Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Tripoli 6 sentenced to death!

Scientists and judges have quite different ways of resolving issues. Courts set up a dichotomy of litigants, with each side getting equal weight (at least fair courts work that way). Each side gets to argue its case before the court (judge and/or jury of peers), and the side with the more persuasive argument wins. Each side gets to present evidence and question the opponent’s evidence, while the judge decides what evidence is admissible.

Science tries to accrue knowledge and reach the truth through research. Scientists look at the evidence, make hypotheses, and then test the hypotheses to see how valid they are. Their conclusions are then published in peer-reviewed journals where other scientists may scrutinize the work and gauge its validity. A consensus among scientists determines what is the accepted "truth." The journal’s editors decide which papers are worthy of publishing.

They sound similar, and in many regards they are, but there are a few crucial differences.

Science is an “open source” discipline. Scientists put all of their research and results out there for all to see and evaluate—including results that contradict their findings. It is considered a scandal when it is revealed that a scientist hid results from his peers and the public. (Is it a coincidence that most of the achievements that critics of science point to as being evil—atomic weapons, Nazi eugenics, etc.—were the result of science being performed behind closed doors? Just a thought.) In most court cases, the competing sides are under no obligation to disclose certain damning evidence to each other. In fact, attorney-client privilege often forbids it. This stems from the different mentality that the “truth” (verdict) is achieved by dispute resolution.

Judges are generally the preeminent experts in matters of law. This is ideal for complicated legal disputes. The "jury of peers" is a group of citizens who need only have an understanding of the law. This works well for most simple legal issues. "Scientific peers" are experts in the field of study in question. This is an absolute necessity for matters of scientific inquiry. Two scientists arguing dissenting theories can sound like they are speaking Greek (literally) to a layperson or even scientists outside of their field of expertise.

What happens when the two meet? This is a very sticky situation. Scientific disputes should be fought in the arena of science. Judges and juries are not qualified to evaluate an issue for which scientists have yet to reach a consensus. This sometimes happens, though. Even worse, scientific disputes in which a consensus has already been reached are oftentimes brought into the courtroom to be argued anew. Here they are subject to different rules, and the side with the better rhetoric can win the day.

Clearly, reforms are needed for when science meets law. I am however optimistic. The recent decision in the Dover, PA “monkey trial” and the reversal of the silicone implant ban give me hope for the future. Perhaps in ten years the courts will have institutionalized an organic system that is true to science for dealing with “science meets law” cases.

For this reason, our legal system, despite its problems, is a shining beacon of scientific enlightenment compared to many. This brings me to Libya.

A while back, I wrote a couple of posts about the Tripoli 6. These are the five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor who had been falsely accused of intentionally infecting Libyan children with HIV as part of a nefarious CIA/Mossad plot. Scientists stepped in and looked at the evidence. Their verdict was that the children were all infected (probably by the reuse of needles) prior to the arrival of the medics. They are clearly innocent! Then the Libyan court system stepped in and came to its verdict: guilty! Sentence: death!

Crowds cheered outside when the verdict was announced. I can’t really blame them so much (although I would never cheer anyone’s death sentence). It is unlikely that they knew about the scientific evidence, and quite likely that they wouldn't understand it even if they did know about it. It is truly sad and outrageous.

Last week Mickey Grant, maker of the documentary Injection about the plight of the medics, made a last ditch call to try to rally more worldwide awareness about this travesty. I really wish that I knew some real journalists who I could have pressured to cover the story. Alas, all I could do was sit back, watch the verdict, and feel impotent about the whole thing. This makes me sick to my stomach.

I still have hope, but I can’t say it’s realistic.

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