New Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence Short Shrifts Rule 703

In “RULE OF EVIDENCE 703 — Problem Child of Article VII (Sept. 19, 2011),” I wrote about how Federal Rule of Evidence 703 is generally ignored and misunderstood in current federal practice.  The Supreme Court, in deciding Daubert, shifted the focus to Rule 702, as the primary tool to deploy in admitting, as well as limiting and excluding, expert witness opinion testimony.  The Court’s decision, however, did not erase the need for an additional, independent rule to control the quality of inadmissible materials upon which expert witnesses rely.  Indeed, Rule 702 as amended in 2000, incorporated much of the learning of the Daubert decision, and then some, but it does not address the starting place of any scientific opinion:  the data, the analyses (usually statistical) of data, and the reasonableness of relying upon those data and analyses.  Instead, Rule 702 asks whether the proffered testimony is based upon:

  1. sufficient facts or data,
  2. the product of reliable principles and methods, and
  3. a reliable application of principles and methods to the facts of the case

Noticeably absent from Rule 702, in its current form, is any directive to determine whether the proffered expert witness opinion is based upon facts or data of the sort upon which experts in the pertinent field would reasonably rely.  Furthermore,  Daubert did not address the fulsome importation and disclosure of untrustworthy hearsay opinions through Rule 703.  See Problem Child (discussing the courts’ failure to appreciate the structure of peer-reviewed articles, and the need to ignore the discussion and introduction sections of such articles as often containing speculative opinions and comments).  See also Luciana B. Sollaci & Mauricio G. Pereira, “The introduction, methods, results, and discussion (IMRAD) structure: a fifty-year survey,” 92 J. Med. Libr. Ass’n 364 (2004); Montori, et al., “Users’ guide to detecting misleading claims in clinical research reports,” 329 Br. Med. J. 1093, 1093 (2004) (advising readers on how to avoid being misled by published literature, and counseling readers to “Read only the Methods and Results sections; bypass the Discuss section.”)  (emphasis added).

Given this background, it is disappointing but not surprising that the new Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence severely slights Rule 703.  Using either a word search in the PDF version or the index at end of book tells the story:  There are five references to Rule 703 in the entire RMSE!  The statistics chapter has an appropriate but fleeting reference:

“Or the study might rest on data of the type not reasonably relied on by statisticians or substantive experts and hence run afoul of Federal Rule of Evidence 703. Often, however, the battle over statistical evidence concerns weight or sufficiency rather than admissibility.”

RMSE 3d at 214. At least this chapter acknowledges, however briefly, the potential problem that Rule 703 poses for expert witnesses.  The chapter on survey research similarly discusses how the data collected in a survey may “run afoul” of Rule 703.  RMSE 3d at 361, 363-364.

The chapter on epidemiology takes a different approach by interpreting Rule 703 as a rule of admissibility of evidence:

“An epidemiologic study that is sufficiently rigorous to justify a conclusion that it is scientifically valid should be admissible,184 as it tends to make an issue in dispute more or less likely.185

Id. at 610.  This view is mistaken.  Sufficient rigor in an epidemiologic study is certainly needed for reliance by an expert witness, but such rigor does not make the study itself admissible; the rigor simply permits the expert witness to rely upon a study that is typically several layers of inadmissible hearsay.  See Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence v3.0 – Disregarding Study Validity in Favor of the “Whole Gamish” (Oct. 14, 2011) (discussing the argument put forward by the epidemiology chapter for considering Rule 703 as an exception to the rule against hearsay).

While the treatment of Rule 703 in the epidemiology chapter is troubling, the introductory chapter on the admissibility of expert witness opinion testimony by the late Professor Margaret Berger really sets the tone and approach for the entire volume. See Berger, “The Admissibility of Expert Testimony,” RSME 3d 11 (2011).  Professor Berger never mentions Rule 703 at all!  Gone and forgotten. The omission is not, however, an oversight.  Rule 703, with its requirement of qualifying each study relied upon as having been “reasonably relied upon,” as measured by what experts in the appropriate discipline, is the refutation of Berger’s argument that somehow a pile of weak, flawed studies, taken together can yield a scientifically reliable conclusion. SeeWhole Gamish,” (Oct. 14th, 2011).

Rule 703 is not merely an invitation to trial judges; it is a requirement to look at the discrete studies relied upon to determine whether the building blocks are sound.  Only then can the methods and procedures of science begin to analyze the entire evidentiary display to yield reliable scientific opinions and conclusions.

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