Volume 23, Number 2 April 1994
Improving Courtroom Presentations of Scientific Evidence
Edward Gerjuoy (October 1993) misquoted me. In speaking of the Science Court he quotes me as asserting that the procedure would "assuredly" lead to the "correct" scientific facts. I have never made such an absurd claim. In the report of the Task Force (1) we said: "We have no illusions that this procedure will arrive at the truth..." On the basis of this misquotation, Gerjuoy dismisses the Science Court as "radical."
Current opinions on, and experience with, scientific adversary procedures for dealing with factual scientific disputes relevant to public policy can be found in the Spring 1993 issue of Risk (2).
1. Science Vol. 193, p. 654 (1976). 2. Risk--Issues in Health and Safety Vol. 4, No. 2, Franklin Pierce Law Center, Concord, New Hampshire 03301
The Task Force Report that Kantrowitz himself cites states (1): The basic mechanism proposed here is an adversary hearing, open to the public...in which expert proponents of the opposing scientific positions argue their cases before a panel of scientific judges....After the evidence has been presented...the panel of judges will prepare a report on the dispute....The Science Court will be strictly limited to providing the best available judgments about matters of scientific fact.
The language in my paper to which Kantrowitz objects states:
Whenever the parties to a legal dispute could not agree on the correct scientific facts, the dispute was to be referred to the Science Court for determination of those "correct" facts via open adversarial hearings, conducted by scientists in front of a scientific jury. With this referral procedure, according to Kantrowitz, the laymen jurors in the original dispute assuredly would get the correct scientific facts...
Freshly reviewing these two quotations, I do not think my language presents Kantrowitz's thesis unfairly, or that I can be said to have misquoted him. I was pressed for space and had to condense Kantrowitz's descriptions of the Science Court's operations into a very few lines. I therefore used the common shorthand device of putting "correct" within quotation marks to signify my doubts that the Science Court's determinations about "matters of scientific fact" necessarily would be truly correct. Kantrowitz himself has used the same device in a paper (2) that gave the following restatement of the Task Force language Kantrowitz quotes: "We have no illusions that this procedure will arrive at the 'truth,'..." Nevertheless, if my words could be taken to imply that I thought Kantrowitz believed the Science Court assuredly would arrive at the truly correct facts, then I do owe Kantrowitz an apology. That implication is unfair to Kantrowitz and was not my intention.
On the other hand, I stand by and do not apologize even conditionally for the language in my paper that stated the Science Court (and other proposals I discussed) are "even more radical" than the proposal to abolish jury trials and: "...have a fundamental flaw which, irrespective of their merits, makes their wide adoption unlikely. Such proposals simply represent too radical a departure from traditional trial procedures."
1. Science, 193, 653 (1976) 2. A. Kantrowitz, Jurimetrics Journal 28, 332 (Summer 1987).
Perception of Risk and the Future of Nuclear Power
Regarding Paul Slovic's article (January 1994): Even if nuclear power were demonstrably safe, the problem of trust would still remain. However reluctant we are to face it, problems symptomatic of overpopulation impact almost all of us daily, and abundant energy would almost certainly exacerbate that problem. To gain the trust of the "skeptical elite" these problems must be discussed and dealt with effectively. Unfortunately the public does not understand that these problems must be considered as parts of an entire closely coupled system. To see physicists still pinning their hopes on "competent government regulation" is frankly depressing.
The Environmental Paradigm
Recently there have been a number of articles by scientists employing risk analysis and attacking "environmental extremists." Although it is clearly necessary to analyze environmental problems scientifically, there may be serious difficulties with the usual approach of risk analysis.
Usually the result of a cost-benefit analysis is that the cost of some act to protect the environment is greater than the benefit. Again and again the risk analyzers tell us to accept the risk either because it is small or uncertain or because it would be costly to attack. Following these guidelines often results in a steady deterioration of the environment. As a consequence the world we leave to our children is not the world we wanted to leave them. The "scientific" analysis leads us where we do not want to go.
Thomus Kuhn has provided an interesting way to understand what is wrong with the standard analysis. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn defines the usual science activities as "normal science" based on an established set of concepts, or paradigms. Normal scientists are extremely productive because they use well-established methods or (to bring Kuhn up-to-date) standard software. However, occasionally a time arrives when it is evident that normal science is giving the wrong answer.
The environmental movement has provided us with a new paradigm that can lead us to the right answers and to the future that we desire. The new paradigm requires looking at planet Earth as a whole with its limited resources and its limited tolerance of modern civilization's environmental insults. The new paradigm requires considering fundamental institutional changes to preserve planet Earth.
The cost-benefit analysis involves a perturbation approach. One considers a small change in a limited number of parameters (such as limits on certain pollutants) and compares the change in benefits and costs. Most often one finds that the present situation is a local minimum; that is, the perturbation costs more than the value of the benefits. Nevertheless with time the height of that local minimum often keeps increasing. The desired global minimum far below this rising local minimum is never reached by the perturbation methods of normal science.
As an oversimplified example: A major cost of closing a polluting factory may be a large number of unemployed workers. However, if the government had an institutional framework for hiring such workers for environmental projects, the cost would be transferred into a benefit.
It needs to be recognized that the environmental paradigm is the basis for a truly scientific approach and that good science does not mean the "normal science" of risk analysis.