TORTINI

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

Science Bench Book for Judges

July 13th, 2019

On July 1st of this year, the National Judicial College and the Justice Speakers Institute, LLC released an online publication of the Science Bench Book for Judges [Bench Book]. The Bench Book sets out to cover much of the substantive material already covered by the Federal Judicial Center’s Reference Manual:

Acknowledgments

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: Why This Bench Book?
  2. What is Science?
  3. Scientific Evidence
  4. Introduction to Research Terminology and Concepts
  5. Pre-Trial Civil
  6. Pre-trial Criminal
  7. Trial
  8. Juvenile Court
  9. The Expert Witness
  10. Evidence-Based Sentencing
  11. Post Sentencing Supervision
  12. Civil Post Trial Proceedings
  13. Conclusion: Judges—The Gatekeepers of Scientific Evidence

Appendix 1 – Frye/Daubert—State-by-State

Appendix 2 – Sample Orders for Criminal Discovery

Appendix 3 – Biographies

The Bench Book gives some good advice in very general terms about the need to consider study validity,[1] and to approach scientific evidence with care and “healthy skepticism.”[2] When the Bench Book attempts to instruct on what it represents the scientific method of hypothesis testing, the good advice unravels:

“A scientific hypothesis simply cannot be proved. Statisticians attempt to solve this dilemma by adopting an alternate [sic] hypothesis – the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis is the opposite of the scientific hypothesis. It assumes that the scientific hypothesis is not true. The researcher conducts a statistical analysis of the study data to see if the null hypothesis can be rejected. If the null hypothesis is found to be untrue, the data support the scientific hypothesis as true.”[3]

Even in experimental settings, a statistical analysis of the data do not lead to a conclusion that the null hypothesis is untrue, as opposed to not reasonably compatible with the study’s data. In observational studies, the statistical analysis must acknowledge whether and to what extent the study has excluded bias and confounding. When the Bench Book turns to speak of statistical significance, more trouble ensues:

“The goal of an experiment, or observational study, is to achieve results that are statistically significant; that is, not occurring by chance.”[4]

In the world of result-oriented science, and scientific advocacy, it is perhaps true that scientists seek to achieve statistically significant results. Still, it seems crass to come right out and say so, as opposed to saying that the scientists are querying the data to see whether they are compatible with the null hypothesis. This first pass at statistical significance is only mildly astray compared with the Bench Book’s more serious attempts to define statistical significance and confidence intervals:

4.10 Statistical Significance

The research field agrees that study outcomes must demonstrate they are not the result of random chance. Leaving room for an error of .05, the study must achieve a 95% level of confidence that the results were the product of the study. This is denoted as p ≤ 05. (or .01 or .1).”[5]

and

“The confidence interval is also a way to gauge the reliability of an estimate. The confidence interval predicts the parameters within which a sample value will fall. It looks at the distance from the mean a value will fall, and is measured by using standard deviations. For example, if all values fall within 2 standard deviations from the mean, about 95% of the values will be within that range.”[6]

Of course, the interval speaks to the precision of the estimate, not its reliability, but that is a small point. These definitions are virtually guaranteed to confuse judges into conflating statistical significance and the coefficient of confidence with the legal burden of proof probability.

The Bench Book runs into problems in interpreting legal decisions, which would seem softer grist for the judicial mill. The authors present dictum from the Daubert decision as though it were a holding:[7]

“As noted in Daubert, ‘[t]he focus, of course, must be solely on principles and methodology, not on the conclusions they generate’.”

The authors fail to mention that this dictum was abandoned in Joiner, and that it is specifically rejected by statute, in the 2000 revision to the Federal Rule of Evidence 702.

