Scientists should be legally accountable to laypeople

The last issue of the Collegian included an article entitled “Scientists should be tried by their peers.” The article described a group of Italian geologists who were convicted of manslaughter for incorrectly predicting that an earthquake would not occur. That earthquake went on to kill more than 300 people.

While the article was correct in saying that particular conviction was preposterous, it went on to make an unwarranted conclusion: when scientists are tried in matters regarding science, they should be tried by other scientists.

This conclusion overlooks the fact that the science community has institutional biases of its own. Most prominently, the scientific community has a stake in cutting back on the regulation of science.
The scientific community, then, should not get to dictate the role it plays within society. Unfortunately, this is exactly what having scientists tried by scientists would amount to.

Let’s assume the minimum requirement for being on a jury of scientists is a bachelor’s degree in some science (including a social science), mathematics, technology or engineering. Even with such a low requirement, the large swathe of society that for one reason or another did not attend a four-year college would be unable to participate, as would anyone who chose to pursue a non-scientific discipline.

Of course, most of the people on this jury would have little more background knowledge on geology than a layperson. Also, with just any bachelor’s degree, they cannot be trusted to actually know the scientific method. So we’ll painstakingly draw up a list of graduate degrees, professional certifications and so on that make these jurors expert enough in geology to serve on a geological jury.

At this rate, the case is being judged by an increasingly small elite that have undergone increasing scrutiny by others in their field to and have consequentially spent increasingly large amounts of time immersed in their respective academic silos.

Science has had a huge impact on society, and, barring sudden political changes, its impact will only get bigger. People who aren’t genetic engineers should have something to say about genetic engineering, and people who aren’t artificial intelligence experts should have something to say about artificial intelligence. If only scientists can try other scientists, then any attempts to regulate these fields from the outside are effectively neutered.

Yes, if we let laypeople decide the fates of scientists, we’ll probably have a lot of stupid and unfair verdicts. But that’s the risk we run every time we let twelve people who may or may not know anything about the law decide the fate of a defendant.

I am not saying the jury in scientific trials should be ignorant. The jury should be given an opportunity in the trial to become somewhat informed about scientific issues through the testimony of expert witnesses. But requiring the jury to consist entirely of scientists simply does not provide for a balanced view of the facts.

Post Author: westanderson

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