Saturday, March 01, 2014

Judge Jones redux

Scientists are required to leave a detailed trace that shows how their facts produced or supported particular conclusions. Such a trace typically involves multiple stages of analysis. The researcher shows, for instance, how he or she moved from the context-specific empirical encounter (the "facts") to a concept-dependent conclusion. What scientists know, in other words, cannot be taken on faith: they have to show how they got to know what they know. This is hammered into the rules of the game; it is part of the prerequisites for publication.
For judges, however, such burden of proof does not seem to exist to the same extent. How they believe that the facts motivate a particular conclusion (and thereby judgement) can be expressed in a few lines of text.
This quote comes from "Just Culture", by Sidney Dekker. He is writing about the role of trials and criminal or civil proceedings following accidents or incidents that have been categorised as "human error" - particularly in the contexts of medicine and aviation. He argues in his book that the use of the justice system not only fails to produce a just outcome, but it fails to improve safety.

But although his insights into these things are very important, that's not why I'm quoting it. I'm thinking of the Kitzmiller v Dover trial. Here, Judge Jones ruled that intelligent design was not science. The whole thing, at the time, left me feeling uneasy, and not just because I disagreed with his analysis. Dekker puts his finger on one of the reasons why. The role of judges is to decide between competing truth claims on behalf of society. This doesn't mean that the version of the truth that they find in favour of is necessarily the absolute truth. As a society, we accept the role of the justice system to come to conclusions on behalf of society, in the same way that we accept the rules of a game. But a judge is not qualified to make a decision about a philosophical question. Judge Jones was called upon to decide between the different positions, and in this context apply the law as he understood it. That's fair enough; that's why we have a judicial system. But his opinions about the status of ID have no particular philosophical standing - the only authority they have is based on the authority of the evidence that he was presented.

Judges decide between truth claims; they don't make truth claims. Opponents of ID have said that "Judge Jones says ID isn't science" as though this represents additional authority. It doesn't.

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