Early in the Bench Book, it authors present a subsection entitled “The Myth of Scientific Objectivity,” which they might have borrowed from Feyerabend or Derrida. The heading appears misleading because the text contradicts it:

“Scientists often develop emotional attachments to their work—it can be difficult to abandon an idea. Regardless of bias, the strongest intellectual argument, based on accepted scientific hypotheses, will always prevail, but the road to that conclusion may be fraught with scholarly cul-de-sacs.”[8]

In a similar vein, the authors misleadingly tell readers that “the forefront of science is rarely encountered in court,” and so “much of the science mentioned there shall be considered established….”[9] Of course, the reality is that many causal claims presented in court have already been rejected or held to be indeterminate by the scientific community. And just when readers may think themselves safe from the goblins of nihilism, the authors launch into a theory of naïve probabilism that science is just placing subjective probabilities upon data, based upon preconceived biases and beliefs:

“All of these biases and beliefs play into the process of weighing data, a critical aspect of science. Placing weight on a result is the process of assigning a probability to an outcome. Everything in the universe can be expressed in probabilities.”[10]

So help the expert witness who honestly (and correctly) testifies that the causal claim or its rejection cannot be expressed as a probability statement!

Although I have not read all of the Bench Book closely, there appears to be no meaningful discussion of Rule 703, or of the need to access underlying data to ensure that the proffered scientific opinion under scrutiny has used appropriate methodologies at every step in its development. Even a 412 text cannot address every issue, but this one does little to help the judicial reader find more in-depth help on statistical and scientific methodological issues that arise in occupational and environmental disease claims, and in pharmaceutical products litigation.

The organizations involved in this Bench Book appear to be honest brokers of remedial education for judges. The writing of this Bench Book was funded by the State Justice Institute (SJI) Which is a creation of federal legislation enacted with the laudatory goal of improving the quality of judging in state courts.[11] Despite its provenance in federal legislation, the SJI is a a private, nonprofit corporation, governed by 11 directors appointed by the President, and confirmed by the Senate. A majority of the directors (six) are state court judges, one state court administrator, and four members of the public (no more than two from any one political party). The function of the SJI is to award grants to improve judging in state courts.

The National Judicial College (NJC) originated in the early 1960s, from the efforts of the American Bar Association, American Judicature Society and the Institute of Judicial Administration, to provide education for judges. In 1977, the NJC became a Nevada not-for-profit (501)(c)(3) educational corporation, which its campus at the University of Nevada, Reno, where judges could go for training and recreational activities.

The Justice Speakers Institute appears to be a for-profit company that provides educational resources for judge. A Press Release touts the Bench Book and follow-on webinars. Caveat emptor.

The rationale for this Bench Book is open to question. Unlike the Reference Manual for Scientific Evidence, which was co-produced by the Federal Judicial Center and the National Academies of Science, the Bench Book’s authors are lawyers and judges, without any subject-matter expertise. Unlike the Reference Manual, the Bench Book’s chapters have no scientist or statistician authors, and it shows. Remarkably, the Bench Book does not appear to cite to the Reference Manual or the Manual on Complex Litigation, at any point in its discussion of the federal law of expert witnesses or of scientific or statistical method. Perhaps taxpayers would have been spared substantial expense if state judges were simply encouraged to read the Reference Manual.


[1]  Bench Book at 190.

[2]  Bench Book at 174 (“Given the large amount of statistical information contained in expert reports, as well as in the daily lives of the general society, the ability to be a competent consumer of scientific reports is challenging. Effective critical review of scientific information requires vigilance, and some healthy skepticism.”).

[3]  Bench Book at 137; see also id. at 162.

[4]  Bench Book at 148.

[5]  Bench Book at 160.

[6]  Bench Book at 152.

[7]  Bench Book at 233, quoting Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 595 (1993).

[8]  Bench Book at 10.

[9]  Id. at 10.

[10]  Id. at 10.

[11] See State Justice Institute Act of 1984 (42 U.S.C. ch. 113, 42 U.S.C. § 10701 et seq.).

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.

Confounding in Daubert, and Daubert Confounded

November 4th, 2018

ABERRANT DECISIONS

The Daubert trilogy and the statutory revisions to Rule 702 have not brought universal enlightenment. Many decisions reflect a curmudgeonly and dismissive approach to gatekeeping.

