Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

If you’re over 30, the name Erin Brokavich likely conjures up images of a working-class hero, fighting for the cancer-ridden little guys against a Erin Brokavich (2000)Erin Brokavich (2000)corrupt multi-billion dollar corporation and winning millions for them.

Anyone who saw the eponymous film starring Julia Roberts and Albert Finny was likely wiping away joyful tears by the end, satisfied that the little guys had gotten justice because of this brave woman (who wasn’t even a lawyer!). I count myself among the acolytes in those early years after the film’s release. Since then, I’ve gotten new data. As a result, I’ve changed my mind….

The first person I ever heard question the Brokavich hero narrative was Michael Shermer in his book, Science Friction. In it, Shermer points out that it’s highly statistically probable that cancer clusters will occur randomly, with no environmental assistance whatsoever. In other words, there’s no reason to expect that cancers will always occur in an even distribution across the landscape, and every reason to expect that they will occasionally clump up, whether there’s an environmental influence (e.g., hexavalent chromium leaked into the water table by PG&E) or not.

Even worse, later examinations by people like professor John Morgan of Loma Linda University revealed that Hinkley, California (where Brokavich staged her battle against PG&E) didn’t even have a cancer cluster! He maintains that incidents of cancer diagnoses in that area were no higher than in any other isolated desert community. The California Cancer Registry backed up this assessment, stating that cancer rates in Hinkley between 1988 and 2008 were “unremarkable.” (Brokavich’s lawsuit took place in 1993.)

If you’re ready for a truly mind-blowing theory, take a look at the works of science writer George Johnson, author of The Cancer Chronicles, who maintains that the link between environmental contaminants and cancer are “surprisingly weak, if not imaginary.”

I don’t know a lot about the science of cancer, but I do know that people (even those on juries) are prone toward making emotional decisions despite the science. So the record-breaking $333 million settlement that Erin Brokavich and her team won against PG&E may not be based upon the facts at all.

A recent case against Johnson & Johnson may be repeating this sort of science-free decision making by juries. The company has been ordered to pay a woman a $417 million after she convinced a jury that her ovarian cancer was tied directly to her use of their talcum powder. The case is being appealed, but may lead the way to thousands more lawsuits, and like other companies sued without solid science, their eventual bankruptcy.

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