The Legacy of Irving Selikoff & Wicked Wikipedia

Earlier this year, January 15, 2015, would have been Irving J. Selikoff’s 100th birthday. Selikoff left a lifetime legacy of having improved public health awareness, with a shadow of some rather questionable opinions and conduct in the world of litigation[1]. Given Selikoff’s fame and prestige among public health advocates and labor union activists, it is remarkable that now, over twenty since his death, there are no major biographies of Selikoff. Even Selikoff’s Wikipedia page[2] is skimpy and devoid of many details of his activities.

There are some comical aspects to the Selikoff wikipedia page, some of which revolve around someone’s anonymous disparaging of my writing about Selikoff::

“Part of the contrary perspective was presented by a Nathan A. Schachtman, an adjunct lecturer at the Columbia Law School. He suggested that Selikoff and his supporters may have organized ‘a lopsided medical conference, arranged for the conference to feature defendant’s expert witnesses, set out to give short shrift to opposing points of view, invited key judges to attend the conference, and paid for the judges’ travel and hotel expenses’. This quote from Schachtman came from a web site he maintained, unlike the quote from McCulloch and Tweedale, whose comments were published only after being accepted by reviewers for a refereed academic journal.“Nathan A. Schachtman”. www.law.columbia.edu. Columbia Law School. Retrieved September 16, 2013.”

Make no mistake about it; I wasn’t “suggesting”; I was stating a fact. As for the reviewers who “refereed” the journal article by McCulloch and Tweedale, I have shown that this peer review was not worth a warm bucket of spit[3].

One of the disturbing aspects of Wikipedia is that contributors can hide behind I.P. addresses or pseudonyms. Whoever attempted to quote my blog posting distorted my meaning by selectively and incompletely quoting me to suggest that the conference featured defendants’ experts. I can understand that the dumbot wanted to remain anonymous to mislead in this way, but what I wrote was:

“One can only imagine the hue and cry that would arise if a defendant company had funded a lopsided medical conference, arranged for the conference to feature defendant’s expert witnesses, set out to give short shrift to opposing points of view, invited key judges to attend the conference, and paid for the judges’ travel and hotel expenses.”

The counterfactual point, obviously, was that if defense counsel had conspired with defense expert witnesses, to hold an ex parte conference with sitting judges, to feature the work of defense experts, there would have been acrimonious denunciations from the public health community about the evils of corporate influence. In the Wikipedia article, the only reference to Selikoff’s participation in the conspiracy with the litigation industry was an attack on my writing, and a distortion of my posting by incomplete citation. But the misquotation was welcomed in motivating me to register with Wikipedia to correct the misattribution.

There are two document archives of Selikoff documents, one at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York[4], and the other in St. Louis[5]. Jock McCulloch described Selikoff as having “avoided litigation” and having “fought to keep his papers away from the legal arena.”[6] The first part of McCulloch’s description is demonstrably wrong, but the efforts to suppress access to his papers, and data, is sadly all too true. The accusations of “cover up” flow so freely against industry, but why the cover up of Selikoff’s papers? And who would trust the Mt. Sinai custodians?

The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) claims to be an “independent asbestos victims’ organization,” started in 2004. Its website points out that the ADAO is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, which “does not make legal referrals.” The ADAO posted a kind memoriam to the late Dr. Selikoff: “Dr. Irving Selikoff: Clinician, Researcher, Public Health Advocate and Occupational Health Pioneer (1915 – 2015)” (Jan. 15, 2015).

For almost ten years, the ADAO has been recognizing “exceptional leaders” with the Dr. Irving Selikoff Lifetime Achievement Award, for the recipient’s efforts to increase awareness and prevention of asbestos-related diseases.

Remarkably, many of the “exceptional leaders,” in the eyes of the ADAO, are (or were before their deaths) regular testifiers for the litigation industry:

Paul Brodeur 2006

Yasunosuke Suzuki 2006

Michael Harbut 2008:

Barry Castleman 2008

Stephen Levin 2009

Arthur Frank, 2012

Richard Lemen, 2012

Celeste Monforton 2013

David Egilman 2014

Brodeur, of course, did not testify; he wrote for the New Yorker, including a series that became the book, Outrageous Misconduct: the Asbestos Industry on Trial, This book became an important lobbying tool for plaintiffs’ counsel with judges and legislatures. His subsequent book, The Great Power-Line Cover-Up: How the Utilities and Government Are Trying to Hide the Cancer Hazard Posed by Electromagnetic Fields (1993) revealed his aptitude for overinterpreting studies and failing to appreciate validity concerns. See Sander Greenland, Asher R. Sheppard, William T. Kaune, Charles Poole, and Michael A. Kelsh, “A Pooled Analysis of Magnetic Fields, Wire Codes, and Childhood Leukemia,” 11 Epidemiology 624 (2000).

