Science Court

Science Court

Inherit the Wind

Inherit the Wind

“You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven’t you, Mr. Bryan?”
“Yes, sir; I have tried to … But, of course, I have studied it more as I have become older than when I was a boy.”
“Do you claim then that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?”
“I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there …”
Darrow continued to question Bryan on the actuality of Jonah and the whale, Joshua’s making the sun stand still and the Tower of Babel, as Bryan began to have more difficulty answering.
Q: “Do you think the earth was made in six days?”
A: “Not six days of 24 hours … My impression is they were periods …”
Q: “Now, if you call those periods, they may have been a very long time?”
A: “They might have been.”
Q: “The creation might have been going on for a very long time?”
A: “It might have continued for millions of years …”

The famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” actually ended with John Scopes being convicted of teaching evolution and charged a $100 fine. The legal result of the trial really has little to do with its historical significance, however. What happened in the trial that made it the rightful subject of a play still on the boards and an Oscar-nominated movie 35 years later was the utter demolition of WIlliam Jennings Bryan’s fundamentalist mystique by Clarance Darrow in the climactic cross examination.  Much of the play and movie’s dialogue was fictional, but the questioning was lifted directly from the trial transcript.

Now apparently the US Chamber of Commerce wants to have a public hearing on the subject of global warming. Two generally level-headed bloggers, John Timmer at Ars Technica’s Nobel Intent, and Roger Pielke Jr, have come out and said it’s a really bad idea. (Pielke Sr, on the other hand, isn’t so sure.)

Timmer, for example, claims

The CoC requested open public hearings that would reexamine all aspects of the decision, from the science of climate change and ocean acidification to the projected impacts on public health and agriculture. Although there was nothing unusual or unexpected about that, the request appears to have been widely ignored. That seems to have ended, as the Chamber’s real desire has become clear: it wants to subject climate science to a show trial.

I’m almost certain this is incorrect. A show trial is a fake trial where the outcome is not actually decided, but which is scripted to railroad someone whose fate has been pre-decided. In this case the CoC is “pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to hold a rare public hearing on the scientific evidence for man-made climate change.” They may be foolish in asking the EPA to hold the proceedings, but it doesn’t make any sense that they want the EPA to hold a show trial. The CoC would be the railroadee.

In Engines of Creation, Eric Drexler wrote:

Unfortunately, leaving judgment to experts causes problems. In Advice and Dissent, Primack and von Hippel point out that “to the extent that the Administration can succeed in keeping unfavorable information quiet and the public confused, the public welfare can be sacrificed with impunity to bureaucratic convenience and private gain.” Regulators suffer more criticism when a new drug causes a single death than they do when the absence of a new drug causes a thousand deaths. They misregulate accordingly. Military bureaucrats have a vested interest in spending money, hiding mistakes, and continuing their projects. They mismanage accordingly. This sort of problem is so basic and natural that more examples are hardly needed. Everywhere, secrecy and fog make bureaucrats more comfortable; everywhere, personal convenience warps factual statements on matters of public concern. …

Government and industry – and their critics – commonly appoint expert committees that meet in secret, if they meet at all. These committees claim credibility based on who they are, not on how they work. Opposed groups recruit opposed Nobel laureates.

To gain influence in our mass democracy, groups try to outshout one another. When their views have corporate appeal, they take them to the public through advertising campaigns. When their views have pork-barrel appeal, they take them to legislatures through lobbying. When their views have dramatic appeal, they take them to the public through media campaigns. Groups promote their pet experts, the battle goes public, and quiet scientists and engineers are drowned in the clamor. … Cautious statements by scrupulous scientists make little impression; other scientists see no choice but to adopt the demagogues’ style. Debates become sharp and angry, divisions grow, and the smoke of battle obscures the facts. Paralysis or folly often follows.

Note that this was written back in the 80s — but it’s an almost eerily prescient description of the “climate change” debate today. Drexler, following Arthur Kantrowitz, suggested a procedure based on due process:

Court procedures illustrate the principles of due process: Allegations must be specific. Both sides must have a chance to speak and confront each other, to rebut and cross-examine. The process must be public, to prevent hidden rot. Debate must proceed before a jury that both sides accept as impartial. Finally, a judge must referee the process and enforce the rules.

To see the value of due process, imagine its opposite: a process trampling all these principles would give one side a say and the other no chance to cross-examine or respond. It would meet in secret, allow vague smears, and lack a judge to enforce whatever rules might remain. Jurors would arrive with their decisions made. In short, it would resemble a lynch mob meeting in a locked barn – or a rigged committee drafting a report.

Timmer, on the other hand, thinks

…a cross examination is a lousy way to determine science, because all scientific conclusions are tentative and limited in various ways; there are always holes waiting to be picked at. But the other reason is that a trial situation is a great opportunity for people to confuse the public with what our former colleague Julian Sanchez termed a one-way hash argument.
The gist of this is that it can easy to make a simple, intuitive presentation of an argument that is simply wrong. In contrast, reality is often complex and counterintuitive, and providing all the details needed to understand it can be arduous.


