Conflicted Public Interest Groups

The current “wisdom”:

“Conflict of interest in science is a very important issue, and it is a very big problem, because if uncontrolled, it can lead to biased, misleading and even false opinions about scientific evidence.” Dariusz Leszczynski, “Conflicting statements by the two experts of the Royal Society of Canada,” (Nov. 1, 2013)

This statement and the remainder of the blog post is an example of the current obsession and delusion over conflicts of interest (COIs).  COIs do not lead to false opinions (assuming an opinion can be false); fraud, misrepresentation, errors in data collection and analyses, fallacies, and inferential mistakes are what lead to misleading and false statements in science.  COIs may perhaps trigger greater scrutiny for error, but there is nothing in a COI disclosure, or lack of disclosure, that helps us ascertain the validity vel non of a study.

In a recent post, Celeste Monforton, of George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services, wrote about conflicts of interest and the recent Georgia-Pacific decision out of the First Department of the New York Appellate Division, Weitz & Luxenberg P.C. v. Georgia–Pacific LLC, 2013 WL 2435565 (N.Y. App. Div., 1st Dep’t June 6, 2013).  Monforton, “Thou dost protest too much. Let the disclosure chips fall where they may” (Oct. 28, 2013).

The bashing of Georgia-Pacific is based upon rather dodgy factual and hypocritical ethical analyses. Historically, authors did not disclose their COIs.  In the polarized, political world of occupational safety, studies funded or sponsored by industry, labor unions, plaintiffs’ counsel, or their proxies were rarely or never accompanied by disclosures of COIs. To be sure, current ethical guidelines emphasize the importance of disclosure, but not limited to financial conflicts.  Committee on Publication Ethics.  If positional and political conflicts of interest were disclosed, we might actual shine light where it is needed, but I suspect Monforton would not be happy with that sort of illumination.

Georgia-Pacific has found itself in a controversy that is driven by one-sided emphasis on industry funding, without a balanced attention to sponsorship by advocacy groups, the litigation industry (a/k/a the “the trial bar”).  If Monforton is willing to let the chips fall where they may, she will welcome the attention to her own COIs and the COIs of her advocacy organization, The Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy” (SKAPP).

Celeste Monforton is on the staff of SKAPP, which purports to support the examination of science and “how it is used and misused in government decision-making and legal proceedings.”  SKAPP funds scholarship and research designed to promote “transparent decision-making, based on the best available science, to protect public health.”  In other words, SKAPP supports “progressive,” pro-labor, anti-industry, science results, often without regard to the niceties of proper methodology.

The SKAPP website tells us that this organization is guided and supported by an advisory committee, consisting of:

Eula Bingham, PhD
Les Boden, PhD
Richard Clapp, DSc, MPH
Polly Hoppin, ScD
Sheldon Krimsky, PhD
David Michaels, PhD, MPH
David Ozonoff, MD, MPH
Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA

Clapp is a regular testifying witness for the litigation industry. Michaels testified for the litigation industry before President Obama appointed him to be the OSHA Administrator. Ozonoff and Bingham have also shown up in litigation, always on the plaintiffs’ side.  Krimsky has been unremitting scold of industry-sponsored science. Robbins was the physician invited to the American Law Institute meeting, where he criticized a draft of the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm and accused the ALI of not understanding scientific principles or knowing what it was talking about. 79th Annual Meeting, 2002 A.L.I. PROC. at 294. See Michael D. Green, “Pessimism about Milward,” 3 Wake Forest J. L & Policy 41 (2013). Professor Green, however, has given a thorough rebuttal to Robbins’ partisan and ad hominem criticisms, which suggest that it was Robbins who did not know what he was talking about.  SeeMilward’s Singular Embrace of Comment C (May 4, 2013).

And whence comes the funding for SKAPP’s one-sided advocacy? At its inception, for some time afterwards, SKAPP was funded by the litigation industry, from a walking-around fund of the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the silicone gel breast implant litigation. SKAPP misleadingly continues to represent this funding as “a fund established pursuant to a court order in the Silicone Gel Breast Implant Products Liability litigation,” but the fund is nothing more than the fund that exists in virtually every multi-district litigation to allow plaintiffs’ counsel to find and pay expert witnesses, conduct studies, and engage in other activities for the common benefit of the plaintiff-litigants. SKAPP a Lot (April 30, 2010).

The funding ruse by SKAPP raises the question what other “public interest” groups are proxies for the litigation industry?  Consider for instance, Public Citizen, which describes itself, on its website, as follows:

“Public Citizen serves as the people’s voice in the nation’s capital. ***

For four decades, we have proudly championed citizen interests before Congress, the executive branch agencies and the courts. We have successfully challenged the abusive practices of the pharmaceutical, nuclear and automobile industries, and many others. We are leading the charge against undemocratic trade agreements that advance the interests of mega-corporations at the expense of citizens worldwide.
* * *
Public Citizen is a nonprofit organization that does not participate in partisan political activities or endorse any candidates for elected office. We accept no government or corporate money – we rely solely on foundation grants, publication sales and support from our 300,000 members.”

As it turns out, this group does take corporate money, but selectively from the litigation industry itself.  A recent newsletter from Public Citizen (May 2013) highlighted the prevalence of several magnates and trade organizations (AAJ) of the litigation industry among the names of large donors:

the Attorneys Information Exchange Group (one of the AAJ’s operating groups); Patrick Malone (plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyer);

I suspect that you will not find many publications or positions from Public Citizen that challenge “the abusive practices of the” litigation industry.

The point is, of course, that there are plenty of conflicts to go around, and so little valid data and analysis. The Monfortons of the world have used COI rhetoric to chill freedom of speech and to bias the discussion towards their preferred outcomes.

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