The Shmeta-Analysis in Paoli

In the Paoli Railroad yard litigation, plaintiffs claimed injuries and increased risk of future cancers from environmental exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). This massive litigation showed up before federal district judge Hon. Robert F. Kelly,[1] in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who may well have been the first judge to grapple with a litigation attempt to use meta-analysis to show a causal association.

One of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses was the late William J. Nicholson, who was a professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, and a colleague of Irving Selikoff. Nicholson was trained in physics, and had no professional training in epidemiology. Nonetheless, Nicholson was Selikoff’s go-to colleague for performing epidemiologic studies. After Selikoff withdrew from active testifying for plaintiffs in tort litigation, Nicholson was one of his colleagues who jumped into the fray as a surrogate advocate for Selikoff.[2]

For his opinion that PCBs were causally associated with liver cancer in humans,[3] Nicholson relied upon a report he wrote for the Ontario Ministry of Labor. [cited here as “Report”].[4] Nicholson described his report as a “study of the data of all the PCB worker epidemiological studies that had been published,” from which he concluded that there was “substantial evidence for a causal association between excess risk of death from cancer of the liver, biliary tract, and gall bladder and exposure to PCBs.”[5]

The defense challenged the admissibility of Nicholson’s meta-analysis, on several grounds. The trial court decided the challenge based upon the Downing case, which was the law in the Third Circuit, before the Supreme Court decided Daubert.[6] The Downing case allowed some opportunity for consideration of reliability and validity concerns; there is, however, disappointingly little discussion of any actual validity concerns in the courts’ opinions.

The defense challenge to Nicholson’s proffered testimony on liver cancer turned on its characterization of meta-analysis as a “novel” technique, which is generally unreliable, and its claim that Nicholson’s meta-analysis in particular was unreliable. None of the individual studies that contributed data showed any “connection” between PCBs and liver cancer; nor did any individual study conclude that there was a causal association.

Of course, the appropriate response to this situation, with no one study finding a statistically significant association, or concluding that there was a causal association, should have been “so what?” One of the reasons to do a meta-analysis is that no available study was sufficiently large to find a statistically significant association, if one were there. As for drawing conclusions of causal associations, it is not the role or place of an individual study to synthesize all the available evidence into a principled conclusion of causation.

In any event, the trial court concluded that the proffered novel technique lacked sufficient reliability, that the meta-analysis would “overwhelm, confuse, or mislead the jury,” and that the proffered meta-analysis on liver cancer was not sufficiently relevant to the facts of the case (in which no plaintiff had developed, or had died of, liver cancer). The trial court noted that the Report had not been peer-reviewed, and that it had not been accepted or relied upon by the Ontario government for any finding or policy decision. The trial court also expressed its concern that the proffered testimony along the lines of the Report would possibly confuse the jury because it appeared to be “scientific” and because Nicholson appeared to be qualified.

The Appeal

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Becker, reversed Judge Kelly’s exclusion of the Nicholson Report, in an opinion that is still sometimes cited, even though Downing is no longer good law in the Circuit or anywhere else.[7] The Court was ultimately not persuaded that the trial court had handled the exclusion of Nicholson’s Report and its meta-analysis correctly, and it remanded the case for a do-over analysis.

Judge Becker described Nicholson’s Report as a “meta-analysis,” which pooled or “combined the results of numerous epidemiologic surveys in order to achieve a larger sample size, adjusted the results for differences in testing techniques, and drew his own scientific conclusions.”[8] Through this method, Nicholson claimed to have shown that “exposure to PCBs can cause liver, gall bladder and biliary tract disorders … even though none of the individual surveys supports such a conclusion when considered in isolation.”[9]

Validity

The appellate court gave no weight to the possibility that a meta-analysis would confuse a jury, or that its “scientific nature” or Nicholson’s credentials would lead a jury to give it more weight than it deserved.[10] The Court of Appeals conceded, however, that exclusion would have been appropriate if the methodology used itself was invalid. The appellate opinion further acknowledged that the defense had offered opposition to Nicholson’s Report in which it documented his failure to include data that were inconsistent with his conclusions, and that “Nicholson had produced a scientifically invalid study.”[11]

Judge Becker’s opinion for a panel of the Third Circuit provided no details about the cherry picking. The opinion never analyzed why this charge of cherry-picking and manipulation of the dataset did not invalidate the meta-analytic method generally, or Nicholson’s method as applied. The opinion gave no suggestion that this counter-affidavit was ever answered by the plaintiffs.

