Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Defending science

In November of 2004, just days after the election, the American Public Health Association (APHA), the American professional association of public health workers, passed a resolution opposing legislation or administrative policies that attempt "to define the characteristics of valid public health science, or dictate prescriptive scientific methodologies." What was behind this resolution was industry's all out assault on the integrity of the scientific process in advisory matters, within the courts and in the regulatory system.

The exploitation of new formulations of what is considered "correct" scientific evidence by industry started much earlier, during the Clinton administration, with the skillful use of the Supreme Court's 1993 decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. This decision, which made the trial court the "gatekeeper" of what was "relevant and reliable" scientific evidence, effectively substituted the judgment of one layperson, the judge (who may have chosen the law precisely because of a lack of aptitude for science), for the judgment of 12 other laypeople (the jury) about what was "proper" scientific method. So successful was this tactic of preventing the jury from hearing scientific evidence vital to proving the claims of a plaintiff in a personal injury tort action, that now we are seeing attempts to introduce "Daubert-like" criteria into the regulatory process. At the same time that sanctimonious statements about "sound science" are made in the regulatory arena, the Bush Administration has become notorious in the scientific community for its attempts to tamper with a scientific advisory process that, while not perfect, has at least functioned with some moderate credibility.

What the APHA resolution does is enable the country's leading public health association to file "friend of the court briefs that address the problem inherent in the adoption of Daubert and Daubert-like court rulings, the application of Daubert in regulatory proceedings, and when judges misinterpret scientific evidence in their implementation of the Daubert ruling." This is a forward looking policy that recommends itself to other scientific associations that wish to defend science against those who deform it when its findings are uncomfortable, inconvenient or inconsistent with political ideology.