The New Jersey Experience

Until recently, New Jersey law looked as though it favored vigorous gatekeeping of invalid expert witness opinion testimony. The law as applied, however, was another matter, with most New Jersey judges keen to find ways to escape the logical and scientific implications of the articulated standards, at least in civil cases.1 For example, in Grassis v. Johns-Manville Corp., 248 N.J. Super. 446, 591 A.2d 671, 675 (App. Div. 1991), the intermediate appellate court discussed the possibility that confounders may lead to an erroneous inference of a causal relationship. Plaintiffs’ counsel claimed that occupational asbestos exposure causes colorectal cancer, but the available studies, inconsistent as they were, failed to assess the role of smoking, family history, and dietary factors. The court essentially shrugged its judicial shoulders and let a plaintiffs’ verdict stand, even though it was supported by expert witness testimony that had relied upon seriously flawed and confounded studies. Not surprisingly, 15 years after the Grassis case, the scientific community acknowledged what should have been obvious in 1991: the studies did not support a conclusion that asbestos causes colorectal cancer.2

This year, however, saw the New Jersey Supreme Court step in to help extricate the lower courts from their gatekeeping doldrums. In a case that involved the dismissal of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ testimony in over 2,000 Accutane cases, the New Jersey Supreme Court demonstrated how to close the gate on testimony that is based upon flawed studies and involves tenuous and unreliable inferences.3 There were other remarkable aspects of the Supreme Court’s Accutane decision. For instance, the Court put its weight behind the common-sense and accurate interpretation of Sir Austin Bradford Hill’s famous articulation of factors for causal judgment, which requires that sampling error, bias, and confounding be eliminated before assessing whether the observed association is strong, consistent, plausible, and the like.4

Cook v. Rockwell International

The litigation over radioactive contamination from the Colorado Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant is illustrative of the retrograde tendency in some federal courts. The defense objected to plaintiffs’ expert witness, Dr. Clapp, whose study failed to account for known confounders.5 Judge Kane denied the challenge, claiming that the defense could:

cite no authority, scientific or legal, that compliance with all, or even one, of these factors is required for Dr. Clapp’s methodology and conclusions to be deemed sufficiently reliable to be admissible under Rule 702. The scientific consensus is, in fact, to the contrary. It identifies Defendants’ list of factors as some of the nine factors or lenses that guide epidemiologists in making judgments about causation. Ref. Guide on Epidemiolog at 375.).”6

In Cook, the trial court or the parties or both missed the obvious references in the Reference Manual to the need to control for confounding. Certainly many other scientific sources could be cited as well. Judge Kane apparently took a defense expert witness’s statement that ecological studies do not account for confounders to mean that the presence of confounding does not render such studies unscientific. Id. True but immaterial. Ecological studies may be “scientific,” but they do not warrant inferences of causation. Some so-called scientific studies are merely hypothesis generating, preliminary, tentative, or data-dredging exercises. Judge Kane employed the flaws-are-features approach, and opined that ecological studies are merely “less probative” than other studies, and the relative weights of studies do not render them inadmissible.7 This approach is, of course, a complete abdication of gatekeeping responsibility. First, studies themselves are not admissible; it is the expert witness, whose testimony is challenged. The witness’s reliance upon studies is relevant to the Rule 702 and 703 analyses, but admissibility is not the issue. Second, Rule 702 requires that the proffered opinion be “scientific knowledge,” and ecological studies simply lack the necessary epistemic warrant to support a causal conclusion. Third, the trial court in Cook had to ignore the federal judiciary’s own reference manual’s warnings about the inability of ecological studies to provide causal inferences.8 The Cook case is part of an unfortunate trend to regard all studies as “flawed,” and their relative weights simply a matter of argument and debate for the litigants.9

Abilify

Another example of sloppy reasoning about confounding can be found in a recent federal trial court decision, In re Abilify Products Liability Litigation,10 where the trial court advanced a futility analysis. All observational studies have potential confounding, and so confounding is not an error but a feature. Given this simplistic position, it follows that failure to control for every imaginable potential confounder does not invalidate an epidemiologic study.11 From its nihilistic starting point, the trial court readily found that an expert witness could reasonably dispense with controlling for confounding factors of psychiatric conditions in studies of a putative association between the antipsychotic medication Abilify and gambling disorders.12

Under this sort of “reasoning,” some criminal defense lawyers might argue that since all human beings are “flawed,” we have no basis to distinguish sinners from saints. We have a long way to go before our courts are part of the evidence-based world.


