Monday, July 26, 2010

The Supreme Court of Science

I recently read a short article in The Economist on the topic of fairness. The gist of the piece was that fairness depends on the perspective of the observer. For example, a conservative may argue that an entrepreneur is entitled to keep the proceeds resulting from hard work provided that the rules ensure a level playing field. If all individuals have an equal opportunity to participate, and the rewards are in proportion to the effort, then any redistribution would be unfair. Even under such idealized conditions, a liberal might argue that it is unfair for someone to keep all the profits because the resources would be better spent by a benevolent government on projects that are more noble than the greedy and wasteful accumulation of wealth by an individual.

Imagine a sporting event where two teams battle for a couple hours before throngs of cheering fans. At the end of the contest, the winning team is required to donate points to the opponents to force a tie. Now would this be fair? Clearly, this solution would anger all parties. Such analogies gloss over the nuances and complexities of the real issues, and are the staple of spin doctors that make for hyper-actively-delivered sound bites on Fox News. This is not to say that a Utopian society run by a benevolent government is a viable alternative to the unscrupulous industrialists portrayed by liberals.

Members of a free society are entitled to jabber nonsense and to exercise personal preferences in private or with like-minded (or mindless) individuals. However, when such nonsense finds its ways into politics and fills the halls of power, government becomes dysfunctional. The problems are compounded by politicians who are forced to pander to the masses. Many of us complain that politicians all lie. The root of the problem resides in the stupidity of the electorate, not in the politicians who must walk a fine line that avoids the minefield of our dogmatic sensitivities yet satisfies our contradictory demands.

This craziness originates in the way our neurons are hard-wired. Scientific evidence has documented all sorts of peculiar but fascinating traits of the human brain such as confirmation bias, which selectively reinforces beliefs based on dubious evidence and ignores floods of data to the contrary. We fool ourselves into believing all kinds of wacky ideas while easily detecting the folly in the conviction of others. We do not hesitate to accept contradictory concepts of truth. All this leads to vigorous ideological wars. The scientific method is designed to minimize these biases when seeking the truth.

Consider the irrational protest against childhood vaccinations. While nothing is totally risk free, the benefits of inoculations far exceed the risks. In addition to a growing swell in deniers of the efficacy of all vaccinations, some individuals believe that some vaccines cause autism. There is no scientific evidence that shows autism to result from the mercury compound used to preserve vaccinations (the rate of autism is no different with and without the mercury compound), but large numbers of people don't buy it and are applying political pressure to remove the important preservative. Though it is one of the most powerful theories in all of science, there are large numbers of people that do not believe in evolution. Similarly, many people can't seem to shake the belief that power lines and cell phones cause brain tumors.

False beliefs are innocent enough, but when these beliefs lead to action - such as forcing teachers to give equal weight to evolution and creationism/intelligent design or withholding inoculations from children - humanity suffers. Real children die and the power of ignorance fuels further disinformation that leads to a decrease in the quality of life.

The supreme court weighs in on legal matters, so why not assemble a group of unbiased and open-minded scientists to rule on the veracity of issues that can be resolved with evidence-based methods? The patent office automatically rejects perpetual motion machine filings, so why not automatically disallow a bogus settlement against a defendant who has science on her side? Empower science court to strike down a proposed curriculum that teaches religion under the guise of science, to veto consumer pressure to force insurance payments to alternative medical practices whose methods are baseless, and to disallow lawsuits that break the laws of physics.

Legal courts arbitrate disputes between parties using the law of the land as the basis of a decision. When science becomes an integral part of a case, the courts rely on expert witnesses. Unfortunately, it is always possible to find an "expert" with seemingly acceptable credentials who will contradict the scientific consensus. In these cases, jurors may end up returning verdicts based on the way the testimony is extracted rather than on the weight of the evidence. This method of interrogation may be the best available when deciding whose side of the story to accept, but scientific truth is best gleaned by a careful analysis of the evidence in the absence of theatrics and emotions.

For example, there is no evidence linking brain tumors to electromagnetic radiation from power lines and cell phones. Not only is there no statistically significant correlation between the two, but all plausible mechanisms of electromagnetically-induced tumor growth are inconsistent with the laws of physics describing the interactions of electromagnetic waves with matter. Suits against power companies for causing brain tumors should not be permitted to be brought to trial when the best scientific evidence shows the accusation baseless. That such cases are even heard implies ignorance of the facts; or, perhaps the courts believe that they can determine the veracity of the underlying science in lieu of the well-established body of literature.

In the absence of evidence, a typical vacuous argument posits that there might be a connection based on unknown science. This is equivalent to stating that unicorns cause sexual dysfunction. We would chuckle if an individual brought a case against a supermarket for allowing invisible unicorns to roam its isles, endangering the reproductive ability of its shoppers. The electromagnetic suits are scientifically equally ridiculous, but are not met with the incredulity they deserve.

A science court would make rulings based on the best available scientific evidence - the statutes being the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. If an electromagnetic tumor case were to be filed, it would be dismissed before wasting society's resources. A suit against a pharmaceutical company for causing autism would also be dismissed as would a suit to force feed creationism in public schools under the guise of science.

Science evolves to accommodate new evidence. The guiding principles used by the judges of science court would be adjusted to take into account new discoveries. In short, science court would provide the most current and up-to-date information to ensure that judgments are made on the basis of the best available evidence rather than emotional bias or political philosophy. Judges, who are experts in the law, are well qualified to deliver verdicts pertaining to legal matters. Individuals who are well versed in the scientific method should rule on issues that are based on scientific principles, and to set precedents that would be used by the legal system. It is time that we recognize that science is not legislated, but discovered as a result of carefully-designed experiments that minimize bias.

Bias colors the perceived fairness of an outcome, even when each party draws on the same facts. To be ignorant of the established scientific consensus when deliberating a settlement is unconscionable. To purposefully ignore or obfuscate the facts to obtain a favorable outcome is criminal, especially when championing an ideology . To me, fairness starts with a process of evaluating and accepting the scientific consensus and using it as the bedrock of the laws. The establishment of an independent judicial branch that codifies the best science into a practical form is a necessary step for moving forward into a future that is both dependent upon and threatened by the technologies that science has enabled.

No comments:

Post a Comment