These critics propose no alternatives, and they seldom argue that we have due process today, or that due process is worthless. We must deal with complex, technical issues on which millions of lives depend; dare we leave these issues to secretive committees, sluggish journals, media battles, and the technical judgment of politicians? If we distrust experts, should we accept the judgment of secretive committees appointed in secret, or demand a more open process?


But to suggest that a courtroom setting and media frenzy are the best way to bring some clarity to the science is ludicrous. The sort of arguments that make for good courtroom statements tend to obscure the details of science, and the specific example proposed by the Chamber clearly indicates that they do nothing for the public’s understanding of science.


Despite these similarities, a fact forum will differ from a court: It will focus on technical questions. It will suggest no actions. It will lack government power. It will follow technical rules of evidence and argument. It will differ in endless details of tone and procedure. The analogy with a court is just that – an analogy, a source for ideas.

What do you think? Should we have a “fact forum” — a refereed, adversarial procedure with due process and equal access — about climate change (or anything else)?

By | 2017-06-01T14:05:23+00:00 August 31st, 2009|Environment, Health, and Safety, Nanodot, New Institutions|7 Comments

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  2. GDM August 31, 2009 at 9:42 am - Reply

    AYE! There is no better forum than an honest debate, governed by rules of evidence and conduct. Until we try a “Fact Forum”, and then fix what we discover doesn’t work well, we will be stuck in endless blogs that do nothing but generate smoke and heat but no light.

  3. Alfred Neunzoller August 31, 2009 at 10:47 am - Reply

    While I am on the global warming scientists’ side, I do believe that climate skeptics should be given a chance to voice their opinions. The scientific society is no different from the greater society in general, in that opinions are formed and consensus reached for no reason other than adherence to the group. Groupthink is a parasite that science is unfortunately infected with. The only way to remove this parasite is a science court based on due process.

    But as you pointed out, it’s a tricky thing to do. Science is much harder to judge in court than say, a murder, simply because science is much more complicated than a murder can ever be. Unfortunately, most publicized hearings have a habit of turning into bloodfests where people try to win over other people with psychological tactics and fear-mongering.

    In short, I think a science court would be a good idea on paper, but very hard to carry out effectively in practice.

  4. Chris Peterson August 31, 2009 at 11:43 am - Reply

    It should be tried.

  5. DC September 1, 2009 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    For a theory to be accepted it has to provably explain phenomena and be predictive.

    Global warming/climate change, (whatever you want to call it) hasn’t consistently predicted anything as being caused by human action that can be proven to be true (that I know of) and yet we have politicians that want to pass laws restricting our freedom of action based on a theory that hasn’t reliably predicted any changes (future or past).

    I would say that under these circumstances, that at the very least the proponents of man caused global warming and their opponents have a public forum where we can hear the evidence FROM THE ACTUAL SCIENTISTS INVOLVED on either side and not policitians.

    If I’m to sacifice my quality of life for cap ‘n trade, or some other violation of my property rights, I’d like to be reasonably assured that it’s for a valid reason and not just a bunch of ideological, left wing, anti-corporate, anti-human life clap trap.


  6. Bruce Smith September 4, 2009 at 8:46 am - Reply

    A “science court” seems like a good idea in principle, but it does seem like a very difficult thing to do properly, especially for something this complex. To cover everything would probably take years (unless subtopics were handled in parallel), and to properly judge the arguments would take scientific skill in general, even if not topic-specific expertise. If some of the participants’ goals were to produce sound bites that influenced the public, not caring about the court’s overall outcome, then it’s not clear what good would be done. The public would still have to choose between different “expert evaluations” about whether to accept or ignore the court’s outcome, vs. whatever sound bites they had heard on the news.

  7. Chris Winter November 9, 2010 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    Well, I see I’m over a year late getting here, but I think this is worth adding. Alfred Neunzoller wrote: “While I am on the global warming scientists’ side, I do believe that climate skeptics should be given a chance to voice their opinions.”

    Yes, because they’ve never been given a chance to do that until now. ( /sarc )

    I understand that Neunzoller’s proposal is a well-intentioned one, but I speak as someone who has followed the debate for several years now, hearing so-called skeptics incessantly complaining about how they are being suppressed. Check any story about climate change in a newspaper’s blog that allows comments. While “skeptics” are no longer the majority commenters, they still hold forth at length. And as books like Merchants of Doubt make clear, there is a core of professional “skeptics” with a long history of opposition to a variety of well-supported scientific findings.

    “The scientific society is no different from the greater society in general, in that opinions are formed and consensus reached for no reason other than adherence to the group. Groupthink is a parasite that science is unfortunately infected with. The only way to remove this parasite is a science court based on due process.”

    There used to be a science court; I remember hearing some of its “trials” broadcast. I’m not referring to the Disney show that ran for one year in the late 1990s. This was much longer ago. A little online research found this reference:

    It reminds me that Professor Arthur Kantrowitz first proposed this, and got it organized during the Ford administration. I’d like to see it revived, and made a means of resolving the public dispute over climate change. Now that two separate groups of scientists are organizing to counter the climate-change “skeptics,” that may actually happen.

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