1 In the context of a “social justice” issue such as whether race disparities exist in death penalty cases, New Jersey court has carefully considered confounding in its analyses. See In re Proportionality Review Project (II), 165 N.J. 206, 757 A.2d 168 (2000) (noting that bivariate analyses of race and capital sentences were confounded by missing important variables). Unlike the New Jersey courts (until the recent decision in Accutane), the Texas courts were quick to adopt the principles and policies of gatekeeping expert witness opinion testimony. See Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc. v. Havner, 953 S.W.2d 706, 714, 724 (Tex.1997) (reviewing court should consider whether the studies relied upon were scientifically reliable, including consideration of the presence of confounding variables).  Even some so-called Frye jurisdictions “get it.” See, e.g., Porter v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., No. 3516 EDA 2015, 2017 WL 1902905 *6 (Phila. Super., May 8, 2017) (unpublished) (affirming exclusion of plaintiffs’ expert witness on epidemiology, under Frye test, for relying upon an epidemiologic study that failed to exclude confounding as an explanation for a putative association), affirming, Mem. Op., No. 03275, 2015 WL 5970639 (Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. Oct. 5, 2015) (Bernstein, J.), and Op. sur Appellate Issues (Phila. Ct. Com. Pl., Feb. 10, 2016) (Bernstein, J.).

3 In re Accutane Litig., ___ N.J. ___, ___ A.3d ___, 2018 WL 3636867 (2018); see N.J. Supreme Court Uproots Weeds in Garden State’s Law of Expert Witnesses(Aug. 8, 2018).

2018 WL 3636867, at *20 (citing the Reference Manual 3d ed., at 597-99).

5 Cook v. Rockwell Internat’l Corp., 580 F. Supp. 2d 1071, 1098 (D. Colo. 2006) (“Defendants next claim that Dr. Clapp’s study and the conclusions he drew from it are unreliable because they failed to comply with four factors or criteria for drawing causal interferences from epidemiological studies: accounting for known confounders … .”), rev’d and remanded on other grounds, 618 F.3d 1127 (10th Cir. 2010), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___ (May 24, 2012). For another example of a trial court refusing to see through important qualitative differences between and among epidemiologic studies, see In re Welding Fume Prods. Liab. Litig., 2006 WL 4507859, *33 (N.D. Ohio 2006) (reducing all studies to one level, and treating all criticisms as though they rendered all studies invalid).

6 Id.   

7 Id.

8 RMSE3d at 561-62 (“[ecological] studies may be useful for identifying associations, but they rarely provide definitive causal answers”) (internal citations omitted); see also David A. Freedman, “Ecological Inference and the Ecological Fallacy,” in Neil J. Smelser & Paul B. Baltes, eds., 6 Internat’l Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences 4027 (2001).

9 See also McDaniel v. CSX Transportation, Inc., 955 S.W.2d 257 (Tenn. 1997) (considering confounding but holding that it was a jury issue); Perkins v. Origin Medsystems Inc., 299 F. Supp. 2d 45 (D. Conn. 2004) (striking reliance upon a study with uncontrolled confounding, but allowing expert witness to testify anyway)

10 In re Abilifiy (Aripiprazole) Prods. Liab. Litig., 299 F. Supp. 3d 1291 (N.D. Fla. 2018).

11 Id. at 1322-23 (citing Bazemore as a purported justification for the court’s nihilistic approach); see Bazemore v. Friday, 478 U.S. 385, 400 (1986) (“Normally, failure to include variables will affect the analysis’ probativeness, not its admissibility.).

12 Id. at 1325.


Appendix – Some Federal Court Decisions on Confounding

1st Circuit

Bricklayers & Trowel Trades Internat’l Pension Fund v. Credit Suisse Sec. (USA) LLC, 752 F.3d 82, 85 (1st Cir. 2014) (affirming exclusion of expert witness whose event study and causal conclusion failed to consider relevant confounding variables and information that entered market on the event date)

2d Circuit

In re “Agent Orange” Prod. Liab. Litig., 597 F. Supp. 740, 783 (E.D.N.Y. 1984) (noting that confounding had not been sufficiently addressed in a study of U.S. servicemen exposed to Agent Orange), aff’d, 818 F.2d 145 (2d Cir. 1987) (approving district court’s analysis), cert. denied sub nom. Pinkney v. Dow Chemical Co., 484 U.S. 1004 (1988)

