March 18, 2004

God save us from the lawyers

As Cosma Shalizi notes, graduating from a top law school does not do much to equip you to judge scientific debates by itself. And remember, folks, these are the people in charge of America. Law has long been the most important trade and employment background of America's political leadership.

By all means go and follow the links from Cosma's post as well as the book review that started it all. It's also most illuminating to see the National Review show just how hostile they are to scientific enquiry when it doesn't fit the party line. I thought their anti-science carping was just limited to global warming, but then, I don't read them much.

I have noticed this trend in creationist scholarship to cite well-credentialed lawyers (and sometimes economists or physicists, but rarely any biologists) in arguments against evolution. I suspect they've taken a page from the tobacco and chemical industries. The anti-global warming people are really the trend-setters in using trial court methods to create public doubt in the absense of scientific doubt. It's a really disturbing approach to science policy.

I remember a James Hogan novel from back in the 70's that I read as a kid - I think it was Inherit the Stars - where he claimed that being a lawyer isn't very different from being a scientist. Unsurprisingly, Hogan is himself not big on evolution.

Being a scientist is utterly unlike being a lawyer. A trial lawyer is someone whose job is to either cast or undermine doubt about a particular claim without regard to its veracity, plausibility or evidential support. That is what the best defence means, and it explicitly means picking and choosing facts and arguments.

I take a dim view of credentialism, even on behalf of scientific ideas that I agree with. I think everyone ought to judge for themselves, even though - and sometimes because - they are likely to judge badly. But, I have to be suspicious when people whose trade often involves undermining or reinforcing other people's claims independently of their merits are found promoting a controversial idea outside their field of experitise.

This isn't lawyer-bashing as such. It's not even really trial lawyer-bashing - if I was on trial, I'd certainly expect my money to have some influence on the arguments my lawyer used. Most lawyers are not trial lawyers. The bulk of them, as far as I can tell, are employed on the basis of their expert knowledge of law and legal practice, a trade which is no less legitimate than being employed because of your expert knowledge of a foreign language. However, legal practice is overwhelmingly about categorisation and fiting things into particular categories. Science is also often about categorising things, but it is generally about creating categories to fit things, not the other way around.

If scientists are less likely to cherry-pick their data than lawyers are, it is because there are institutional mechanisms that punish them if they do. A trial lawyer can never be punished for casting events and people in the light most favourable to his or her client, and can be punished for failing to do so. The idea is that the opposing lawyer will do the same and somehow it will all work out. This is not exactly the way things work in the sciences. Once a trial (or the last appeal) ends, the case is decided. The winning lawyer can go home and chalk up one more victory. A scientific theory, on the other hand, has to produce continuing results and has to prove its value by repeated use indefinitely.

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Posted by Scott Martens at 5:37 PM | TrackBack