Profiting Off the Problem

The following blog was written by Joseph Annotti, who in addition to serving as the President & CEO of the Center for Truth in Science, is a member of the Atlantic Legal Foundation’s Advisory Council.

There is a disturbing trend across several states — California, Maine, and Wisconsin, among others — in which governors and state legislatures are deputizing trial lawyers to act as the enforcers of state regulations, from labor violations to chemical contamination.

In doing so, states believe they will benefit from an army of aggressive regulatory enforcers at no cost, since trial attorneys will be compensated by the fees earned from any damage awards or settlements. There’s just one problem: effective regulatory enforcement is not the objective of the lawyers who are bringing these cases to court. Winning is.

We have written extensively on how the mass tort machine is fueled by fear, greed, emotion, and cherry-picked science to secure victory and contingency fees. It also exploits the conflicts between state and federal law when it comes to trying these cases.

For example, after decades of extensive research, federal regulators have found no scientific evidence to warrant placing a warning label on products that contain talc and glyphosate. Yet states continue allowing plaintiffs to file lawsuits claiming the manufacturers “failed to warn” consumers of their supposed health hazards. Trial lawyers are happy to oblige.

State regulations should be enforced. But deputizing the trial bar is like asking the fox to guard the henhouse. Eventually, the chickens will be eaten or in hiding, which benefits no one.

A better solution is to properly fund the state’s regulatory agencies to do their job, or to reduce the financial incentive for private attorneys to serve as enforcers by compensating them on par with other government employees and dramatically reducing the amount of their contingency fees.

We should not expect solutions from those profiting off the problem.

Examined: Lying About Honesty
In each newsletter, we examine the credibility of a timely study that is covered by the media using a nine-point checklist to determine whether the findings are reasonable based on the scientific evidence. And this one certainly got covered by the media: Is This Psychology’s Most Ironic Research Fraud? (Psychology Today) A Study on Dishonesty was Based on Fraudulent Data (Economist) An Influential Study Of Dishonesty Was Dishonest (Forbes) The study in question was published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences by well-known social scientist, New York Times best-selling author (for books on honesty) and TED Talk presenter, Daniel Ariely.
It claimed that a field experiment of over 13,000 customers of a popular insurer had found that people were less likely to lie (or cheat) on a form if they signed an honesty promise at the start of the form, rather than the end. The findings were published in 2012 and made such a splash, even the Obama administration suggested the IRS consider using the strategy in tax forms.
Two catastrophic problems with the study came to light last month: Data appeared to have been fabricated. Even Ariely had to agree it was fraudulent. The results were never able to be replicated, despite multiple attempts made by other researchers. Ariely and other authors of the fake paper have requested it be redacted. Duke University’s Office of Research Integrity is investigating the incident, but many in the field doubt anything will be done, as is often the case with “superstar” scientists.
Fraudulent research is a widespread problem in science. We must prioritize data transparency to prevent future incidents from happening. We should expect researchers to show their work. In the words of one of the paper authors, “We began our collaboration from a place of assumed trust — rather than earned trust,” she wrote. “Lesson learned.”

Joseph Annotti
President & CEO
Center for Truth in Science
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