Sunday, November 16, 2003

More Brockovich Bashing

A July 18 post in this space criticized, for want of balance and objectivity, a Time Magazine polemic by Leon Jaroff, in which he fervidly decried a lawsuit brought by Beverly Hills High School alumni. Aided by Erin Brockovich and her mentor Ed Masry, the alumni claim that emissions of benzene and other petroleum by-products from oil wells at the high school caused their cancers and other health conditions.

Eric Umansky has now written a New Republic piece mounting a similar attack on the litigation and its scientific underpinnings. In the end, Umansky's article isn't much more balanced than Jaroff's, but Umansky's attack is more careful, and therefore more credible. No big surprise there. Umansky's article is to Jaroff's as The New Republic is to Time.

Vererans of toxic tort litigation will recognize some of the rhetorical moves in Umansky's article, because they are borrowed straight from the standard defense playbook. It is complained, for example, that the litigation has attracted some plaintiffs with relatively minor health complaints, or who suffer from conditions for which a causal link with benzene or petroleum is not well established. But this phenomenon, which might be dubbed the Fellow Traveler Effect, is a common and well-nigh inevitable feature of mass tort litigation, and does not disprove the thesis that many claims are serious and enjoy legitimate medico-scientific support.

Similarly, Umansky reports that environmental monitoring by state and local officials has not detected abnormal levels of benzene or other petroleum by-products at the high school. But given the latency period of cancer and other diseases, current concentrations of benzene and other toxins are largely beside the point. What would matter more is past concentrations. Moreover, the general track record of modern environmental monitoring is spotty at best. The gizmos may be shiny and high-tech, but often they are maintained improperly, or operated incorrectly. "Anomalous" results may be discarded as "outliers." And the incentives faced by the officials who design the monitoring plans may be weighted against aggressive efforts at detection. The main effect of many environmental monitoring efforts is to create a falsely reassuring impression that concentrations are known with certainty and mathematical precision, when the real situation is actually beset with uncertainties.

Umansky also invokes epidemiological surveys that detected no increased prevalence of the relevant diseases in the general neighborhood, but which did not specifically focus on the school population, because of claimed methodological obstacles. Such methodological disclaimers are really just another way of saying that epidemiology is usually too blunt an instrument to measure highly localized problems with specificity and precision. By definition, epidemiology is the study of health effects in populations, and its powers of reliable detection vary largely with the size of the population studied. You may be able to improve the study's overall statistical reliability by expanding the population investigated, but the price of that improvement is that the study's results may pertain only to that larger population, and not the smaller subset originally of interest. Meanwhile, I've been told that at least one longstanding student of public health issues has defined an ecological catastrophe as anything capable of detection by epidemiological techniques.

Is it possible, as Umansky suggests, that Brockovich and her law firm are exploiting her star power to extract a settlement from innocent defendants, and incidentally to provide fodder for another screenplay? Sure it is. It's even possible that the plaintiffs' evidence will eventually prove gossamer-thin, when subjected to searching judicial scrutiny. But the TNR graphics cartoonishly depicting Brockovich's cleavage aren't very helpful in shedding light on that problem. Indeed, they invite speculation that TNR is simply pandering to celebrity fetishism and anti-lawyer sentiment -- in short, that it is engaged in the very kind of sensationalism for which it faults Brockovich and those in league with her. Missing from all this press coverage is any apparent interest in really getting to the bottom of the public health question. If it turns out that a courtroom is the only place where that can be attempted in an intellectually honest way -- well, it wouldn't be the first time.
Fed. R. Evid. 702: If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.