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Flawed Methodologies
Anticipating the Scientific Rule of Law

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, DC, August 24, 1999 --  

The American judicial system has utterly failed in its duty to reach rational decisions in high profile cases involving scientific issues. The consensus of educated opinion on such a shocking issue has led to widespread discussion of how to reform the legal system.

The most successful proposal to date comes from a Washington group called the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which seeks to institute a new system of recommended impartial consulting scientists.1 The theory behind this plan is that American judges are too poorly trained in scientific methods to execute their jobs in cases involving these issues. To combat this, the organization would recommend experts for court appointment to consult with judges or serve as impartial expert witnesses.

The plan's authors may have good intentions, but their proposal is a troublesome threat to the rule of law. If judges are so ignorant of science that they require guidance from unaccountable outside sources, then how can they be expected to evaluate the qualifications of these impartial experts? It is entirely possible, under this plan, that the unscientific and pervasive groupthink that often afflicts academia could spread unchecked into the courts. In the early Renaissance, astronomers using flawed methods and under heavy church influence agreed universally that the earth was the center of the universe. An unbiased court expert at the time would have served only to spread their insidiously wrong ideas and methodologies to the venue of the law.

To this day, flawed methodologies and bias perpetuate wrong ideas in Science. Until 1993, physicians and medical journals shunned an obscure Australian scientist for his radical research showing that many ulcers are caused by easily cured bacterial infections. Despite the correctness of his methods and his ideas, the larger scientific community failed to accept the truth for nearly a decade.2

Since even impartial scientists can be seriously flawed, who is to decide their fitness to consult under the AAAS plan? Certainly not judges -- they have already been dismissed for their inability to understand the scientific process. The AAAS-recommended scientists, therefore, would be treated like unaccountable sorcerers. Not only is this idea ludicrous, it is outrageous. It allows judges to abdicate responsibility for their fundamental duty of deciding the admissibility of evidence.

Instead of excusing judges from this duty when cases involve science, they must be required to embrace the scientific process. Jurisdictions at all levels must require candidates for the bench to be trained in basic scientific theory, statistics, and other areas of basic knowledge central to legal cases in the modern world. Admittedly, this is a high expectation. Too often, lawyers have virtually no required coursework in math and science, and judges are appointed not based upon their qualifications, but based upon political connections. This must change.

What is required is nothing short of a constitutional convention to encode the scientific rule of law alongside traditional legal tenets. This scientific rule of law should be much easier to encode, since scientific rules of evidence are almost universally accepted. While political laws are arbitrary, laws of science are but assertions of reality. This merger of the scientific process with the American legal system must include the opportunity for defendants in civil and criminal cases to appeal decisions based upon violation of encoded scientific rules of evidence. It is this kind of protection -- and not the presence of unbiased scientific consultants -- that will prevent emotion-driven juries from ignoring science when making their decisions.

The importance of this change can hardly be understated. It is largely because of strong institutions like the rule of law that American society has been able to achieve great advances in technology, and enviable rates of economic growth. This rule of law must be brought into the modern world to include scientific reasoning. Failure to do so will undermine this institution and ultimately threaten American prosperity.

Related Web Column:
Sacrifice upon the Altar of Democracy, January 12, 1998

  1. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Court Appointed Scientific Experts Project,
  2. The Washington Post, A Tale of Two Mavericks, February 22, 1994