Historians Noir

David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz are two “labor” historians who make it their business to testify as historian expert witnesses in occupational and environmental disease cases. They apparently do not like lawyers who argue that they should have less business in the courts[1]. Rosner and Markowitz have obsessed about my article critical of their scholarship, and about historian witnesses, but rather than respond as scholars, they have responded largely ad hominem by suggesting that my criticisms were motivated by their testifying for the litigation industry. They have accused me of “attacking the messenger,” and they have responded by attacking the messenger. And their “attacks,” feeble though they may be, have come repetitively[2], suggesting some obsession and compulsion.

Last month[3], Professor Rosner gave a public lecture on his testimonial adventures as an historian expert witness, “Judging Science: The Historian, the Courts, & Discerning Responsibility for Environmental Pollution.” The lecture, given at Columbia University’s Heyman Center, lasted a little over an hour, exemplifies Rosner’s approach to “historifying,” as well as why courts should be wary of permitting such testimony. Here is how the Heyman Center’s website describes the talk:

“Over the past twenty years a vast public negotiation has taken place over the causes of, and responsibility for, disease. For the most part this discussion has flown under the radar of doctors, historians and public health professionals. This talk will look at a number of environmental pollution and public health cases over the course of the past two decades in which Professor Rosner has participated.”

Rosner begins by recounting his initial involvement in litigation, in Texas cases involving claims for silicosis. Rosner asserts that his involvement was necessitated by the defendants’ position that no one had ever heard of silicosis, and that silicosis had vanished from the medical literature after 1940. Rosner’s characterization of the claims and defenses of the Odessa sandblasting cases is, however, badly flawed, and his suggestion that silicosis had disappeared from the medical literature at the end of the 1930s is simply false.

According to Rosner (about 22:40 into the video), Histrionic Historians was an “attack” made in response to his, and his friend Gerald Markowitz’s, testimony in the Odessa, Texas case. Wrong. By the time Histrionic Historians was published, Rosner and Markowitz were listed as retained expert witnesses in hundreds if not thousands of cases, in the silicosis MDL, see In re Silica Prods. Liab. Litig., 398 F. Supp. 2d 563 (S.D. Tex. 2005), and they were showing up in several other isolated cases around the country. One of the Odessa silicosis cases had gone up to the Texas Supreme Court, which reversed the judgment for plaintiff on the ground that the jury must consider the knowledge and role of the intermediary employer in the context of an occupational disease claim against a remote supplier. Humble Sand & Gravel, Inc. v. Gomez, 146 S.W.3d 170 (Tex. 2004). The cases in front of Judge Jack were, of course, mostly fraudulent, and the liability in the remaining cases was almost tenuous to non-existent. In his Heyman Center lecture last month, Rosner suggests that my article was an attempt to “take back” from him and Markowitz, the narrative that had been historically controlled by industry (around 34:50 of the video). The fact is, however, that industry never controlled the silicosis narrative, which was played out in the 1930s by organized labor, government, academics, and industry. Histrionic Historians was only a preliminary essay designed to show that the Rosner narrative was false.

Towards the end of his lecture, Rosner attempts to describe the consequences of the workman’s compensation system. He argues that byssinosis, anthracosilicosis, and asbestosis were once considered “silicosis,” on the theory that silica was doing the damage, a stunning claim considering that byssinosis is caused by cotton dust, and does not involve any mineral dust of any kind. According to Rosner, the other pneumoconioses were “politically divided off of the silicosis issue” so that workers could regain the ability to sue, since workers could not sue for silicosis (due to statutory employer immunity). Video at 59:15-40. With no regard for the medical or scientific history of the knowledge of the various pneumoconioses, Rosner states that asbestosis and byssinosis were:

“in some sense created as clinical entities because of the political implications of being identified as silicosis after 1940. Silicosis was no longer compensable and so you had to find new definitions. It is a very interesting history of these disease that were once considered forms of silicosis.”

Video at 1:00:30-51. Very interesting, and entirely bogus. Asbestosis and silicosis were considered distinct diseases well before 1940, and medical science distinguished the two pneumoconioses as having different causes, different diagnostic criteria, and different sequelae. And neither asbestos nor cotton dust contains silica. A great example of the misinformation that historians unfamiliar with the relevant medical history can spout.

Historians’ Acting Badly

In response to a question from the audience, Professor Rosner recounts the events of an historical society meeting at which he and his colleagues learned that the President had been consulting for tobacco defendants in litigation. Apparently, this revelation almost led to fistfights in the halls. So much for diversity and tolerance! Video around 1:10:00. Rosner tells us that he is one of only about three historians who have decided to work for plaintiffs and labor unions. Video at 1:09:45.

Standards for Historian Testimony

Rosner criticizes the historians who testify for tobacco defendants on the grounds that they were not shown everything known (secretly) by the tobacco companies. These historian thus testified on only the public record, and their testimony was thus misleading. According to Rosner, you (the aspiring historian expert witness) “must see everything”; “you are entitled to see all the documents.” Otherwise, you are at risk of being given documents selectively by instructing counsel. Video at 1:11:10-29. There could be a semblance of a criterion in Rosner’s remarks for evaluating historian expert witness testimony. Rosner, understandably however, states that he does not know whether he wants the American Historian Association to become involved in policing historian witness testimony.

Historian Testimony – Beyond the Ken?

Rosner fielded a question from the audience about how courts viewed historian testimony. Of course, Rosner is not a lawyer, and his answer did not attempt to summarize the judicial antipathy towards historian testimony when not necessary. Instead, Rosner focused on his own niche of testifying in lead, asbestos, and silica cases, where courts have been more indulgent of permitting historian expert witness testimony. “They [the courts] are getting used to it,” Rosner reports. “Juries love” historian testimony because historians speak English, and “they understand it,” unlike the scientific testimony in the case. According to Rosner, historians are not pretending to have a special expertise that the jury cannot understand, and the materials relied upon do not require interpretation by an expert the way scientific studies do. Video at 1:12:24-14:04. Q.E.D.!


[1] Nathan Schachtman & John Ulizio, “Courting Clio:  Historians and Their Testimony in Products Liability Action,” in: Brian Dolan & Paul Blanc, eds., At Work in the World: Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on the History of Occupational and Environmental Health, Perspectives in Medical Humanities, University of California Medical Humanities Consortium, University of California Press (2012); Schachtman, “On Deadly Dust & Histrionic Historians 041904,” Mealey’s Silica Litigation Report Vol. 2, No. 3 (Nov. 2003). See also How Testifying Historians Are Like Lawn-Mowing Dogs” (May 15, 2010); A Walk on the Wild Side (July 16, 2010); Counter Narratives for Hire (Dec. 13, 2010).

[2] Four articles dwell on the issue. See D. Rosner & G. Markowitz, “The Trials and Tribulations of Two Historians:  Adjudicating Responsibility for Pollution and Personal Harm, 53 Medical History 271, 280-81 (2009); D. Rosner & G. Markowitz, “L’histoire au prétoire.  Deux historiens dans les procès des maladies professionnelles et environnementales,” 56 Revue D’Histoire Moderne & Contemporaine 227, 238-39 (2009); David Rosner, “Trials and Tribulations:  What Happens When Historians Enter the Courtroom,” 72 Law & Contemporary Problems 137, 152 (2009); David Rosner & Gerald Markowitz, “The Historians of Industry” Academe (Nov. 2010). To these publications, these “forensic historians” have added yet another recitation in an epilogue to a revised edition of one of their books. Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution at 313-14 (U. Calif. rev. ed. 2013).

[3] October 22, 2014.

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