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The Courts Science

The Scientific Method Versus Scientific Evidence In the Courtroom 140

Posted by Soulskill
from the pi-is-exactly-three dept.
An anonymous reader writes "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?"
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The Scientific Method Versus Scientific Evidence In the Courtroom

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  • by emilper (826945) on Monday April 23, 2012 @12:56PM (#39773649)

    science is about method, not about theories

  • by Grizzley9 (1407005) on Monday April 23, 2012 @12:58PM (#39773679)

    Good watch: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/real-csi/ [pbs.org] One thing they didn't cover, however, was the horror behind "expert" psychologists/psychiatrists and the damage they inflict.

    Saw this too and it should be a req'd link in the summary. They shed a lot of light on how most of forensic evidence does not hold to the scientific method and that many so called expert court witnesses are anything but, even with the fancy sounding diploma mill accreditation.

  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Monday April 23, 2012 @01:02PM (#39773735) Journal

    If you're in a courtroom, you should ALWAYS assume than anyone presenting evidence has an agenda (because they almost always do).

    I don't really agree with this. It's the lawyer's jobs to try to find a scientist somewhere who will vouch for their client or could provide evidence for the client. Now, ideally the scientist is from some other place that never heard of this case or knows anything about the case other than what he/she is an expert on. The science has been done long before hand, is sound, has been peer reviewed, etc, etc. The problem that I garnered from this article is when an "expert" is presented yet they are not peer reviewed, their science is not sound, nobody in their community takes them seriously, their degree is a hundred years old or questionable, etc, etc. Or they know a lot about the case and they have stepped forward to voluntarily promote their agenda to back their science by building credibility via high media courtroom cases.

    The point is that when scientists come into a courtroom as expert witnesses (or really any expert witness), the only agenda on their mind should be to relate to the court what they have discovered in their research. Not how much more funding they'll get when this hits the papers. Not how much the defense is paying them to say that in their professional opinion the client is insane.

    This is about the validity of science presented in trials, not whether or not the defense or prosecution as an agenda. I don't think that's ever been under question or they're a terrible defense/prosecution and the client should move for a mistrial. Psychological testimony has gotten so far out of hand that some states have taken extreme measures [io9.com].

  • by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) on Monday April 23, 2012 @01:06PM (#39773783) Homepage Journal

    (At least) two different meanings of "science" are at work here. There's science as in "what scientists do," which is indeed a collection of methods and processes; and there's science as in "the body of relevant scientific knowledge," which is what juries need to know to decide on cases. Both are valid meanings, and it's important not to confuse the two.

  • Obvious answer (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sarten-X (1102295) on Monday April 23, 2012 @01:07PM (#39773795) Homepage

    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

    How about both? Look to see if the real process aligns closely with ideals, then base decisions on that. Did the lab follow best practices to prevent contamination? Were the statistics compiled by someone who knew what the samples were? Do all of the numbers include error calculations?

    The discerning judge who considers scientific evidence will end up with a subjective opinion of whether the result meets the need for accuracy. It's the judge's job to apply such subjective opinions fairly, and here that means allowing only evidence that meets their realistic ideal.

  • by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Monday April 23, 2012 @01:26PM (#39774069) Homepage Journal

    If you're in a courtroom, you should ALWAYS assume than anyone presenting evidence has an agenda (because they almost always do).

    It's not so much the lawyers presenting the 'evidence' you have to worry about; it's the unqualified 'expert witnesses' who are allowed to testify, even though the only thing they're experts in is getting certified as an expert witness. [pbs.org]

    Calling our modern judiciary the "justice" system is the biggest, least funny joke in American history.

  • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Monday April 23, 2012 @01:29PM (#39774107) Homepage

    The point is that when scientists come into a courtroom as expert witnesses (or really any expert witness), the only agenda on their mind should be to relate to the court what they have discovered in their research. Not how much more funding they'll get when this hits the papers. Not how much the defense is paying them to say that in their professional opinion the client is insane.

    While a nice idea, it doesn't seem to happen that way in practice. There are lists of professional experts whose slant on the subjects known prior to their being hired (and remember, they're hired). In many jurisdictions and in many fields, it doesn't take a whole lot of research, experience or much else to be an 'expert'. Since it works for both sides, you tend to get dueling experts and the jury is expected to make an informed decision based on the intricacies of their testimony and not on their showmanship, friendliness or appearance. Righto.

    The scientific method and the legal method don't really mesh well most times. 'Science' very rarely produces black and white results. Shades of grey are tough to get across to lay people.

  • by willpb (1168125) on Monday April 23, 2012 @01:39PM (#39774219)

    FTFA

    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.

    When it comes to science in the courtroom.

    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.

    All you need is an expert in the field who shares your opinion and has a plausible theory that can sway jurors or create a reasonable doubt.

    This is also why people with expertise in a field pertaining to the case are frequently excluded from a jury pool. For example they don't usually want an accountant who already knows what embezzlement is to be on the jury etc. Lawyers don't want an intelligent jury, they want one that will believe their expert witnesses.

  • by Paracelcus (151056) on Monday April 23, 2012 @03:00PM (#39775113) Journal

    "The same idiots who think tobacco is a deadly poison think cannabis is a miracle cure-all."
    Nicotine IS a poison and is used as a pesticide (among other things)!
    THC, is used for medical purposes (among other things)!

    Idiots?

  • by mcgrew (92797) * on Monday April 23, 2012 @03:52PM (#39775737) Homepage Journal

    If you think geezers are malleable, I got some news for you, son. It's the young who are malleable, the old are set in our ways. Hell, my dad won't even use a cell phone or a computer. "I did without those things for eighty years and I don't need 'em now."

    And prosecutors don't like welfare moms. Prosecutors don't want ANYBODY poor in the jury, especially if it's a drug case (and most criminal cases are drug cases).

    Blue collar males? I see you've never seen the inside of a working class bar. Nearly every one smokes pot and hates the government.

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