Generally, Judge Becker’s opinion dodged engagement with the specific threats to validity in Nicholson’s Report, and took refuge in the indisputable fact that hundreds of meta-analyses were published annually, and that the defense expert witnesses did not question the general reliability of meta-analysis.[12] These facts undermined the defense claim that meta-analysis was novel.[13] The reality, however, was that meta-analysis was in its infancy in bio-medical research.

When it came to the specific meta-analysis at issue, the court did not discuss or analyze a single pertinent detail of the Report. Despite its lack of engagement with the specifics of the Report’s meta-analysis, the court astutely observed that prevalent errors and flaws do not mean that a particular meta-analysis is “necessarily in error.”[14] Of course, without bothering to look, the court would not know whether the proffered meta-analysis was “actually in error.”

The appellate court would have given Nicholson’s Report a “pass” if it was an application of an accepted methodology. The defense’s remedy under this condition would be to cross-examine the opinion in front of a jury. If, on the other hand, the Nicholson had altered an accepted methodology to skew its results, then the court’s gatekeeping responsibility under Downing would be invoked.

The appellate court went on to fault the trial court for failing to make sufficiently explicit findings as to whether the questioned meta-analysis was unreliable. From its perspective, the Court of Appeals saw the trial court as resolving the reliability issue upon the greater credibility of defense expert witnesses in branding the disputed meta-analysis as unreliability. Credibility determinations are for the jury, but the court left room for a challenge on reliability itself:[15]

“Assuming that Dr. Nicholson’s meta-analysis is the proper subject of Downing scrutiny, the district court’s decision is wanting, because it did not make explicit enough findings on the reliability of Dr. Nicholson’s meta-analysis to satisfy Downing. We decline to define the exact level at which a district court can exclude a technique as sufficiently unreliable. Reliability indicia vary so much from case to case that any attempt to define such a level would most likely be pointless. Downing itself lays down a flexible rule. What is not flexible under Downing is the requirement that there be a developed record and specific findings on reliability issues. Those are absent here. Thus, even if it may be possible to exclude Dr. Nicholson’s testimony under Downing, as an unreliable, skewed meta-analysis, we cannot make such a determination on the record as it now stands. Not only was there no hearing, in limine or otherwise, at which the bases for the opinions of the contesting experts could be evaluated, but the experts were also not even deposed. All of the expert evidence was based on affidavits.”

Peer Review

Understandably, the defense attacked Nicholson’s Report as not having been peer reviewed. Without any scrutiny of the scientific bona fides of the workers’ compensation agency, the appellate court acquiesced in Nicholson’s self-serving characterization of his Report as having been reviewed by “cooperating researchers” and the Panel of the Ontario Workers’ Compensation agency. Another partisan expert witness characterized Nicholson’s Report as a “balanced assessment,” and this seemed to appease the Third Circuit, which was wary of requiring peer review in the first place.[16]

Relevancy Prong

The defense had argued that Nicholson’s Report was irrelevant because no individual plaintiff claimed liver cancer.[17] The trial court largely accepted this argument, but the appellate court disagreed because of conclusory language in Nicholson’s affidavit, in which he asserted that “proof of an increased risk of liver cancer is probative of an increased risk of other forms of cancer.” The court seemed unfazed by the ipse dixit, asserted without any support. Indeed, Nicholson’s assertion was contradicted by his own Report, in which he reported that there were fewer cancers among PCB-exposed male capacitor manufacturing workers than expected,[18] and that the rate for all cancers for both men and women was lower than expected, with 132 observed and 139.40 expected.[19]

The trial court had also agreed with the defense’s suggestion that Nicholson’s report, and its conclusion of causality between PCB exposure and liver cancer, were irrelevant because the Report “could not be the basis for anyone to say with reasonable degree of scientific certainty that some particular person’s disease, not cancer of the liver, biliary tract or gall bladder, was caused by PCBs.”[20]

Analysis

It would likely have been lost on Judge Becker and his colleagues, but Nicholson presented SMRs (standardized mortality ratios) throughout his Report, and for the all cancers statistic, he gave an SMR of 95. What Nicholson clearly did in this, and in all other instances, was simply divide the observed number by the expected, and multiply by 100. This crude, simplistic calculation fails to present a standardized mortality ratio, which requires taking into account the age distribution of the exposed and the unexposed groups, and a weighting of the contribution of cases within each age stratum. Nicholson’s presentation of data was nothing short of false and misleading. And in case anyone remembers General Electric v. Joiner, Nicholson’s summary estimate of risk for lung cancer in men was below the expected rate.[21]

Nicholson’s Report was replete with many other methodological sins. He used a composite of three organs (liver, gall bladder, bile duct) without any biological rationale. His analysis combined male and female results, and still his analysis of the composite outcome was based upon only seven cases. Of those seven cases, some of the cases were not confirmed as primary liver cancer, and at least one case was confirmed as not being a primary liver cancer.[22]

Nicholson failed to standardize the analysis for the age distribution of the observed and expected cases, and he failed to present meaningful analysis of random or systematic error. When he did present p-values, he presented one-tailed values, and he made no corrections for his many comparisons from the same set of data.

