Science in the courtroom

How Science Works,” written by David Goodstein, Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at CalTech, is one of those pieces almost none of us know about and yet the ramifications of his little tome spread far and wide.

A Slashdot comment mentions:

“A few months back, the National Research Council and the Federal Judicial Center published the Third Edition of the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence, the primary guide for federal judges in the United States trying to evaluate scientific evidence. One chapter in particular, ‘How Science Works,’ written by David Goodstein (Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at CalTech), has raised the issue of how judges should see science in the courtroom: should they look at science to see if it matches our idealized view of the scientific method, or should they consider the realities of science, where people advocate for their own theories far more than they question them?”

If you go to the link in there, various questions are raised, e.g.

In the criminal context, prosecutors complain about the “CSI Effect,” the claim that jurors today expect forensic evidence in every case, while criminal defense lawyers counter that the forensic evidence offered is often garbage and speculation from people with a diploma mill degree.) As far as I can tell, mostly defense lawyers took note of the Reference Manual publicly, and they took a starkly negative view of it.

This would have application in the Knox case but let’s not broaden the issue at this point. One David Oliver has criticized the Reference Manual for judges thus:

Avoiding any pretense of humility the Reference Manual dismisses as woefully naive and inadequate those claims about the essence of the scientific endeavor that were ingrained in us in school. … Unsurprisingly the Reference Manual, operating on the view that objectivity is an illusion, that you can never prove anything is false and that you can never prove anything is true (“the apparent asymmetry between falsification and verification that lies at the heart of Popper’s theory thus vanishes”) and thus without any track to follow, quickly careens into post-modernism. … So all the great thinkers were wrong. Objectivity is out. Testability is out. Keeping an open mind is out. Skepticism is right out. The appeal to authority is not a logical fallacy but fundamental to science.

There are so many slides and bundlings there to tackle but first let’s see what the post writer said:

Scientists, even those in the “hard” sciences that are based primarily on empirical observations and mathematical analysis, have their own dogmas, prejudices, incentives, and conventions. That’s of course not to say that science is bad or wrong or useless — the only reason you can read this on your computers is because thousands of scientists over the years came to exactly the right conclusions about electricity, metallurgy, chemistry, mathematics, quantum theory, and information theory — but just to admit the obvious, which is that scientists are people and science happens under many of the same constraints as every other social endeavor. As much as we’d like to trust scientists as objective experts whose assertions should be accepted ipse dixit (a phrase that dates back to Pythagorus and is today routinely used by lawyers trying to discredit their opponent’s expert), the truth is that courts shouldn’t be afraid to look at scientists as people and evaluate them accordingly.

That’s a lovely comment by the lawyer Max Kennerly and he’s absolutely right on that point. The image I have in my own mind of the “true” scientist is that he administers tests, tests hypotheses, guards against his own prejudices and a priori argument contaminating the test and that it is a pursuit without end – it always opens up new areas of exploration.

All that is as it should be. We should be questioning, asking, wondering and never stopping doing that. It’s also as well to remember that science treats the physical, the observable, the analyzable, the falsifiable according to criteria set by man. Within its parameters, science is the best thing going and I for one have enormous respect for scientists.

It’s when they stray and drag the ignorant with them [who like to call themselves Rationalists but are actually trying to think with one half of the brain closed] into areas not treatable by science that the trouble begins. When science becomes Science, as has been mentioned many times before, then you have politics and religion, not science.

The prime culprit in this is The Royal Society and its hangers on, the Rationalists who infest every school, every university, flawed reasoners who can’t see the whole picture and don’t wish to see it. Dawkins, Hitchens C and Randi are the High Priests.

I should think that true scientists and eminent theologians might combine here to expose these other ignoramuses for politicizing science, for doing dirt on it in their twisting of it into a new religion and for passing comment on G-d without the least justification for doing so, let alone it being outside of their area of expertise.

I’m not slamming the average Rationalist at this blog – he knows no better and has been brought up on an orthodoxy of Science being G-d, which, as Mr Kennerly said, it is anything but.   I’m slamming the High Priests of Rationalism as unreasoned for a purpose.

In an article titled: The Royal Society Takes Another Step Away from Science, author Ben Pile writes:

Shortly after the Royal Society announced it was to revise its advice on climate change, it announced [PDF]:

The Royal Society is undertaking a major study to investigate how population variables will affect and be affected by economies, environments, societies and cultures over the next forty years and beyond.

He comments:

The scientific academy has sensed that it in today’s world, it wields political power. As the call for evidence suggests, the Royal Society has already decided that population is a problem, and the size of the population ought to be managed by political power, not by the individuals it consists of.

Precisely, although he’s a bit askew suggesting this is a recent phenomenon – it was the whole raison d’etre for the RS in the first place and its founders were the Enlightenment hijackers whose influence now infests every area of our life. Author Dan Hind has written about this hijacking in “The Threat to Reason: How the Enlightenment was Hijacked and How We Can Reclaim It”.

This is the angle I’m coming from, not from some evangelical stance [although I’d fight that corner separately to this debate]. This is also the angle libertarians might well be coming from. As Libertarian Today’s Chris Moore wrote, in “Militant secularists and statist authoritarians have hijacked the Enlightenment and twisted it into a weapon”:

Militant secularists, New Atheists, advocates of evidence-based policy, human rights champions… each constituency in their turn will draw justification from the intellectual emanations of that period beginning roughly towards the end of the seventeenth century and culminating – some say ending – in the 1789 French Revolution and its aftermath. And each in their turn will betray it.

He quotes Tzvetan Todorov – and I disagree in part:

The attacks launched against religion by thinkers like John Locke or Voltaire were not targeted at its content – they were targeted at its form as part of the state.

Yes they were targetted that way but also yes, Voltaire and Co had a far more political notion in mind than just the tearing down of religion and it was a very nasty fate they had in mind for humanity. We are close to realizing that today and the process should be completed by about 2020. Voltaire was not working for himself and especially not for la belle France.

[H/T Chuckles and haiku]

2 comments for “Science in the courtroom

  1. john in cheshire
    April 29, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Once again, James, I’m in agreement with you. Keep on doing what you are doing. Once people are informed, they can never again say they didn’t know.

  2. Voice of Reason
    April 30, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    “It’s when they stray and drag the ignorant with them … into areas not treatable by science that the trouble begins.”

    You have made such comments before, and I would ask for more information.

    For example:

    1. Good science shows us that we are running out of potable water, arable land, fish, rare earth metals and fossil fuels. We are also headed to a population of at least 10 billion. This number is not sustainable for more than 200 years or so, barring developing controlled fusion and better bio-engineering. Would you rather that the population be gradually reduced by aggressive birth control, or should we wait for the inevitable reduction by famine, war and pestilence?
    2. “There is a God” is a philosophical statement which is not falsifiable. “There is a God who did X” is a matter of evidence. Given that I have met all of the gentlemen that you mentioned as ‘High Priests’ (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and James Randi), this is of great interest to me. In particular, the last offers a prize, for which the only criterion is that you can do something ‘supernatural’ that withstands scrutiny under controlled conditions. The tests constructed require no judging. Hundreds have applied, and broadly fall into several classes i) the self-deluded, who are dreadfully disappointed by their failure, but find ways to rationalize it; ii) the mentally-unhinged, who can’t even clearly define their ‘powers’; and iii) the ones who make a lot of money off those same ‘powers’, accept the challenge, and then find reasons not to be tested.

    In summary, as soon as you make claims about objective reality, you open yourself up to the methods of science, like it or not.

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