The Lobby – Cut on the Bias

When ordinary citizens hear about lobbies, they think about highly paid former elected officials pressing the interests of manufacturing and service industries in the federal and various state capitals. Of course, there are such lobbyists, but the description misses one of the most powerful groups, the plaintiffs’ mass tort trial bar, the largest rent-seeking group in the United States. When the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ interests are aligned with a group of scientists and physicians who have for decades pressed the interests of labor unions for more and more compensation, and have delivered scientific studies calculated to support their pro-compensation goals, the lobby deserves special attention as “The Lobby.”

Francis Douglas Kelly Liddell was the anti-Selikoff, and he frequently drew the ire, wrath, and barbs of The Lobby. Unlike Selikoff, Liddell had a first-rate education in mathematics (B.A., M.A., Trinity College, Cambridge University), and he had 21 years of hands-on pneumoconiosis research as a Scientific Officer and then Director of the Statistics Department of the National Coal Board, and then Head of the Medical Service’s Medical Statistics Branch.[1]

McGill University recruited Liddell in 1969 to its Medical School’s Department of Epidemiology. In Montreal, Liddell led the statistical analyses for epidemiologic studies of the Quebec chrysotile miners and millers. He helped develop the methodology that underlies the ILO system for evaluating chest radiographs for pneumoconiosis. Although Liddell retired in 1992, as an Emeritus Professor, he remained active in lecturing and publishing, and in his professional associations, Royal Statistical Society and later in the American Statistical Association. Liddell’s careful statistical work, and the much lower risks found in the Canadian chrysotile mining cohorts put him at odds with Selikoff and The Lobby.

In 1997, Liddell had had enough of The Lobby’s insinuations, slanders, and bent science. He did what rarely happens in the scientific world; he called them out for what they were doing:

“[A]n anti-asbestos lobby, based in the Mount Sinai School of Medicine of the City University of New York, promoted the fiction that asbestos was an all-pervading menace, and trumped up a number of asbestos myths for widespread dissemination, through media eager for bad news.”[2]

Since Liddell wrote in 1997, The Lobby has grown and insinuated itself into the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and into a variety of domestic advisory boards to regulatory agencies. The Lobby has learned to use the language and hand waving of the “moral panic,” whenever an expert who has had any connections to regulated industries. Members of The Lobby, however, seem to think that they have no conflicts of interest, despite their deep positional and financial connections to the unregulated lawsuit industry. Asserting conflicts of interest thus becomes an asymmetric weapon to advance pro-compensation and environmental “friendly” conclusions.

Early last month, a group of admittedly pro-manufacturing industry organizations[3] submitted their counter to The Lobby’s purity tests that keep defense expert witnesses and consultants from serving on advisory boards. The organizations wrote to the EPA Administrator, to object to the asymmetry of interest alignments among the Ad Hoc Peer Reviewers for the March 2020 Draft Risk Evaluation for Asbestos, from the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals (SACC).

While the assertion of conflicts of interest for actual research tends to be overwrought, at least when the methods and data are transparent, the conflicts identified in the letter to the EPA have the real potential to skew an opinion-laden, policy document. The reality is that any such EPA risk assessment will be used as a cudgel in tort and environmental litigation, restrictive regulations, and legislative campaigns to “ban” asbestos. The organizations’ complaints are well justified.

The three committee members at issue are Henry Anderson, Steven Markowitz, and Marty Kanarek. All three are card-carrying members of The Lobby.  Markowitz and Anderson are tied to a lobby group, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), which advocates a universal ban on asbestos, notwithstanding that this may require relocating 7+ billion people to another planet. Markowitz, Anderson, and Kanarek all testify for the asbestos lawsuit industry. Anderson has been testifying in asbestos personal injury cases, for over 35 years, after he served a brief training in the Mt. Sinai catechism, on New York’s Upper East Side. Indeed, in the mid-1980s, New Jersey plaintiffs’ lawyers regularly called Anderson as an expert witness to give the party line. Markowitz has also trained in the Mt. Sinai catechism, but now is at Queens College, in Queens, New York. Markowitz has not testified for as long as Anderson, but then he has not lived as long. In any event, Markowitz has almost certainly made up in volume for what he has lost in time.

The organizations complaining about Anderson, Markowitz, and Kanarek as peer reviewers correctly point out that these physicians are advocates and highly compensated expert witnesses for the asbestos lawsuit industry. The letter to the EPA also points out that they have been purveyors of dubious opinions on “each and every exposure,” which have been found to be unreliable and not well supported.[4] Certainly less biased experts could be found, and if not, then the Peer Review committee could be balanced with experts who have more balanced views. Inquiring minds wonder how the peer review committee ever became so unbalanced, but I suspect that asymmetrical evaluation of conflicts of interest had a lot to do with it.[5]

[1]  James Hanley, Corbett McDonald, and Margaret R. Becklake, “In Memoriam 2003: Francis Douglas Kelly Liddell.”

[2]  F.D.K. Liddell, “Magic, Menace, Myth and Malice,” 41 Ann. Occup. Hyg. 3, 3 (1997).

[3]  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, American Property Casualty Insurance Association, American Tort Reform Association, Aerospace Industries Association, Coalition for Litigation Justice, International Association of Defense Counsel, National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center, Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc., and Washington Legal Foundation.

[4]  See, e.g., In re W.R. Grace & Co., 355 B.R. 462, 482 (Bankr. D. Del. 2006) (“Dr. Anderson’s analysis is unreliable. Dr. Anderson’s opinion, therefore, does not satisfy Daubert and its progeny and is not admissible. We exclude this evidence.”), appeal den., 2007 WL 1074094 (D. Del. Mar. 26, 2007); In re Matter of New York City Asbestos Litig., 48 Misc. 3d 460, 483-484 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cty. 2015) (“For all of these reasons, Markowitz’s opinions, either individually or collectively, do not establish that asbestos contained in friction products can cause mesothelioma, and as he conceded, he could identify no study to support his proposition that there is an increased risk of contracting mesothelioma from exposure to auto brakes, clutches, or gaskets or that there is an increased risk of mesothelioma from the use of friction products or work on friction materials in the automobile industry…. Markowitz not only cited no study to support his opinion, but he also conceded that numerous studies contradict it.”), aff’d sub nom., Juni v. A.O. Smith Water Prods. Co., 32 N.Y.3d 1116, 116 N.E.3d 75 91 N.Y.S.3d 784 (2018).

[5]  “Disappearing Conflicts of Interest” (Oct. 29, 2017) (discussing Steven Markowitz); “The Mt. Sinai Catechism” (June 7, 2013) (discussing Markowitz’ s publications that followed up on Selikoff’s insulator cohort).

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