Leon Jaroff versus Erin Brockovich

As has been widely reported in the press, numerous alumni of Beverly Hills High School recently filed litigation alleging that their cancers and other health conditions were caused by exposures to fumes from oil wells located beneath the campus grounds. The claimants are represented by the law firm Masry & Vititoe, where Erin Brockovich plies her trade.

Now comes Leon Jaroff, in a Time Magazine column, to inveigh against the “junk science” on which he says the claims are based. It is a fine piece of red-blooded polemic for true believers. One is left with the feeling, however, that Jaroff has been less than neutral in selecting scientific evidence to highlight, and even less neutral in characterizing it. For example, Jaroff cites the University of Southern California Medical School’s Cancer Surveillance Program for the (syntactically byzantine) proposition that “Known causes of [Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma] are not petroleum or petroleum products.” But the actual findings of USC’s study seem less dispositive than Jaroff suggests. Meanwhile, it appears that Jaroff’s special edition of Google may filter out sites affililated with other nearby institutions of higher learning, such as Berkeley, whose Molecular Epidemiology and Toxicology Laboratory reports on studies linking benzene, one petroleum byproduct at issue in the litigation, with hematopoietic malignancies.

It used to be that stories in Time frequently ended with the well-worn “time-will-tell” tagline — e.g., “Only time will tell who has the better of the scientific arguments.” It now appears that in matters of scientific evidence, at least, there is no felt editorial need, at Time, to acknowledge that the debates may take a while to play out. Maybe the readership has grown less patient.

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