It has recently come to my attention that the Duke University School of Law’s journal Law and Contemporary Problems has a new issue out containing several articles about the very different norms and conventions that inform the scientific and legal mindsets, and how these disparate alignments can cause very serious problems in contemporary society. To read some of this work, see here.
In Unscientific America, we don’t focus in on the legal sphere as a particularly influential sector of society that has problems with science–but we certainly could have. Luckily, the work has now been done for us.
Still, I’ll just make a few brief comments. It seems to me that there is a strong and non-coincidental overlap between the legal strategy of defending a client by poking any and all holes in the position of a courtroom opponent, and the agnotological techniques that are regularly mobilized to undermine scientific conclusions on evolution, climate change, vaccination, and much else. The goal in both cases is to sow “reasonable doubt”–nevermind the fact that you can sow doubt about pretty much anything. When a scientific consensus position gets skillfully lawyered and cross-examined, it inevitably sounds far less convincing than it actually is, at least to untrained ears.
But at the same time, we must concede that the courtroom has also proved, at times, an arena in which science triumphs unequivocally. Here I’m thinking in particular of the evolution cases, and above all Dover. So there are at least some aspects of the legal process that, done right, can be quite advantageous to scientific conclusions, rather than corrosive to them.
There is vastly more that could be said here…but for that, check out the articles in Law and Contemporary Problems.