Webinar Abstracts:
Combating Censorship and Vilification

Webinar #1 in series: The Ethics of Conducting Toxicological Research and Communicating Novel Findings

Date: Friday, September 23, 11:00 AM–12:30 PM (US EDT, UTC -4)

Session Abstracts:

Presentation 1:

Censorship and issue-specific advocacy – is "consensorship" the new paradigm?

Christopher J. Borgert, PhD
Applied Pharmacology and Toxicology, Inc., and University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, Physiological Sciences Dept., CEHT

Abstract: It has been said that science is a process wherein facts are asked to speak for themselves to enhance objectivity, and by which consensus can be achieved only as an increasingly broad and probative dataset narrows the range of interpretations consistent with the data. In this constrained vision of science, compromise and vote are anathema as competing theories vie for prominence on the merits of the evidence rather than on the agreement of affiliated practitioners. A profound and unconstrained paradigm shift may be occurring in many areas of science whereby consensus can be achieved based on normative priorities. In the unconstrained view, scientific evidence serves selectively to support the consensus and to expand the number of adherents to it. Rather than testing scientific theories by increasingly rigorous methods that winnow the range of tenable interpretations consistent with the data, this new paradigm scrutinizes those who would offer alternative interpretations of the evidence to winnow the range of tenable participants in the scientific discussion. The constrained view of science allows refinement of scientific theories according to evidence; the unconstrained view provides a basis for censoring inconvenient viewpoints irrespective of evidence, a unique development that can be labeled "consensorship." To consider whether consensorship is a valid characterization, three examples are evaluated: development, acceptance and refutation of the Linearized No-Threshold (LNT) model for ionizing radiation and chemical carcinogenesis; deployment of so-called Key Characteristics (KC) to identify endocrine disruptors and other types of toxicants; and wholesale purging of Scientific Advisory Boards based on the affiliations of the member scientists (SAB-packing). It is proposed that the LNT and KC examples share similarities consistent with a paradigm shift to consensorship, whereas SAP-packing would appear to be a political exercise rather than a scientific process, albeit one that may produce the outcome of consensorship.

Presentation 2:

Expert Witness Testimony and Ethics: Science Over Advocacy

Laura Plunkett, PhD, DABT
Biopolicy Solutions, LLC, Managing Partner

Abstract:Toxicologists are often sought to provide expert testimony in the courtroom. It can be a rewarding experience but also presents some special challenges. Testimony can be for both criminal and civil cases. Testimony in criminal cases is commonly about interpretation of forensic evidence in cases involving a death or injury due to intoxication, either due to alcohol or other drugs that impair behavior. Rare cases of poisonings also can arise in criminal court. In civil cases, the toxicologist's opinions are much more varied in terms of topics from intoxication and impairment due to drugs and/or alcohol, to cases involving environmental exposure to chemicals in the air, water or soil, to cases involving exposure to chemicals in consumer products. In some cases, the topic is linked to regulatory programs that involve toxicology data and or assessments.

No matter what the topic of the testimony being sought, the key to being a credible expert witness is ethics. As a scientist, we use standard and well-accepted methods in our work outside of the courtroom and the same standards must at least apply in court. It is not unusual for lawyers to approach scientists with a case and provide "preformed opinions" when seeking to engage the expert. Just as such an approach is not acceptable in the laboratory, no expert should accept a case without doing their own analysis even before agreeing to accept work on the case. Scientists also need to be aware of court references that apply in terms of expert testimony. In federal courts in the US these include the "Daubert" standard and the Scientific Reference Manual. Both of these are key to providing expert testimony that is based on sound science. They lay out the methodology that judges expect to see used in the courtroom. Regardless, experts need to always put science before advocacy. Experts need to be aware that once on the stand, even when you have applied your best science judgement and methodology, you may be vilified on the stand not due to the science opinions you are providing but strictly based on discrediting you as a witness.