Friday, September 16, 2005

Vioxx Juries

You know there is truth to be had when the Washington Post agrees with the WSJ on matters of jury payouts.

Unfortunately for Merck, scientific facts didn't play much of a role in the first Vioxx trial, which ended on Aug. 19. The Texas jury in that case awarded $253.4 million to the widow of a man who died of a heart attack triggered by arrhythmia, which is not a condition Vioxx has been proven to cause. The jury, declaring that it wished to "send a message" to Merck, decided to make an enormous symbolic award anyway. Besides, said one juror afterward, the medical evidence was confusing: "We didn't know what the heck they were talking about."
Yesterday, I had the opporunity to hear a law student with a nuclear engineer over whether objective, scientific facts are essential to adjudicating a dispute in the adversarial process. The engineer's point is that you can boil down every dispute among scientific experts to a difference in policy or a a reflection of policy choices in the methodology of a given scientific study. (If you are the critigal legal studies type think "normative" choices.) This point totally flew over the head of the student. It seems like a given that scientific experts make stuff up. But ultimately science does promulgate objective truth and we would be wise to understand that.