The scientist met the lawyers

Fri Nov 21 16:33:02 CST 1997

I want to thank subscribers to taxacom for your responses to my request =
*Scientists in Court?*  I had replies from 20 different people in 4 =
countries.  Most of the responses were private.  They were helpful, and by =
way of thanks, I wanted to tell you what happened when I met with the =
lawyers who had invited me.

My hosts were litigators at the U.S. Justice Department here in Washington.=
  All had argued cases, and represented a broad range of law on natural =
resource issues from hazardous wastes to National Park management to ocean =
fisheries to drafting legislation to mining law.  There were about 12 =
people there.  I was not the only scientist--one of the lawyers had a =
degree (B.Sc.?  M.Sc.?) in oceanography.

I did not want to lecture to this crowd, so I brought only one topic to =
present, and then more topics to raise and elicit their responses.  The =
topic I chose was the scientific method, with an illustration of the =
observation that people with pets have lower rates of cardiovascular =
disease.  I walked them through developing 4 hypotheses to explain this =
observation, predictions that would flow from each of the 4, falsification =
of 3, and support for a 4th.  I then noted that the 4th one wasn*t =
proved--only that it wasn*t disproved.  And then (drum roll here) I noted =
that any scientist would support the 4th hypothesis only so long as a 5th =
one did not come along that more economically explained all of the =
observed facts.

My purpose in doing this was to state very, very explicitly what, to this =
list, is obvious: that all hypotheses are provisional, until a better one =
comes along.  If this is drilled into you, and you go to a witness stand =
having promised to *tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the =
truth*, you will naturally use the words *usually,* *most of the time*, =
and *on the other hand* quite frequently.  They are, to scientists, like =
conditioned reflexes.  Interestingly, at this point several lawyerly heads =
were nodding knowingly.

The short presentation (10-12 min) really got the discussion going.  The =
division chief was very interested the question of defining terms like =
*viability* (of a population or species) in law and in science.  Should =
scientists define this term and then hand it to lawyers?  Should lawyers =
rework it to suit legal needs?  Should lawyers tell scientists what they =
need in definitions, and let the scientists just have at it?  Needless to =
say, we came to no real resolution on this question.  If any of you have =
thoughts on how to define terms to the mutual satisfaction of lawyers and =
scientists, be sure to let me know.

We also considered some of the ideas many of you were kind enough to =
share.  I noted that several of you had said that you wished the lawyers =
had explained the legal issues more clearly (or at all) so as to allow you =
to focus your remarks.  Some of you wished for more opportunities to tell =
the lawyers on your own side how full of sawdust the opposing side*s =
scientists were.  And very many of you felt that you could have been more =
helpful if you had had generally more information.=20

There may be 2 consequences of this bag lunch.  I may be asked to help =
them find some academic scientists who might meet with them for more =
discussion.  Second, they may gather some scientists together who have =
been witnesses for them in the past and ask them to comment on how they =
(the scientists) might have done better, or been more useful in their =
courtroom appearances.  They might divide this group up into federal =
employees versus non-federal employees.

It was a very, very stimulating lunch-as evidenced by the fact that I =
didn*t have time to eat mine.  I would be happy to go back to talk with =
them, or be a fly on the wall to watch any of their future conversations.

Thank you again, all of you taxacoms.  It was very helpful.    I may have =
more to report on this or future meetings.

Lynne Corn
Congressional Research Service
Library of Congress
Washington, DC

P.S.  I especially wanted to know what happened to the woman who was =
torturing the (vertebrate or insect) prawns after the case got dismissed-we=
re prawns still being served?

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