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ASTAR: bringing the culture of science to law--and the culture of law to science

Last weekend I attended and made a presentation at the Advanced Science & Technology Adjudication Resource Center (ASTAR).

ASTAR is an amazing concept. The goal of the program is to train a cadre of “science & technology resource” judges with the knowledge needed to preside over cases involving highly complex scientific issues.

Prospective ASTAR resource judges are awarded training scholarships after being nominated by the judiciaries in their state (or by one of the two participating federal courts). They then must complete 120-hours of training, including 60 hours of participation in regularly convened sessions that focus on one or another specific area of science. Once they get through that—if, really; there’s a “Ranger School” aspect to this—they are deemed ASTAR Fellows, and play an active role in the conduct of the program in addition to serving as their jurisdictions’ “resource judges.”

As impressive as all this sounds, seeing it in action is even more awe-inspiring.

The topic for this session was “Management Of Complex Cases Involving Environmental Hazards.” There were 22 (I think; I lost count!) 3/4-hour sessions crammed into the weekend. Most of them involved nuclear radiation and were taught—very expertly—by scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (where I got to give a talk on Monday; more on that later).

The judges were dedicated students—bombarding the lecturers with insightful questions (many of which related to the readings the judges were assigned to do before arrival).

In my session, I talked about “risk perception & science communication.” The basic message I tried to impart was that cultural cognition is something that has to be understood by those who manage any process of fact-finding, particularly one involving laypeople (or experts, for that matter, making decisions outside of their own domains of expertise).

Obviously judges fit that description, and in addition to reviewing studies that show the impact of cultural cognition on public risk perceptions generally, I also showed how the same dynamics can affect jurors’ perceptions of trial evidence. (Slides here.)

Actually, courts are in many respects way ahead of other institutions, in & out of government, in preparing themselves to play an intelligent role in managing the impact of cultural cognition on factfinding.

Judges know that valid evidence doesn’t establish its own validity or otherwise ineluctably guide people to the truth.

They know that ordinary people likely can make accurate and defensible factual determinations on matters that turn on scientific and other forms of evidence-- but only if information is presented to them in a form and (just as important) an environment suited to the faculties ordinary people use to identify who knows what about what.

They also know that how to assure information gets presented in such a manner is not something that one can just figure out by personal hunch & speculation. Fitting the presentation of scientific & other evidence to the reasoning faculties of ordinary people is a topic that admits of--indeed, demands-- scientific investigation.

Accordingly, judges (or at least the best ones, like those who are part of & support ASTAR) want to be sure they keep up with the what’s scientifically known about how to promote reliable factfinding.

That’s not the case, I pointed out to the ASTAR judges, for many other actors whose job it is to help ordinary members of the public figure out facts—ones essential to planning their financial futures, to making intelligent decisions as consumers of health care, and to making informed decisions as citizens of a self-governing society.

To illustrate this point, I told the judges about the horrendous and inexcusable science-communication misadventure surrounding the HPV vaccine. Combining our CCP study on HPV vaccine risk perceptions with media reports, I reviewed how the vaccine came to be stigmatized with the divisive cultural meanings that continue to suppress vaccination rates

Merck polluted the science communication environment on that one. But that happened only because the FDA and CDC didn’t even know that the path the company was urging on them was one that would fill the atmosphere with disorienting partisan meanings. They didn’t know it was actually their job to make sure that didn’t happen.

And the reason they didn’t know those things, I’m sure, is that they were (and I’m worried likely remain) entirely innocent of the science of science communication.

In its monumentally important report on the state of forensic science, the National Academy of Sciences called for courts and legislators, law-enforcement agencies and universities all to combine to bring the “culture of science to law.”

The ASTAR judges are doing that.

What's more, they are doing it in a way that reflects the signature virtues of their own profession—including its insistence that lawyers and judges become familiar with expert or technical forms of knowledge essential to the performance of their own work, and that judges in particular assume responsibility for securing the conditions most conducive to informed decisionmaking in the courtroom.

Bringing these aspects of the culture of law to science would go a long way to remedying the institutional deficits in science communication that prevent our society from making full use of the vast bounty of knowledge at its disposal.

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