Archive for April, 2007


Science and Law – Part 3

April 30, 2007

-Read part 0 here
-Read part 1 here
-Read part 2 here

Genetic Science and Truth
As with fingerprinting the uniqueness of a profile, be it a DNA profile or a fingerprint, is an important component in the legal inquiry. However, this should not be confused with the ‘attribution question’. Jasanoff argues that the attribution question molds into the unniqueness question, indicating “how faith in science’s truth-telling capability can distort both the logic and the normative function of legal inquiry.”

Especially with the amount of information gained from genetic science, overreliance on the implications of genetic studies can be troublesome. As more and more genes are mapped by the Human Genome Project, the focus on predictors of physical traits (eye / hair color, diseases, mental conditions) shifts to behavioral characteristics (agression, thrill-seeking), paving the way for eugenetics (leading to the racial rationale in the Nazi regime). This mapping of genes doesn’t eliminate the ‘nature vs. nurture’ -debate, as behavioral characteristics are heavily influenced by surroundings. However, as is noted by the author, money is still spent on research for finding “biological solutions to deep social problems“, as a faster solution for the various (slow) social policies to solve poverty and inequality (e.g. just let the intelligent people survive, to create a more balanced society. Or is there a genetic marker only existent in violent people?).

Science is used as a tool to repair human behaviour and mental conditions. But, as results from the Human Genome Project indicate, because the relative low amount of genes in the human species (only about twice as much as a fruit fly), the explanation of human behaviour doesn’t come from the genes alone.

Extreme care should be taken in explaining human behaviour on the basis of genetic information, or in extending results beyond what the research question.

Jasanoff ends with the article with:
In a court of law, science cannot hold itself out as simply science, the source of transcendental truths; more modestly, and with appropriate caveats, it can be the source of just evidence.


Science and Law – Part 2

April 28, 2007

-Read part 0 here

-Read part 1 here

Law Enforcement Science
It’s impossible to completely dismiss the possibility of human error. Some mistakes are easy to detect and correct, others are almost impossible to find. Mistakes can result from pressure, insufficient quality control mechanisms, fraud, etc.

Through the act of “normalization of deviance“, people anticipate on common problems and compensate them without starting all over again, which would be costly and time-consuming. Visibility of a high profile case can lead to cover-ups because of fear of public opinion (e.g., a mistake is made, but due to high public pressure the mistake is never admitted).
Also, even in the scientific community, researchers “seduced by the lure of success” are able to make up results, and it may take quite some time before the “organized skepticism” works as it should have. Examples are the various claims that AIDS can be cured, cloning embryonic stemcells, cold fusion, etc. But this fraud is not limited to the scientific community; fabricating evidence (e.g. by law officers) is something that can be done easily, even subconsciously. For example, when comparing two fingerprints, it’s easy to say that the two prints match even if they don’t, just because the need for a suspect. The need for “organized skepticism” is enormous, especially when someone’s life is at stake.
Jasanoff expresses it beautifully: “When the purpose is to free a presumably innocent, wrongfully convicted prisoner, forensic scientists have every incentive to produce the most reliable and persuasive results within their power. By contrast, when the purpose is to convict the guilty, extraordinary pressures may exist to produce results that will satisfy the prosecutor’s and the public’s desire for speedy convictions.


Science and Law – Part 1

April 26, 2007

-Read part 0 here

Truth in Science and Law

Science as a independent research topic, and science used in the aid of convicting both look for truth. The difference between the two activities is the context:
For the most part, facts produced to serve the aims of litigation do not grow out of, nor play a part in, the same kinds of social interactions as do the facts produced in basic research science or even in regulatory science.
Because of the different contexts, there’s also a difference in what is regarded as “truth”. A simple illustration is in the judiciary: to convict a suspect, facts have to be “proved” beyond reasonable doubt. In a strict sense this is not a proof, as doubt may always exist. It’s not a mathematical formula that can be proven. So, in short, what is true for the law, doesn’t need to be true for science.
There are four differences between Truths in science and law:

  • A truth in science should be valid in a general case, whereas truths in the law is only of interest in specific cases. With this notion, it immediately becomes clear that the way the scientific community eastablished facts doesn’t work in law: in most cases there’s no peer review, hence no replications of the fact. Also, the purpose of science is to advance the knowledge, so that that knowledge of today can be used tomorrow. In contrast, the purpose of science in the law is to use the knowledge of today for things that happened in the past. This leads to enormous costs in order to reduce any doubt, needed for a just process. Those resources could be used more efficiently.
  • Delay. Among with the enormous cost comes a long delay to iron out all the doubts. But it is necessary; otherwise the defense can easily punch a hole in the argument: “In civil cases, plaintiffs need only demonstrate by a perponderance of the evidence that their version of the case is more likely than not to be true. In criminal cases, the defendant needs the quantum of evidence that produces a reasonable doubt in the jury’s mind in order to be acquitted. Legal evidence, in other words, need not and should not be held to scientific standards of robustness.
  • It’s “ethically and practically questionable” that foolproof science can be used to remove any doubt, as it’s mostly “the poor, the disadvantaged, and the racially makred who are actually executed.” Especially in an adversarial system like the US, the judge doesn’t have an active role in finding the truth. He / she listens to both parties, and hopefully tries to distill the truth from that. A good (expensive) defense lawyer is essential in the creation of doubt; in this way the poor aren’t likely to be acquitted.
  • Law has the final word in the conviction (situation in the US). This is illustrated by a 1993 Suppreme Court decision, “which held that a claim of actual innocence is not enough to reopen a criminal conviction based on a fair trial; the prisoner, who is no longer entitled to a presumption of innocence, must also show constitutional error.” Or, to put it differently, science can be used to convict someone, but it can’t be used to free an already convicted prisoner (unless there’s a constitutional error). In the Netherlands this is a little different, but comparable (Puttense moordzaak). Therefore, a scientific truth and a legal truth aren’t the same.

