Science Courts

Academic, Info Tech, Law, Notable, Politics, The Environment

Chris Mooney (who still doesn’t have an RSS feed) has an interesting post about how Republicans have undermined important public policy initiatives on issues such as the environment by claiming that too much scientific uncertainty exists on the topic. He quotes a 1996 report by George Brown, the former Democratic minority leader of the House Science Committee:

No politician should be allowed to cut off a serious public policy debate on the basis that the underlying science is uncertain. Degree of scientific certainty is only one of many factors that enter into policy decisions. Even where there is substantial scientific uncertainty, a policy action might still be justified in a policy-maker’s view depending on factors such as the nature, distribution, and significance of the possible harm to be avoided and the cost of implementing the policy to avoid the harm. This perennial question — “Do we know enough to act?” — is inherently a policy question, not a scientific one.

To my mind, this brings up an important question — how do we take science out of politics so that we can make policy decisions? Arthur Kantrowitz has proposed an interesting solution: Science Courts. The name is catchy, but unfortunate (a holdover from earlier efforts) since decisions would be made very differently than in a law court.

K. Eric Drexler provides a good account of some important differences in how science courts will differ from judicial courts:

This procedure must differ from that of a court in various ways. For example, the technical panel — the forum’s jury” — must be technically competent. Bias might lead a panel to misjudge facts, but technical incompetence would do equal harm. For this reason, the jury” of a fact forum must be selected in a way that might be dangerous if allowed in courts of law. Since courts wield the power of the police, we use juries selected from the people as a whole to guard our liberty. This forces the government to seek approval from a group of citizens before it punishes someone, thus tying the government’s actions to community standards. A fact forum, however, will neither punish people nor make public policy. The public will be free to watch the process and decide whether to believe its results. This will give people control enough.

One of Kantrowitz’s most interesting findings in using such procedures is that:

It was found that apparent factual disagreements between scientists prominent in public debates on policy issues could be dramatically reduced when they faced the prospect of public cross examination.

The thing is, while scientists often have serious disagreements, they are often disagreements about things that have little impact on public policy decisions. Again, from Kantrowitz’s experiments with using such courts:

The most striking output from these procedures has been the degree of agreement that could be achieved between the scientist-advocates on the scientific facts. Preceding the scheduled public cross examination, the advocates were invited to make factual statements basic to their positions. It was almost always found that adversaries were in substantial agreement so that an agreed upon statement could easily be negotiated. In the Love Canal case, these agreements were not recorded. However, it was apparent that areas of disagreement selected for cross examination were far less important than advocates’ previous positions had led us to expect.

This would directly undermine Republican attempts to misrepresent issues on which there is profound scientific consensus as lacking in sound science.”