Daubert Retrospective – Statistical Significance

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.

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