3d Circuit

In re Zoloft Prods. Liab. Litig., 858 F.3d 787, 793, 799 (2017) (acknowledging that statistically significant findings occur in the presence of inadequately controlled confounding or bias; affirming the exclusion of statistical expert witness, Nicholas Jewell, in part for using an admittedly non-rigorous approach to adjusting for confouding by indication)

4th Circuit

Gross v. King David Bistro, Inc., 83 F. Supp. 2d 597 (D. Md. 2000) (excluding expert witness who opined shigella infection caused fibromyalgia, given the existence of many confounding factors that muddled the putative association)

5th Circuit

Kelley v. American Heyer-Schulte Corp., 957 F. Supp. 873 (W.D. Tex. 1997) (noting that observed association may be causal or spurious, and that confounding factors must be considered to distinguish spurious from real associations)

Brock v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 874 F.2d 307, 311 (5th Cir. 1989) (noting that “[o]ne difficulty with epidemiologic studies is that often several factors can cause the same disease.”)

6th Circuit

Nelson v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., WL 1297690, at *4 (W.D. Tenn. Aug. 31, 1998) (excluding an expert witness who failed to take into consideration confounding factors), aff’d, 243 F.3d 244, 252 (6th Cir. 2001), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 822 (2001)

Adams v. Cooper Indus. Inc., 2007 WL 2219212, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55131 (E.D. Ky. 2007) (differential diagnosis includes ruling out confounding causes of plaintiffs’ disease).

7th Circuit

People Who Care v. Rockford Bd. of Educ., 111 F.3d 528, 537-38 (7th Cir. 1997) (Posner, J.) (“a statistical study that fails to correct for salient explanatory variables, or even to make the most elementary comparisons, has no value as causal explanation and is therefore inadmissible in a federal court”) (educational achievement in multiple regression);

Sheehan v. Daily Racing Form, Inc., 104 F.3d 940 (7th Cir. 1997) (holding that expert witness’s opinion, which failed to correct for any potential explanatory variables other than age, was inadmissible)

Allgood v. General Motors Corp., 2006 WL 2669337, at *11 (S.D. Ind. 2006) (noting that confounding factors must be carefully addressed; holding that selection bias rendered expert testimony inadmissible)

9th Circuit

In re Bextra & Celebrex Marketing Celebrex Sales Practices & Prod. Liab. Litig., 524 F.Supp. 2d 1166, 1178-79 (N.D. Cal. 2007) (noting plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ inconsistent criticism of studies for failing to control for confounders; excluding opinions that Celebrex at 200 mg/day can cause heart attacks, as failing to satisfy Rule 702)

Avila v. Willits Envt’l Remediation Trust, 2009 WL 1813125, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67981 (N.D. Cal. 2009) (excluding expert witness’s opinion in part because of his failure to rule out confounding exposures and risk factors for the outcomes of interest), aff’d in relevant part, 633 F.3d 828 (9th Cir.), cert denied, 132 S.Ct. 120 (2011)

Hendricksen v. ConocoPhillips Co., 605 F. Supp. 2d 1142, 1158 (E.D. Wash. 2009) (“In general, epidemiology studies are probative of general causation: a relative risk greater than 1.0 means the product has the capacity to cause the disease. “Where the study properly accounts for potential confounding factors and concludes that exposure to the agent is what increases the probability of contracting the disease, the study has demonstrated general causation – that exposure to the agent is capable of causing [the illness at issue] in the general population.’’) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)

Valentine v. Pioneer Chlor Alkali Co., Inc., 921 F. Supp. 666, 677 (D. Nev. 1996) (‘‘In summary, Dr. Kilburn’s study suffers from very serious flaws. He took no steps to eliminate selection bias in the study group, he failed to identify the background rate for the observed disorders in the Henderson community, he failed to control for potential recall bias, he simply ignored the lack of reliable dosage data, he chose a tiny sample size, and he did not attempt to eliminate so-called confounding factors which might have been responsible for the incidence of neurological disorders in the subject group.’’)

