or scientific subject matter. And, of course, tort law often requires difficult determinations about the risk of death or injury associated with exposure to a chemical ingredient of a pesticide or other product.

The importance of scientific accuracy in the decision of such cases reaches well beyond the case itself. A decision wrongly denying compensation in a toxic substance case, for example, can not only deprive the plaintiff of warranted compensation but also discourage other similarly situated individuals from even trying to obtain compensation and encourage the continued use of a dangerous substance. On the other hand, a decision wrongly granting compensation, although of immediate benefit to the plaintiff, can improperly force abandonment of the substance. Thus, if the decision is wrong, it will improperly deprive the public of what can be far more important benefits—those surrounding a drug that cures many while subjecting a few to less serious risk, for example. The upshot is that we must search for law that reflects an understanding of the relevant underlying science, not for law that frees companies to cause serious harm or forces them unnecessarily to abandon the thousands of artificial substances on which modern life depends.

The search is not a search for scientific precision. We cannot hope to investigate all the subtleties that characterize good scientific work. A judge is not a scientist, and a courtroom is not a scientific laboratory. But consider the remark made by the physicist Wolfgang Pauli. After a colleague asked whether a certain scientific paper was wrong, Pauli replied, “That paper isn’t even good enough to be wrong!”7 Our objective is to avoid legal decisions that reflect that paper’s so-called science. The law must seek decisions that fall within the boundaries of scientifically sound knowledge.

Even this more modest objective is sometimes difficult to achieve in practice. The most obvious reason is that most judges lack the scientific training that might facilitate the evaluation of scientific claims or the evaluation of expert witnesses who make such claims. Judges typically are generalists, dealing with cases that can vary widely in subject matter. Our primary objective is usually process-related: seeing that a decision is reached fairly and in a timely way. And the decision in a court of law typically (though not always) focuses on a particular event and specific individualized evidence.

Furthermore, science itself may be highly uncertain and controversial with respect to many of the matters that come before the courts. Scientists often express considerable uncertainty about the dangers of a particular substance. And their views may differ about many related questions that courts may have to answer. What, for example, is the relevance to human cancer of studies showing that a substance causes some cancers, perhaps only a few, in test groups of mice or rats? What is the significance of extrapolations from toxicity studies involving high doses to situations where the doses are much smaller? Can lawyers or judges or anyone else expect scientists always to be certain or always to have uniform views

7. Peter W. Huber, Galileo’s Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom 54 (1991).



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement