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Bring scientific literacy into the jury box

If our justice system is to remain strong, potential jury members must have an understanding of logic and science.

Daniel Caton

Special to The Observer

Published: Saturday, February 28, 1998


Page 19A

Last Thursday the Moon slipped between us and the Sun, taking a chomp out of it for a couple of hours. During that same interval, the jury heard the final arguments that would determine the fate of Josh Griffin. And, I recalled my own experience in the jury box last fall.

We don't experience a solar eclipse every new moon--most of the time the five-degree tilt of the Moon's orbit puts it above or below our view of the Sun. Twice a year, though, these planes line up and we get eclipses.

A week before the eclipse, I gave an exam in my astronomy class. It included my infamous question about the cause of the phases of the Moon. Sadly, in spite of most of my class haven seen this exact, multiple-choice question on three previous exams last semester, only 53% got it right. Half of those who missed it picked the classic misconception: that it was the shadow of the Earth. The others jumped at the Moon's five degree tilt, which has a lot to do with eclipses but nothing do with the phases, which are simply due to our varying viewpoint of the Moon's night side as it orbits about us.

I explained again how it couldn't be the Earth's shadow: you can see a quarter moon with the Sun still in the sky. Think of it--how can a shadow of the Earth take a right turn and get to the Moon?

Another exam question, harking from our lab data analysis, asks what is important about fitting the best straight line through a plot of data that has some scatter in it. Happily, here 85% knew that it is unlikely that the best fit line will go through any one point--it will simply slide among the points staying closest to each, on the average. But is understanding data analysis important?

Could be. The point came home when I was picked as a juror for a trial last September--during the previous eclipse season. I had always heard that attorneys will excuse a scientist, that they don't want someone too logical and difficult to persuade. It didn't happen to me.

It was a civil trial in which a physician was accused of using overly aggressive techniques in trying to assist a normal birth. The child was born with cerebral palsy (CP), and the plaintiff was arguing that it was a result of those efforts taken before defaulting to a caesarian section.

We listened to the witnesses trotted in by the plaintiff's attorney. We looked at CAT scans and MRIs, hospital records and sworn testimony. Science was brought out on a platter but this was really all business: the slick, out-of-state attorney was hired on speculation. CP was his specialty and he had expert witnesses who were paid $500. An hour. Since they left home.

A hospital chart of the progress of dilation was presented as evidence that the doctor should have gone to surgery sooner. The plot was the measurement of the cervical opening, taken each hour since admission. One measurement repeated after an hour (before resuming a normal increase), and this was supposed to be an arrest in dilation, a warning. Talk about over-interpreting data--these numbers were obtained by different nurses, and using not some micrometer but their fingers! And, this is not to mention that CP occurs even in normal deliveries, for reasons that are not completely understood. Thus, it seems to me, that it was impossible to prove causality.

Would my fellow jurors catch this? Would they understand? How scientifically literate are they?

I would never have a chance to find out. With the mother as the next scheduled witness, the two sides settled, for a million dollars. The lawyer took half of that back home to New York. So, after all of my worries, the case was settled on emotions, not the scientific evidence. The defense feared that things were not going their way--not based on facts but facial expressions.

The Griffin case had a paucity of physical evidence, pushing the decisions even more into the shadow of emotions. But even in the Simpson trial the large amount of scientific evidence that was brought to light was eclipsed by feelings for OJ.

If our justice system is remain strong we must bring an understanding and appreciation of logic and science to all citizens. If not, I'm afraid true justice will become increasingly left in the dark.

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