Science Journalism – UnDark Noir

Critics of the National Association of Scholars’ conference on Fixing Science pointed readers to an article in Undark, an on-line popular science site for lay audiences, and they touted the site for its science journalism. My review of the particular article left me unimpressed and suspicious of Undark’s darker side. When I saw that the site featured an article on the history of the Supreme Court’s Daubert decision, I decided to give the site another try. For one thing, I am sympathetic to the task science journalists take on: it is important and difficult. In many ways, lawyers must commit to perform the same task. Sadly, most journalists and lawyers, with some notable exceptions, lack the scientific acumen and English communication skills to meet the needs of this task.

The Undark article that caught my attention was a history of the Daubert decision and the Bendectin litigation that gave rise to the Supreme Court case.[1] The author, Peter Andrey Smith, is a freelance reporter, who often covers science issues. In his Undark piece, Smith covered some of the oft-told history of the Daubert case, which has been told before, better and in more detail in many legal sources. Smith gets some credit for giving the correct pronunciation of the plaintiff’s name – “DAW-burt,” and for recounting how both sides declared victory after the Supreme Court’s ruling. The explanation Smith gives of the opinion by Associate Justice Harry Blackmun is reasonably accurate, and he correctly notes that a partial dissenting opinion by Chief Justice Rehnquist complained that the majority’s decision would have trial judges become “amateur scientists.” Nowhere in the article will you find, however, the counter to the dissent: an honest assessment of the institutional and individual competence of juries to decide complex scientific issues.

The author’s biases eventually, however, become obvious. He recounts his interviews with Jason Daubert and his mother, Joyce Daubert. He earnestly reports how Joyce Daubert remembered having taken Bendectin during her pregnancy with Jason, and in the moment of that recall, “she felt she’d finally identified the teratogen that harmed Jason.” Really? Is that how teratogens are identified? Might it have been useful and relevant for a scientific journalist to explain that there are four million live births every year in the United States and that 3% of children born each year have major congenital malformations? And that most malformations have no known cause? Smith ingenuously relays that Jason Daubert had genetic testing, but omits that genetic testing in the early 1990s was fairly primitive and limited. In any event, how were any expert witnesses supposed to rule out base-line risk of birth defects, especially given weak to non-existent epidemiologic support for the Daubert’s claims? Smith does answer these questions; he does not even acknowledge the questions.

Smith later quotes Joyce Daubert as describing the litigation she signed up for as “the hill I’ll die on. You only go to war when you think you can win.” Without comment or analysis, Smith gives Joyce Daubert an opportunity to rant against the “injustice” of how her lawsuit turned out. Smith tells us that the Dauberts found the “legal system remains profoundly disillusioning.” Joyce Daubert told Smith that “it makes me feel stupid that I was so naïve to think that, after we’d invested so much in the case, that we would get justice.”  When called for jury duty, she introduces herself as

“I’m Daubert of Daubert versus Merrell Dow … ; I don’t want to sit on this jury and pretend that I can pass judgment on somebody when there is no justice. Please allow me to be excused.”

But didn’t she really get all the justice she deserved? Given her zealotry, doesn’t she deserve to have her name on the decision that serves to rein in expert witnesses who outrun their scientific headlights? Smith is coy and does not say, but in presenting Mrs. Daubert’s rant, without presenting the other side, he is using his journalistic tools in a fairly blatant attempt to mislead. At this point, I begin to get the feeling that Smith is preaching to a like-minded choir over there at Undark.

The reader is not treated to any interviews with anyone from the company that made Bendectin, any of its scientists, or any of the scientists who published actual studies on whether Bendectin was associated with the particular birth defects Jason Daubert had, or for that matter, with any birth defects at all. The plaintiffs’ expert witnesses quoted and cited never published anything at all on the subject. The readers are left to their imagination about how the people who developed Bendectin felt about the litigation strategies and tactics of the lawsuit industry.

The journalistic ruse is continued with Smith’s treatment of the other actors in the Daubert passion play. Smith describes the Bendectin plaintiffs’ lawyer Barry Nace in hagiographic terms, but omits his bar disciplinary proceedings.[2] Smith tells us that Nace had an impressive background in chemistry, and quotes him in an interview in which he described the evidentiary rules on scientific witness testimony as “scientific evidence crap.”

Smith never describes the Daubert’s actual affirmative evidence in any detail, which one might expect in a sophisticated journalistic outlet. Instead, he described some of their expert witnesses, Shanna Swan, a reproductive epidemiologist, and Alan K. Done, “a former pediatrician from Wayne State University.” Smith is secretive about why Done was done in at Wayne State; and we learn nothing about the serious accusations of perjury on credentials by Done. Instead, Smith regales us with Done’s tsumish theory, which takes inconclusive bits of evidence, throws them together, and then declares causation that somehow eludes the rest of the scientific establishment.