Claar v. Burlington No. RR, 29 F.3d 499 (9th Cir. 1994) (affirming exclusion of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, and grant of summary judgment, when plaintiffs’ witnesses concluded that the plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, without investigating any other possible causes).

10th Circuit

Hollander v. Sandoz Pharms. Corp., 289 F.3d 1193, 1213 (10th Cir. 2002) (affirming exclusion in Parlodel case involving stroke; confounding makes case reports inappropriate bases for causal inferences, and even observational epidemiologic studies must evaluated carefully for confounding)

D.C. Circuit

American Farm Bureau Fed’n v. EPA, 559 F.3d 512 (2009) (noting that in setting particulate matter standards addressing visibility, agency should avoid relying upon data that failed to control for the confounding effects of humidity)

Rule 702 Requires Courts to Sort Out Confounding

October 31st, 2018

CONFOUNDING1

Back in 2000, several law professors wrote an essay, in which they detailed some of the problems courts experienced in expert witness gatekeeping. Their article noted that judges easily grasped the problem of generalizing from animal evidence to human experience, and thus they simplistically emphasized human (epidemiologic) data. But in their emphasis on the problems in toxicological evidence, the judges missed problems of internal validity, such as confounding, in epidemiologic studies:

Why do courts have such a preference for human epidemiological studies over animal experiments? Probably because the problem of external validity (generalizability) is one of the most obvious aspects of research methodology, and therefore one that non-scientists (including judges) are able to discern with ease – and then give excessive weight to (because whether something generalizes or not is an empirical question; sometimes things do and other times they do not). But even very serious problems of internal validity are harder for the untrained to see and understand, so judges are slower to exclude inevitably confounded epidemiological studies (and give insufficient weight to that problem). Sophisticated students of empirical research see the varied weaknesses, want to see the varied data, and draw more nuanced conclusions.”2

I am not sure that the problems are dependent in the fashion suggested by the authors, but their assessment that judges may be reluctant to break the seal on the black box of epidemiology, and that judges frequently lack the ability to make nuanced evaluations of the studies on which expert witnesses rely seems fair enough. Judges continue to miss important validity issues, perhaps because the adversarial process levels all studies to debating points in litigation.3

The frequent existence of validity issues undermines the partisan suggestion that Rule 702 exclusions are merely about “sufficiency of the evidence.” Sometimes, there is just too much of nothing to rise even to a problem of insufficiency. Some studies are “not even wrong.”4 Similarly, validity issues are an embarrassment to those authors who argue that we must assemble all the evidence and consider the entirety under ethereal standards, such as “weight of the evidence,” or “inference to the best explanation.” Sometimes, some or much of the available evidence does not warrant inclusion in the data set at all, and any causal inference is unacceptable.

Threats to validity come in many forms, but confounding is a particularly dangerous one. In claims that substances such as diesel fume or crystalline silica cause lung cancer, confounding is a huge problem. The proponents of the claims suggest relative risks in the range of 1.1 to 1.6 for such substances, but tobacco smoking results in relative risks in excess of 20, and some claim that passive smoking at home or in the workplace results in relative risks of the same magnitude as the risk ratios claimed for diesel particulate or silica. Furthermore the studies behind these claims frequently involve exposures to other known or suspected lung carcinogens, such as arsenic, radon, dietary factors, asbestos, and others.

Definition of Confounding

Confounding results from the presence of a so-called confounding (or lurking) variable, helpfully defined in the chapter on statistics in the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence:

confounding variable; confounder. A confounder is correlated with the independent variable and the dependent variable. An association between the dependent and independent variables in an observational study may not be causal, but may instead be due to confounding. See controlled experiment; observational study.”5

This definition suggests that the confounder need not be known to cause the dependent variable/outcome; the confounder need be only correlated with the outcome and an independent variable, such as exposure. Furthermore, the confounder may be actually involved in such a way as to increase or decrease the estimated relationship between dependent and independent variables. A confounder that is known to be present typically is referred to as a an “actual” confounder, as opposed to one that may be at work, and known as a “potential” confounder. Furthermore, even after exhausting known and potential confounders, studies of may be affected by “residual” confounding, especially when the total array of causes of the outcome of interest is not understood, and these unknown causes are not randomly distributed between exposed and unexposed groups in epidemiologic studies. Litigation frequently involves diseases or outcomes with unknown causes, and so the reality of unidentified residual confounders is unavoidable.

