Statistical Science Court?

Nathan Schactman has an interesting blog post onScientific illiteracy among the judiciary”:

February 29th, 2012

Ken Feinberg, speaking at a symposium on mass torts, asks what legal challenges do mass torts confront in the federal courts. The answer seems obvious.

Pharmaceutical cases that warrant federal court multi-district litigation (MDL) treatment typically involve complex scientific and statistical issues. The public deserves having MDL cases assigned to judges who have special experience and competence to preside in cases in which these complex issues predominate. There appears to be no procedural device to ensure that the judges selected in the MDL process have the necessary experience and competence, and a good deal of evidence to suggest that the MDL judges are not up to the task at hand.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert, the Federal Judicial Center assumed responsibility for producing science and statistics tutorials to help judges grapple with technical issues in their cases. The Center has produced videotaped lectures as well as the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence, now in its third edition. Despite the Center’s best efforts, many federal judges have shown themselves to be incorrigible. It is time to revive the discussions and debates about implementing a “science court.”

I am intrigued to hear Schachtman revive the old and controversial idea of a “science court”, although it has actually never left, but has come up for debate every few years for the past 35 or 40 years! In the 80s, it was a hot topic in the new “science and values” movement, but I do not think it was ever really put to an adequate experimental test. The controversy directly relates to the whole issue of distinguishing evidential and policy issues (in evidence-based policy), which was very much behind my co-edited volume “Acceptable Evidence: Science and Values in Risk Management” (Oxford, 1991) with Rachelle Hollander who was at NSF for many years*. As noted in my post “Objectivity 1: Will the real junk science please stand up?” “I have argued that the current polarization cries out for critical or meta-scientific scrutiny of the uncertainties, assumptions, and risks of error that are part and parcel of the gathering and interpreting of evidence on both sides.”  However, I join many others in having doubts about whether any of the “science court” proposals could work—doubtless, however, for different reasons than most.
Allan Mazur, one of the early proponents of the idea (the earliest was Arthur Kantrowitz) argues that rather than placing science courts in courts with judges, that they might better be placed in universities.

“The present value of a science court lies right where we have located it, in the university, where it fits easily into established tradition, rather than as a grand new social institution. It can be carried out with university resources for the benefit of students and faculty. (Mazur”

What could go wrong?

*Directing a variety of sections on science and values.

Categories: philosophy of science, PhilStatLaw, Statistics | Tags: , , , ,

Post navigation

2 thoughts on “Statistical Science Court?

  1. Melvin Goldstein

    Numbers are the Supreme Court of science. However Godel proved that we may not prove everything using numbers. Physics needs numbers. There must be Physics Foibles.

  2. Melvin: I’m not sure how this relates to the statistical science court. We didn’t need Goedel to prove that not everything is provable via numbers by the way. His work only related to truths about numbers (and certain kinds of systems of proof).

Blog at