Harbut was the proponent, in the silicone gel breast implant litigation, of a half-baked theory about a role for platinum in causing autoimmune disease among claimants. The FDA and The Institute of Medicine easily dispatched Harbut’s theory. Suzuki, Castleman, Levin, Frank, and Lemen testify (or did testify when alive) with some frequency and regularity in asbestos litigation, on behalf of the litigation industry. Egilman to his credit is perhaps the lone recipient who has spoken out[7], on one or more occasions against the depredations of the litigation industry’s unethical[8] and unlawful screenings, but he has openly acknowledged his bias against corporate industry (although not against litigation industry). See David S. Egilman, “Corporate and Government Suppression of Research” (2004). And Monforton was one of the movers and shakers in establishing SKAPP[9], which misrepresented its funding sources, while lobbying against the legal requirements of reliability and validity for scientific expert witness opinion testimony.


[1] SeeSelikoff and the Mystery of the Disappearing Testimony” (Dec. 3, 2010); “Selikoff and the Mystery of the Disappearing Asbestosis” (Dec. 6, 2010); “Selikoff and the Mystery of the Disappearing Amphiboles” (Dec. 10, 2010); “The Selikoff – Castleman Conspiracy” (Mar. 13, 2011); “Irving Selikoff and the Right to Peaceful Dissembling” (June 5, 2013); “The Mt. Sinai Catechism” (June 7, 2013); “Historians Should Verify Not Vilify or Abilify – The Difficult Case of Irving Selikoff” (Jan. 4, 2014); “What Happens When Historians Have Bad Memories” (Mar. 15, 2014); “The Last Squirmish Between Irving Selikoff and Sir Richard Doll” (Sept. 9, 2014); “Irving Selikoff – Media Plodder to Media Zealot” (Sept. 9, 2014); “Scientific Prestige, Reputation, Authority & The Creation of Scientific Dogmas” (Oct. 4, 2014). See also Cathleen M. Devlin, “Disqualification of Federal Judges – Third Circuit Orders District Judge James McGirr Kelly to Disqualify Himself so as to Preserve the Appearance of Justice under 28 U.S.C.§ 455,” 38 Vill. L. Rev. 1219 (1993); W.K.C. Morgan, “Asbestos and cancer: history and public policy,” 49 Br. J. Indus. Med. 451, 451 (1992).

[2] Wikipedia, “Irving Selikoff” (last visited March 6, 2015).

[3]Historians Should Verify Not Vilify or Abilify – The Difficult Case of Irving Selikoff” (Jan. 4, 2014); “Scientific Prestige, Reputation, Authority & The Creation of Scientific Dogmas” (Oct. 4, 2014).

[4] 83 Am. J. Pub. Health 609, 609 (1993)(describing the Irving J. Selikoff Asbestos Archives and Research Center holdings of Dr. Selikoff’s research documents).

[5] http://beckerarchives.wustl.edu/?p=collections/controlcard&id=6725

[6] Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedale, Defending The Indefensible: The Global Asbestos Industry and its Fight for Survival 271 (Oxford 2008) (describing how even after his death, the Selikoff papers have still not been made generally available, but thanking Valerie Josephson, Philip Landrigan, and Stephen Levin, for helping McCulloch gain access to the papers).

[7] David Egilman & Susanna Rankin Bohme, “Attorney-Directed Screenings Can Be Hazardous,” 45 Am. J. Indus. Med. 305 (2004).

[8] Nathan A. Schachtman & Cynthia J. Rhodes, “Medico-Legal Issues in Occupational Lung Disease Litigation,” 27 Sem. Roentgenology 140 (1992).

[9]SKAPP-A-LOT” (April 30, 2010); “Conflicted Public Interest Groups” (Nov. 3, 2013).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.