In some instances, especially in studies pharmaceutical adverse outcomes, there is the danger that the hypothesized outcome is also a feature of the underlying disease being treated. This phenomenon is known as confounding by indication, or as indication bias.6

Kaye and Freedman’s statistics chapter notes that confounding is a particularly important consideration when evaluating observational studies. In randomized clinical trials, one goal of the randomization is the elimination of the role of bias and confounding by the random assignment of exposures:

2. Randomized controlled experiments

In randomized controlled experiments, investigators assign subjects to treatment or control groups at random. The groups are therefore likely to be comparable, except for the treatment. This minimizes the role of confounding.”7

In observational studies, confounding may completely invalidate an association. Kaye and Freedman give an example from the epidemiologic literature:

Confounding remains a problem to reckon with, even for the best observational research. For example, women with herpes are more likely to develop cervical cancer than other women. Some investigators concluded that herpes caused cancer: In other words, they thought the association was causal. Later research showed that the primary cause of cervical cancer was human papilloma virus (HPV). Herpes was a marker of sexual activity. Women who had multiple sexual partners were more likely to be exposed not only to herpes but also to HPV. The association between herpes and cervical cancer was due to other variables.”8

The problem identified as confounding by Freedman and Kaye cannot be dismissed as an issue that goes to the “weight” of the study issue; the confounding goes to the heart of the ability of the herpes studies to show an association that can be interpreted to be causal. Invalidity from confounding renders the studies “weightless” in any “weight of the evidence” approach. There are, of course, many ways to address confounding in studies: stratification, multivariate analyses, multiple regression, propensity scores, etc. Consideration of the propriety and efficacy of these methods is a whole other level of analysis, which does not arise unless and until the threshold question of confounding is addressed.

Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence

The epidemiology chapter of the Second Edition of the Manual stated that ruling out of confounding as an obligation of the expert witness who chooses to rely upon the study.9 Although the same chapter in the Third Edition occasionally waffles, its authors come down on the side of describing confounding as a threat to validity, which must be ruled out before the study can be relied upon. In one place, the authors indicate “care” is required, and that analysis for random error, confounding, bias “should be conducted”:

Although relative risk is a straightforward concept, care must be taken in interpreting it. Whenever an association is uncovered, further analysis should be conducted to assess whether the association is real or a result of sampling error, confounding, or bias. These same sources of error may mask a true association, resulting in a study that erroneously finds no association.”10

Elsewhere in the same chapter, the authors note that “chance, bias, and confounding” must be looked at, but again, the authors stop short of noting that these threats to validity must be eliminated:

Three general categories of phenomena can result in an association found in a study to be erroneous: chance, bias, and confounding. Before any inferences about causation are drawn from a study, the possibility of these phenomena must be examined.”11

                *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

To make a judgment about causation, a knowledgeable expert must consider the possibility of confounding factors.”12

Eventually, however, the epidemiology chapter takes a stand, and an important one:

When researchers find an association between an agent and a disease, it is critical to determine whether the association is causal or the result of confounding.”13

Mandatory Not Precatory

The better reasoned cases decided under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, and state-court analogues, follow the Reference Manual in making clear that confounding factors must be carefully addressed and eliminated. Failure to rule out the role of confounding renders a conclusion of causation, reached in reliance upon confounded studies, invalid.14

The inescapable mandate of Rules 702 and 703 is to require judges to evaluate the bases of a challenged expert witness’s opinion. Threats to internal validity, such as confounding, in a study may make reliance upon any given study, or an entire set of studies, unreasonable, which thus implicates Rule 703. Importantly, stacking up more invalid studies does not overcome the problem by presenting a heap of evidence, incompetent to show anything.

Pre-Daubert

Before the Supreme Court decided Daubert, few federal or state courts were willing to roll up their sleeves to evaluate the internal validity of relied upon epidemiologic studies. Issues of bias and confounding were typically dismissed by courts as issues that went to “weight, not admissibility.”

