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Who Judges Science?


As more technologically complex issues that are based on current scientific research end up in the courts, it has become increasingly apparent that judges now need to have an almost-impossible mix of scientific acumen in addition to juridical expertise.

In When Questions of Science Come to a Courtroom, Truth has Many Faces, NYT writer Cornelia Dean presents a detailed look at the changing face of scientific cases over the past century. Including a history of morphing rules for the legal includability of scientific evidence and outside experts, the article is a stark warning about the dangers of scientific cases being judged by those least able to judge the science. (This is not an argument for knowing science content, but rather the process of science, from data to theory and acceptance.) In some cases, bad science rules the day in court because some judges don’t know enough about the scientific process to direct juries appropriately.

As Dean quotes at the end of her piece:

Mr. Faigman, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, criticizes what he calls the court’s “abdication” of any responsibility to determine scientific facts. This practice cannot last, he wrote. “Science and technology today are so pervasive that the court cannot continue its slapdash ways,” he said. “The scientific revolution is everywhere; it cannot be ignored with impunity.”

Dean writes about the 1993 seminal case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. For more on this case,see Daubert: The Most Influential Supreme Court Decision You’ve Never Heard Of by David Michaels. Michaels is a contributor to the The Pump Handle blog.

Billed as a water cooler for the public health Crowd, The Pump Handle is a very informative site collaboratively maintained by scientists and public health professionals formerly from the FDA, OSHA, MSHA, DOE, among other agencies. The Pump Handle name comes from the 1954 London cholera epidemic of 1854 and the attempts of John Snow to convince anyone who would listen of the dangers of water from public pumps.