Saturday, October 23, 2010

Should Courts Have Access to Independent Scientific Advice

I believe I just heard Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts say that he believed the current system works in that it was the job of the lawyers advocating for the competing interests in the case to explain the science in a way he the non-scientist judge could understand, as it was his responsibility as a judge to write decisions that explained the evidentiary basis for his position on a case in a manner that others could understand.

I don't like that position. I have spent a lot of time in peer review meetings watching scientists debate on the credibility of claims made by other scientists in their research proposals. The advocates in a case are seeking scientists who support the position which they advocate, and the judge may sometimes be faced by testimony of scientists, apparently equally credible, who testify to opposing views of the meaning of the evidence. It seems to me that having access to an independent source of expert advice should help the judge to evaluate that testimony.

If Chief Justice Roberts position were taken to the extreme, one might conclude that one need not be trained in the law to be a good judge because the advocates in a case have the responsibility not only in presenting the legal argument in support of their case, but in doing so in a way that anyone can understand that argument. However, law school and legal experience equips that judge to interpret the quality of the legal arguments made by each side in a way that is likely to be more accurate and valid than would a lay person.

Most people want a physician rather than a bureaucrat (neither a government bureaucrat nor an insurance company bureaucrat) deciding which medical treatment is called for to treat a specific patient with that patient's specific needs. This is in spite of the fact that we have regulatory oversight that requires manufacturers to fairly describe the efficacy of their pharmaceutical products. Training and experience count!

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