Smith tells us that Swan was a rebuttal witness, who gave an opinion that the data did not rule out “the possibility Bendectin caused defects.” Legally and scientifically, Smith is derelict in failing to explain that the burden was on the party claiming causation, and that Swan’s efforts to manufacture doubt were beside the point. Merrell Dow did not have to rule out any possibility of causation; the plaintiffs had to establish causation. Nor does Smith delve into how Swan sought to reprise her performance in the silicone gel breast implant litigation, only to be booted by several judges as an expert witness. And then for a convincer, Smith sympathetically repeats plaintiffs’ lawyer Barry Nace’s hyperbolic claim that Bendectin manufacturer, Merrell Dow had been “financing scientific articles to get their way,” adding by way of emphasis, in his own voice:

“In some ways, here was the fake news of its time: If you lacked any compelling scientific support for your case, one way to undermine the credibility of your opponents was by calling their evidence ‘junk science’.”

Against Nace’s scatalogical Jackson Pollack approach, Smith is silent about another plaintiffs’ expert witness, William McBride, who was found guilty of scientific fraud.[3] Smith reports interviews of several well-known, well-respected evidence scholars. He dutifully report Professor Edward Cheng’s view that “the courts were right to dismiss the [Bendectin] plaintiffs’ claims.” Smith quotes Professor D. Michael Risinger that claims from both sides in Bendectin cases were exaggerated, and that the 1970s and 1980s saw an “unbridled expansion of self-anointed experts,” with “causation in toxic torts had been allowed to become extremely lax.” So a critical reader might wonder why someone like Professor Cheng, who has a doctorate in statistics, a law degree from Harvard, and teaches at Vanderbilt Law School, would vindicate the manufacturers’ position in the Bendectin litigation. Smith never attempts to reconcile his interviews of the law professors with the emotive comments of Barry Nace and Joyce Daubert.

Smith acknowledges that a reformulated version of Bendectin, known as  Diclegis, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, in 2013, for treatment of  nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. Smith tells us that Joyce is not convinced the drug should be back on the market,” but really why would any reasonable person care about her view of the matter? The challenge by Nav Persaud, a Toronto physician, is cited, but Persaud’s challenge is to the claim of efficacy, not to the safety of the medication. Smith tells us that Jason Daubert “briefly mulled reopening his case when Diclegis, the updated version of Bendectin, was re-approved.” But how would the approval of Diclegis, on the strength of a full new drug application, somehow support his claim anew? And how would he “reopen” a claim that had been fully litigated in the 1990s, and well past any statute of limitations?

Is this straight reporting? I think not. It is manipulative and misleading.

Smith notes, without attribution, that some scholars condemn litigation, such as the cases involving Bendectin, as an illegitimate form of regulation of medications. In opposition, he appears to rely upon Elizabeth Chamblee Burch, a professor at the University of Georgia School of Law for the view that because the initial pivotal clinical trials for regulatory approvals take place in limited populations, litigation “serves as a stopgap for identifying rare adverse outcomes that could crop up when several hundreds of millions of people are exposed to those products over longer periods of time.” The problem with this view is that Smith ignores the whole process of pharmacovigilance, post-registration trials, and pharmaco-epidemiologic studies conducted after the licensing of a new medication. The suggested necessity of reliance upon the litigation system as an adjunct to regulatory approval is at best misplaced and tenuous.

Smith correctly explains that the Daubert standard is still resisted in criminal cases, where it could much improve the gatekeeping of forensic expert witness opinion. But while the author gets his knickers in a knot over wrongful convictions, he seems quite indifferent to wrongful judgments in civil action.

Perhaps the one positive aspect of this journalistic account of the Daubert case was that Jason Daubert, unlike his mother, was open minded about his role in transforming the law of scientific evidence. According to Smith, Jason Daubert did not see the case as having “not ruined his life.” Indeed, Jason seemed to approve the basic principle of the Daubert case, and the subsequent legislation that refined the admissibility standard: “Good science should be all that gets into the courts.”

[1] Peter Andrey Smith, “Where Science Enters the Courtroom, the Daubert Name Looms Large: Decades ago, two parents sued a drug company over their newborn’s deformity – and changed courtroom science forever,” Undark (Feb. 17, 2020).

[2]  Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Nace, 753 S.E.2d 618, 621–22 (W. Va.) (per curiam), cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 474 (2013).

[3] Neil Genzlinger, “William McBride, Who Warned About Thalidomide, Dies at 91,” N.Y. Times (July 15, 2018); Leigh Dayton, “Thalidomide hero found guilty of scientific fraud,” New Scientist (Feb. 27, 1993); G.F. Humphrey, “Scientific fraud: the McBride case,” 32 Med. Sci. Law 199 (1992); Andrew Skolnick, “Key Witness Against Morning Sickness Drug Faces Scientific Fraud Charges,” 263 J. Am. Med. Ass’n 1468 (1990).

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