Fighting Legal Claims Based on Junk Science

When someone suffers a serious harm, the natural inclination is to look for a cause, and for someone to blame for the injury. This inclination may be taken advantage of by litigators who offer a clear link between a patient's illness, such as lung cancer, and a purported cause, such as asbestos. Asbestos has been established as a cause of lung cancer, but not the only, or even the primary, cause.

Attorneys may attempt to bolster their clients' claims using so-called "junk science." It's important to be able to recognize the signs that alleged scientific support for a claim is, in fact, unreliable, or "junk science."

Recognizing Junk Science

What is junk science? Junk science is a term for apparently objective assertions that are unproven, misleading, and typically heavily biased. Junk science may be introduced at trial in various areas of law, most commonly tort and criminal law. There are three traits common to junk science, or "pseudoscience:"

  • The scientific "expert" holds a degree or credentials, usually a medical or doctoral degree, proffered to qualify them as an expert in the field on which they are testifying or have published.
  • The "expert," on further examination, is not unbiased. They may be receiving compensation from a company or law firm which benefits from their conclusions. Alternately, or in addition, the "expert" may have a political, social, or economic agenda to advance.
  • The issue on which the "expert" has reached a conclusion is subject to scientific testing. The "expert" will likely present the results of studies that appear scientific, but are significantly flawed upon deeper inspection. The "expert" may disregard more reliable studies that contradict the conclusion they wish to promote.

Junk science is commonly introduced when a patient experiences an illness or abnormality, and the "science" is needed to prove a link between an agent, such as asbestos, and the illness. As noted above, while asbestos does cause lung cancer and other serious illnesses, it does not necessarily follow that a patient with one of those illnesses was harmed by asbestos exposure, particularly fleeting exposure.

Defending Against Claims Supported by Junk Science

The phrase "junk science" makes it sound as if pseudoscientific claims should be obvious and easily debunked. In fact, a theory may be widely accepted by individuals and organizations, even if poorly tested or substantiated. Once a theory reaches critical mass, perhaps helped along by media outlets, it may be accepted as truth by a large segment of the population.

The key to debunking claims based on junk science in the courtroom is working with a defense attorney who is familiar with the so-called science and its vulnerabilities. An attorney who defends against spurious claims as a regular part of their practice will have access to the most respected experts, who will have experience testifying and pointing out the flaws in the opposing party's "science."

Qualified, unbiased medical and scientific experts will also present testimony that meets the reliability standard of the jurisdiction in question, whether the Daubert standard of federal courts and a majority of state courts, or the Frye rule of general acceptance used in Illinois and a handful of other states.

Categories: Evidence & Experts