Finally, and most egregiously, Nicholson’s meta-analysis was meta-analysis in name only. What he had done was simply to add “observed” and “expected” events across studies to arrive at totals, and to recalculate a bogus risk ratio, which he fraudulently called a standardized mortality ratio. Adding events across studies is not a valid meta-analysis; indeed, it is a well-known example of how to generate a Simpson’s Paradox, which can change the direction or magnitude of any association.[23]

Some may be tempted to criticize the defense for having focused its challenge on the “novelty” of Nicholson’s approach in Paoli. The problem of course was the invalidity of Nicholson’s work, but both the trial court’s exclusion of Nicholson, and the Court of Appeals’ reversal and remand of the exclusion decision, illustrate the problem in getting judges, even well-respected judges, to accept their responsibility to engage with questioned scientific evidence.

Even in Paoli, no amount of ketchup could conceal the unsavoriness of Nicholson’s scrapple analysis. When the Paoli case reached the Court Appeals again in 1994, Nicholson’s analysis was absent.[24] Apparently, the plaintiffs’ counsel had second thoughts about the whole matter. Today, under the revised Rule 702, there can be little doubt that Nicholson’s so-called meta-analysis should have been excluded.


[1]  Not to be confused with the Judge Kelly of the same district, who was unceremoniously disqualified after attending an ex parte conference with plaintiffs’ lawyers and expert witnesses, at the invitation of Dr. Irving Selikoff.

[2]  Pace Philip J. Landrigan & Myron A. Mehlman, “In Memoriam – William J. Nicholson,” 40 Am. J. Indus. Med. 231 (2001). Landrigan and Mehlman assert, without any support, that Nicholson was an epidemiologist. Their own description of his career, his undergraduate work at MIT, his doctorate in physics from the University of Washington, his employment at the Watson Laboratory, before becoming a staff member in Irving Selikoff’s department in 1969, all suggest that Nicholson brought little to no experience in epidemiology to his work on occupational and environmental exposure epidemiology.

[3]  In re Paoli RR Yard Litig., 706 F. Supp. 358, 372-73 (E.D. Pa. 1988).

[4]  William Nicholson, Report to the Workers’ Compensation Board on Occupational Exposure to PCBs and Various Cancers, for the Industrial Disease Standards Panel (ODP); IDSP Report No. 2 (Toronto, Ontario Dec. 1987).

[5]  Id. at 373.

[6]  United States v. Downing, 753 F.2d 1224 (3d Cir.1985)

[7]  In re Paoli RR Yard PCB Litig., 916 F.2d 829 (3d Cir. 1990), cert. denied sub nom. General Elec. Co. v. Knight, 111 S.Ct. 1584 (1991).

[8]  Id. at 845.

[9]  Id.

[10]  Id. at 841, 848.

[11]  Id. at 845.

[12]  Id. at 847-48.

[13]  See, e.g., Robert Rosenthal, Judgment studies: Design, analysis, and meta-analysis (1987); Richard J. Light & David B. Pillemer, Summing Up: the Science of Reviewing Research (1984); Thomas A. Louis, Harvey V. Fineberg & Frederick Mosteller, “Findings for Public Health from Meta-Analyses,” 6 Ann. Rev. Public Health 1 (1985); Kristan A. L’abbé, Allan S. Detsky & Keith O’Rourke, “Meta-analysis in clinical research,” 107 Ann. Intern. Med. 224 (1987).

[14]  Id. at 857.

[15]  Id. at 858/

[16]  Id. at 858.

[17]  Id. at 845.

[18]  Report, Table 16.

[19]  Report, Table 18.

[20]  In re Paoli, 916 F.2d at 847.

[21]  See General Electric v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136 (1997); NAS, “How Have Important Rule 702 Holdings Held Up With Time?” (March 20, 2015).

[22]  Report, Table 22.

[23]  James A. Hanley, Gilles Thériault, Ralf Reintjes and Annette de Boer, “Simpson’s Paradox in Meta-Analysis,” 11 Epidemiology 613 (2000); H. James Norton & George Divine, “Simpson’s paradox and how to avoid it,” Significance 40 (Aug. 2015); George Udny Yule, Notes on the theory of association of attributes in Statistics, 2 Biometrika 121 (1903).

[24]  In re Paoli RR Yard Litig., 35 F.3d 717 (3d Cir. 1994).

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