Science Daily – I

April 26, 2007

inspired by  γιδω’s blag I copied some headlines from Sciencedaily:

Ceiling Height Can Affect How A Person Thinks, Feels And Acts
Science Daily — For years contractors, real estate agents and event planners have said that whether building, buying or planning an event, a higher or vaulted ceiling is always better. Are they right? Until now there has been no real evidence that ceiling height has any influence or advantage with consumers. But recent research by Joan Meyers-Levy, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, suggests that the way people think and act is affected by ceiling height.

A Woman’s Age At First Menstruation Influences Risk Of Obesity For Her Children
Science Daily — A new study published in PLoS Medicine suggests that the age when a woman’s periods start may affect her children’s growth rate during childhood, final height and risk of obesity in later life. Researchers from the Medical Research Council and University of Cambridge, led by Dr Ken Ong, studied the association between mother’s age at first menstruation, mother’s adult body size and obesity risk, and children’s growth and obesity risk in 6,009 children from the UK Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) in Bristol.

Sleep Strengthens Your Memory
Science Daily — Sleep not only protects memories from outside interferences, but also helps strengthen them, according to research presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 59th Annual Meeting in Boston.


We’ve moved

April 25, 2007

Sorry people… we moved again. We’re now situated at wordpress; we have more options there, statistics, the whole shebang.
Update your bookmarks, and sorry for the inconvenience.


Hello world! Again…

April 25, 2007

We copied our blag to wordpress; wordpress gives us more options, statistics, etc. It was easy to import, just a few clicks.

… and there has been another namechange. Sorry for that. Now it’s ;)


Science and Law – Part 0

April 25, 2007

In the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, Volume 34, Number 2, there’s an article titled “Just evidence: The Limits of Science in the Legal Process”, written by Sheila Jasanoff. It talks about the reliance on science in the legal process. What follows is a summary, with some short notes added.

It starts with an introduction about the Massachusetts governor, who tried to reintroduce the death penalty, mainly because science would produce failsafe/infallible results. Science produces a lot of facts, and with the help of the self-corrective nature of science, the reliance on those facts is high. Peer reviews are important in this respect. Organized skepticism, communalism, universalism and disinterestedness are important notions in the science community, as noted by the sociologist of science Robert K. Merton.

The law and science have different frameworks, different contexts, for producing facts. Therefore, the law shouldn’t always defer to “science’s overriding commitment to self-correction”. Trial judges should act as “surrogates for the scientific community in determining admissibility”. This isn’t a perfect solution, however. For example, in the post about the Monty Hall problem, there were a lot of math professors who didn’t agree with the solution. When science ultimately decides about someone’s life or death, these failures can’t be tolerated.

Science can’t proceed the same way in the courtroom, as it would outside it. It simply can’t remove the uncertainty that the law itself would have when convicting/judging a suspect.

DNA and Truth-Telling

Science may be a social activity, but when executed correctly, the results are viewed as no longer bearing traces of human subjectivity.” Because of the removal of human elements, the facts that are produced by scientists, are very reliable kinds of evidence. The transition from the subjective legal definitions to more objective scientific notions, through the removal of fallible human interpretations in criminal law through diagnostic instruments, is a process we already see happening with the advance of DNA technology. “The hope is that technology, through its mechanical reproducibility, will be impervious to context and will provide unbiased and reliable evidence about the facts of the matter.” Again, DNA technology is a good example. The enormous discrimination possible with DNA (random match probabilities of 1 in a billion for a complete profile) are negligible with respect to the chance a mistake is made by a human factor: problems with taking samples, mixed up profiles, contamination, holes in the chain of custody, etc. Those factors are far more likely to occur, and illustrate that an overreliance of DNA profiles is dangerous. Also, the human element in the law, and the urge of the public prosecutor to convict somebody (e.g. bias), are noteworthy components that shouldn’t be forgotten. The ability of DNA to establish identity is not questioned; it’s the interpretation of the results that should be questioned. Alternative explanations, no matter how unlikely, should all be removed before there’s a certainty for a rightful conviction.

Three more propositions will be investigated:

  • Truth-seeking in science is equivalent to truth-seeking in the law” (See part 1)
  • Law enforcement (or forensic) science establishes the truth as reliably as science in pure research contexts” (See part 2)
  • Genetic science is a particularly dependable source of truth, especially in disputes concerning human identity” (See part 3)