What Makes an 'Expert' an Expert?

Columbine shooting survivor Mark Taylor is suing Solvay Pharmaceuticals alleging the anti-depressant drug Luvox made shooter Eric Harris psychotic and violent.

U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer, hearing the case in Denver last week, ruled the lawsuit could proceed and Taylor's two scientific "experts" could testify.

One of Taylor's experts, Peter Breggin, claimed in a preliminary report filed with the court that Luvox triggered Harris' rampage. "Absent persistent exposure to Luvox, Eric Harris would probably not have committed violence and suicide," claims Breggin.

Either Solvay's lawyers did a lousy job of arguing whether Breggin should be allowed to testify or the judge doesn't care that Breggin is more of a professional drug company-hater  than a credible scientific expert.

Breggin is a Washington, D.C.-area psychiatrist who touts himself as a "medical expert" with 30 years of experience in product liability suits against the manufacturers of psychiatric drugs.

Not everyone thinks he's such an "expert," though.

A Wisconsin judge declared in 1997: "Dr. Breggin's observations are totally without credibility. I can almost declare him [to be a] fraud or at least approaching that … I cannot place any credence or credibility in what he has to recommend in this case."

In a 1995 court case against pharmaceutical manufacturer UpJohn Company, the court ruled: "Simply put, the Court believes that Dr. Breggin's opinions do not rise to the level of an opinion based on 'good science.' The motion to exclude his testimony as an expert witness should be granted."

A Maryland court ruled in 1995: "The court believes not only is [Dr. Breggin] unqualified to render the opinions that he did, I believe that his bias in this case is blinding … The court is going to strike the testimony of Dr. Breggin, finding that it has no rational basis …"

As for the Taylor case, Breggin claims on his Web site that "stopping a Prozac-like drug such as Luvox can cause withdrawal problems, including mania and aggression … However, there is incontrovertible evidence that Eric Harris was in fact taking Luvox at the time he committed the murders."

Breggin should be harmless enough for any judge or defense attorney who spends a few minutes reviewing his track record. But watch out, Breggin might be coming to harm a child near you.

The Ritalin Fact Book is Breggin's new effort to scare parents about the most widely prescribed treatment for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Breggin writes in his book that ADHD medications are a gateway to illegal substance abuse -- despite a 1999 study by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse reporting that boys treated for ADHD with stimulants were less likely to engage in substance abuse when they got older.

Breggin writes that Ritalin abuse is widespread and that large batches are stolen in schools. But the General Accounting Office says that, in the 2000-2001 school year, only about 8 percent of principals in public middle and high schools reported a case of theft or abuse of Ritalin.

The Surgeon General reported ADHD medications are successful 75-90 percent of the time. But Breggin writes, "starting with the first dose, any psychiatric drug, from the stimulants to the anti-depressants, can worsen symptoms commonly thought of as ADHD-like."

Breggin also claims that ADHD medications shrink the brain, kill brain cells and cause biochemical changes that can lead to psychosis -- even at recommended doses. Others, including the American Psychiatric Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and American Medical Association say ADHD medications are safe.

Considering Breggin's history with the courts, it's a mystery as to why Judge Brimmer would allow him to testify about Luvox as a Columbine factor.

It's not too late for sanity, though.

Parents sued Pfizer in 2001 claiming anti-depressant Zoloft caused 13-year-old Matt Miller to commit suicide. But a federal judge appointed two independent experts to evaluate the scientific reliability of the theories that such medications cause suicide and violence. The experts and, ultimately, the judge concluded the opinions of Miller's experts were "scientifically invalid and inadmissible."

The independent experts were appointed by the trial judge under the holding of the U.S. Supreme Court in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. That ruling allows federal trial judges to impanel experts to determine whether supposed scientific testimony should be admitted at trial.

Solvay's lawyers haven't yet asked for a Daubert panel, saying they want to depose Breggin first. In any event, they're lucky they have a Daubert option.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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