The MOOC (massive open online course) is PH207x: Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical and Public Health Research and it’s fabulous. The lectures are concise (they’re often called "chunks") and for the most part do a fine job, step by step, of explaining the statistical tools for testing hypotheses and making inferences from data collected in public health research. The couple of lectures that left me scratching my head were quickly resolved by a visit to Khan Academy for a more detailed discussion of the math.

In the sixth week, while discussing hypothesis testing with two or more samples, Dr. Marcello Pagano (a great lecturer btw) decided to use the Bendectin story to illustrate the harm done when science is ignored. The story related was that a famous plaintiff lawyer had planted the story of "hideous birth defects" caused by Bendectin in the National Enquirer and that the cost of defending the ensuing litigation caused the maker to remove the drug from the market – with dire consequences for pregnant women with severe morning sickness. So far so good. But then Dr. Pagano put up a slide stating: "Not one court case lost."

Cases were lost and money was paid (even though the science behind the claims was fraudulent). So finally to the point of this post.

Just a month ago an expert (and former academic) that we’re using on a case said, upon being told of the plaintiff’s claims, (I’m paraphrasing) "I had no idea this went on. A professor at the law school told us that juries and courts are really good about separating shabby science from sound science and so plaintiff lawyers will only file meritorious claims." Right. Just ask Dow Corning how it worked out with their silicone breast implants. Anyway, there’s a group of people out there spreading the story that Daubert isn’t needed because junk science in the courtroom was never really a problem. Sadly, some really smart people believe them.