeLucas’s case for a hearing under Rule 702:

by directing such an overall evaluation, however, we do not mean to reject at this point Merrell Dow’s contention that a showing of a .05 level of statistical significance should be a threshold requirement for any statistical analysis concluding that Bendectin is a teratogen regardless of the presence of other indicia of reliability. That contention will need to be addressed on remand. The root issue it poses is what risk of what type of error the judicial system is willing to tolerate. This is not an easy issue to resolve and one possible resolution is a conclusion that the system should not tolerate any expert opinion rooted in statistical analysis where the results of the underlying studies are not significant at a .05 level.”29

After remand, the district court excluded the DeLuca plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, and granted summary judgment, based upon the dubious methods employed by plaintiffs’ expert witnesses in cherry picking data, recalculating risk ratios in published studies, and ignoring bias and confounding in studies. The Third Circuit affirmed the judgment for Merrell Dow.30

In the end, the decisions in the DeLuca case never endorsed the Rothman approach, although Professor Rothman can take credit perhaps for forcing the trial court, on remand, to come to grips with the informational content of the study data, and the many threats to validity, which severely undermined the relied-upon studies and the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ opinions.

More recently, in litigation over alleged causation of birth defects in offspring of mothers who used Zoloft during pregnancy, plaintiffs’ counsel attempted to resurrect, through their expert witnesses, the Rothman approach. The multidistrict court saw through counsel’s assertions that the Rothman approach had been adopted in DeLuca, or that it had become generally accepted.31 After protracted litigation in the Zoloft cases, the district court excluded plaintiffs’ expert witnesses and entered summary judgment for the defense. The Third Circuit found that the district court’s handling of the statistical significance issues was fully consistent with the Circuit’s previous pronouncements on the issue of statistical significance.32


1 filed in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., U.S. Supreme Court No. 92-102 (Jan. 19, 1993), was submitted by Richard A. Meserve and Lars Noah, of Covington & Burling, and by Bert Black, 12 Biotechnology Law Report 198 (No. 2, March-April 1993); see Daubert’s Silver Anniversary – Retrospective View of Its Friends and Enemies” (Oct. 21, 2018).

2 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). [Rothman Brief].

3 Id. at *7.

4 Rothman Brief at *2.

5 Id. at *2-*3 (emphasis added).

6 Id. at *7 (emphasis added).

7 See Ronald L. Wasserstein & Nicole A. Lazar, “The ASA’s Statement on p-Values: Context, Process, and Purpose,” 70 The American Statistician 129 (2016)

8 Id. at *3.

9 Id. at *2.

10 Id. at *3 – *4.

11 Id. at *3.

12 Id. at *3.

13 Id. at *4 -*5.

14 Id. at*5, *6.

15 at <https://twitter.com/ken_rothman/status/855784253984051201> (April 21, 2017). The tweet pointed to: Joan Lappe, Patrice Watson, Dianne Travers-Gustafson, Robert Recker, Cedric Garland, Edward Gorham, Keith Baggerly, and Sharon L. McDonnell, “Effect of Vitamin D and Calcium Supplementation on Cancer Incidence in Older WomenA Randomized Clinical Trial,” 317 J. Am. Med. Ass’n 1234 (2017).

16 In the case of United States v. Harkonen, Professors Ken Rothman and Tim Lash, and I made common cause in support of Dr. Harkonen’s petition to the United States Supreme Court. The circumstances of Dr. Harkonen’s indictment and conviction provide a concrete example of what Dr. Rothman probably was referring to as “indication of efficacy.” I supported Dr. Harkonen’s appeal because I agreed that there had been a suggestion of efficacy, even if Harkonen had overstated what his clinical trial, standing alone, had shown. (There had been a previous clinical trial, which demonstrated a robust survival benefit.) From my perspective, the facts of the case supported Dr. Harkonen’s exercise of speech in a press release, but it would hardly have justified FDA approval for the indication that Dr. Harkonen was discussing. If Harkonen had indeed committed “wire fraud,” as claimed by the federal prosecutors, then I had (and still have) a rather long list of expert witnesses who stand in need of criminal penalties and rehabilitation for their overreaching opinions in court cases.

17 Robert Temple, “How FDA Currently Makes Decisions on Clinical Studies,” 2 Clinical Trials 276, 281 (2005); Lee Kennedy-Shaffer, “When the Alpha is the Omega: P-Values, ‘Substantial Evidence’, and the 0.05 Standard at FDA,” 72 Food & Drug L.J. 595 (2017); see alsoThe 5% Solution at the FDA” (Feb. 24, 2018).

18 See, e.g., Stefan Pilz, Katharina Kienreich, Andreas Tomaschitz, Eberhard Ritz, Elisabeth Lerchbaum, Barbara Obermayer-Pietsch, Veronika Matzi, Joerg Lindenmann, Winfried Marz, Sara Gandini, and Jacqueline M. Dekker, “Vitamin D and cancer mortality: systematic review of prospective epidemiological studies,” 13 Anti-Cancer Agents in Medicinal Chem. 107 (2013).

19 Austin Bradford Hill, Principles of Medical Statistics at 2, 10 (4th ed. 1948) (“The statistical method is required in the interpretation of figures which are at the mercy of numerous influences, and its object is to determine whether individual influences can be isolated and their effects measured.”) (emphasis added).

20 Id. at *6 -*7.

21 Id. at *9.

22 Id.

23 Id. at *10.

24 Rothman Brief at *12.

25 See William Childs, “Peering Behind The Peer Review Curtain,” Law360 (Aug. 17, 2018).

26 Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., 509 U.S. 579, 594 (1993).

27 SeeDiclegis and Vacuous Philosophy of Science” (June 24, 2015).

28 DeLuca v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 131 F.R.D. 71 (D.N.J. 1990).

29 DeLuca v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 911 F.2d 941, 955 (3d Cir. 1990).

30 DeLuca v. Merrell Dow Pharma., Inc., 791 F. Supp. 1042 (D.N.J. 1992), aff’d, 6 F.3d 778 (3d Cir. 1993).

31 In re Zoloft (Sertraline Hydrochloride) Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 2342; 12-md-2342, 2015 WL 314149 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 23, 2015) (Rufe, J.) (denying PSC’s motion for reconsideration), aff’d, 858 F.3d 787 (3d Cir. 2017) (affirming exclusion of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ dubious opinions, which involved multiple methodological flaws and failures to follow any methodology faithfully). See generallyZoloft MDL Relieves Matrixx Depression” (Jan. 30, 2015); “WOE — Zoloft Escapes a MDL While Third Circuit Creates a Conceptual Muddle” (July 31, 2015).

32 See Pritchard v. Dow Agro Sciences, 430 F. App’x 102, 104 (3d Cir. 2011) (excluding Concussion hero, Dr. Bennet Omalu).