Judge Weinstein’s handling of the Agent Orange litigation, in the mid-1980s, marked a milestone in judicial sophistication and willingness to think critically about the evidence that was being funneled into the courtroom.15 The Bendectin litigation also was an important proving ground in which the defendant pushed courts to keep their eyes and minds open to issues of random error, bias, and confounding, when evaluating scientific evidence, on both pre-trial and on post-trial motions.16

Post-Daubert

When the United States Supreme Court addressed the admissibility of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses in Daubert, its principal focus was on the continuing applicability of the so-called Frye rule after the enactment of the Federal Rules of Evidence. The Court left the details of applying the then newly clarified “Daubert” standard to the facts of the case on remand to the intermediate appellate court. The Ninth Circuit, upon reconsidering the case, re-affirmed the trial court’s previous grant of summary judgment, on grounds of the plaintiffs’ failure to show specific causation.

A few years later, the Supreme Court itself engaged with the actual evidentiary record on appeal, in a lung cancer claim, which had been dismissed by the district court. Confounding was one among several validity issues in the studies relied upon by plaintiffs” expert witnesses. The Court concluded that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ bases did not individually or collectively support their conclusions of causation in a reliable way. With respect to one particular epidemiologic study, the Supreme Court observed that a study that looked at workers who “had been exposed to numerous potential carcinogens” could not show that PCBs cause lung cancer. General Elec. Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 146 (1997).17


1 An earlier version of this post can be found at “Sorting Out Confounded Research – Required by Rule 702” (June 10, 2012).

2 David Faigman, David Kaye, Michael Saks, and Joseph Sanders, “How Good is Good Enough? Expert Evidence Under Daubert andKumho,” 50Case Western Reserve L. Rev. 645, 661 n.55 (2000).

3 See, e.g., In re Welding Fume Prods. Liab. Litig., 2006 WL 4507859, *33 (N.D.Ohio 2006) (reducing all studies to one level, and treating all criticisms as though they rendered all studies invalid).

4 R. Peierls, “Wolfgang Ernst Pauli, 1900-1958,” 5Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 186 (1960) (quoting Wolfgang Pauli’s famous dismissal of a particularly bad physics paper).

5 David Kaye & David Freedman, “Reference Guide on Statistics,” inReference Manual on Scientific Evidence 211, 285 (3d ed. 2011)[hereafter theRMSE3d].

6 See, e.g., R. Didham, et al., “Suicide and Self-Harm Following Prescription of SSRIs and Other Antidepressants: Confounding By Indication,” 60Br. J. Clinical Pharmacol. 519 (2005).

7 RMSE3d at 220.

8 RMSE3d at 219 (internal citations omitted).

9 Reference Guide on Epidemiology at 369 -70 (2ed 2000) (“Even if an association is present, epidemiologists must still determine whether the exposure causes the disease or if a confounding factor is wholly or partly responsible for the development of the outcome.”).

10 RMSE3d at 567-68 (internal citations omitted).

11 RMSE3d at 572.

12 RMSE3d at 591 (internal citations omitted).

13 RMSE3d at 591

14 Similarly, an exonerative conclusion of no association might be vitiated by confounding with a protective factor, not accounted for in a multivariate analysis. Practically, such confounding seems less prevalent than confounding that generates a positive association.

15 In re “Agent Orange” Prod. Liab. Litig., 597 F. Supp. 740, 783 (E.D.N.Y. 1984) (noting that confounding had not been sufficiently addressed in a study of U.S. servicemen exposed to Agent Orange), aff’d, 818 F.2d 145 (2d Cir. 1987) (approving district court’s analysis), cert. denied sub nom. Pinkney v. Dow Chemical Co., 484 U.S. 1004 (1988).

16 Brock v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 874 F.2d 307, 311 , modified on reh’g, 884 F.2d 166 (5th Cir. 1989) (noting that “[o]ne difficulty with epidemiologic studies is that often several factors can cause the same disease.”)

17 The Court’s discussion related to the reliance of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses upon, among other studies, Kuratsune, Nakamura, Ikeda, & Hirohata, “Analysis of Deaths Seen Among Patients with Yusho – A Preliminary Report,” 16 Chemosphere 2085 (1987).