When going public means compromising ethics


A friend of mine is a professor at one of America’s top medical schools. Recently he started giving expert testimony in lawsuits involving exposure to benzene, a chemical that has been linked to increased risk for leukemia.

He has been an expert for the defense, and it’s been easy for him to conclude that the plaintiffs’ cases are, from a scientific perspective, weak. The amount of benzene to which Americans have been exposed has declined greatly in recent decades, and the exposure levels he’s dealing with in these suits are very unlikely to have played any role in causing leukemia.

Furthermore, the studies that do show a link between the chemical and the disease tend to be small and poorly controlled, further undermining the plaintiffs’ cases, at least in terms of science (naturally much of what goes on in litigation has nothing to do with science).

Still, my friend has faced an ethical dilemma. The defense lawyers subtly but constantly pressure him to make his testimony sound even more definitive than he believes the evidence warrants. This is because the plaintiffs employ experts that make what my friend considers scientifically outrageous claims. They don’t merely argue that benzene exposure could have caused the underlying disease, or even that there’s a good probability it did. Indeed, plaintiffs seem to have little trouble finding experts who are willing to testify that benzene clearly caused the plaintiff’s cancer.

Faced with this, the defense lawyers would like my friend to testify that there is no chance whatsoever that benzene exposure is responsible for the plaintiff’s illness. This he is unwilling to do _ although he realizes this unwillingness costs him many opportunities to cash in on his academic expertise.

Another friend of mine is a professor at one of America’s top law schools. He’s an expert in international law, so he’s been asked many times to comment on the controversy surrounding the Bush administration’s use of warrantless searches, in apparent violation of the plain meaning of the relevant federal law.

A few months ago, he was one of several international law experts who signed a letter condemning the Bush administration’s surveillance program. Because he’s a prominent person in his field, a number of conservative friends and acquaintances from the elite strata of the American legal system took the trouble to bombard him with emails, which ranged from expressions of deep disappointment to polite implications that he was a traitor to his country.

More recently, he co-authored an opinion piece that defended the Bush administration’s use of legislative signing statements. He immediately received a flood of messages from his liberal friends and acquaintances from the same rarified professional strata, explaining that because thcurrent administration represents pure evil from beyond the eighth dimension, any opinion that gives it aid and comfort is something every decent person should avoid expressing.

The point of these two stories is that they illustrate how hard it is to maintain one’s personal integrity if one is going to "do" law, or politics, or especially anything that involves the politics of law.

Lawsuits and political campaigns in this country both appear to operate on the principle that out of the clash of lies, truth will emerge. Each side in the battle is constantly tempted to commit intellectual atrocities of various sorts, with the justification for such atrocities being the same as that put forth for the flesh and blood atrocities that make up so much of every war _ that the ends justify the means.

The only way to avoid this dilemma, other than withdrawing from public life altogether, is to become either too stupid or too corrupt to notice that one is prostituting oneself for the greater glory of whatever. That, needless to say, is a trick that is all too easy to turn.

(Paul C. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)