Science and the Law

It’s the grey end of term and the dark time of the year when it is easy to feel that too many things have been left undone that should have been done.  The Christmas break is fast approaching and most people will have a long to-do list that will be impossible to accomplish before Christmas. Academics are no different.  In the back of our mind may be the Christmas card list, the turkey or the fairy lights lurking uninspected in the attic, but towards the front are the responses to the student questionnaires, the grants and papers that never got written, let alone submitted, during 2012 and the lecture notes/handouts for the new term which remain stubbornly un-updated despite the very best of intentions. The short days, the grey skies, the endless dose of Disney and other manifestations of Scrooge and company accompanied by false festive cheer only exacerbate the problem.  So I shall put on my Bah Humbug hat and look beyond academia to our government for cheer.

But of course I won’t find it. David Willetts may write on his BIS blog that this has been a fantastic year for science, but as the recent CaSE report made clear, this would be a very optimistic interpretation of funding.  Furthermore, the  Government’s attempts to inject money into ‘innovation’ and their plans for the future also seem to have been received with little enthusiasm.  The gap between their rhetoric and the reality seems large, and the prognosis for the future of this minimal package would seem to be unencouraging (as discussed this week by Richard Jones here). We have, as we rather consistently have had over many years, a government which lacks scientists on the front benches who perhaps might understand some of the more practical realities. We have a Schools’ minister who has a Law degree, an Education minister with an English degree, and a Science minister and a Prime Minister, who share the distinction of having obtained first class degrees in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. (Vince Cable alone started off studying science, even if he moved on to economics for his final degree.)  Cameron is unembarrassed enough by his lack of scientific education to stand up and say he got a C in O level biology at the very moment he is announcing grand plans for the life sciences. (I don’t think he mentioned what, if anything, he got in physics or chemistry, but I suppose scientists ought to be heartened he is apparently prepared to devote a couple of hours every 3 months or so to work through the whole of science.) Furthermore, since his education was at Eton, where one would assume teaching was of the best quality, such a poor grade implies he really wasn’t motivated very much by the sciences. This is now the man in whose hands control of anything vaguely scientific ultimately lies. (I have no intention of passing comment on his other attributes, such as appreciating the meaning of a veto or collegiality, although his degree might have been thought to make him something of an expert in economics, despite the evidence of the past week.)

None of the degrees listed above, held by the various honourable gentlemen, are likely to require much of a science component, nor even a significant degree of numeracy.  The Royal Society, in its recent report Brain Waves 4: Neuroscience and the Law makes some striking recommendations on this front. I am not going to dwell on some of the aspects of this report which have featured in the more lurid articles in the popular press (the Daily Telegraph was definitely pandering to the lowest common denominator with its headline ‘Brain imaging could pick out benefits cheats’) , but concentrate on one aspect of the recommendations. In particular, Recommendation 3 reads:

University law degrees should incorporate an introduction to the basic principles of how science is conducted and to key areas of science such as neuroscience and behavioural genetics, to strengthen lawyers’ capacity to assess the quality of new evidence. Conversely, undergraduate courses in neuroscience should include the societal applications of the science.

The report is driven by neuroscience, so the need for basic statistics is not spelled out in the recommendations, but of course they lurk in every case where some sort of causal link is meant to be established. The idea of the probability of conjoined improbable events was at the heart of the Sally Clark case (the fallacies and more mathematical analysis really required to understand it are well written up here, albeit this write-up predates the ultimately successful appeal), one of the cases involving so-called ‘shaken baby syndrome’ which is alluded to in the report. In that unfortunate case Dr Roy Meadow made the statement (which clearly swayed the court in the original trial) that

the chance of two children in the same (affluent nonsmoking) family both dying a cot death was 1 in 73 million

Ergo, it wasn’t a natural death because the statistics proved it. The fallacy in this ‘calculation’ was only accepted long afterwards, involving the work of many including my Cambridge colleague David Mackay, now the Chief Scientific Advisor to DECC.  Meadow’s made the assumption that the occurrences of two cot deaths in a single family were independent events and hence the probability of both occurring would have been the probability of one occurring squared. This ties in with the so-called Prosecutor’s Fallacy, which involves confusing the conditional probabilities, and  is expressed in the Royal Society report, in the following way:

In other words, does the probability deal with the question: ‘Assuming that the accused is innocent, what would be the probability of finding this trace evidence on him?’ Or the quite different question: ‘Assuming that this trace evidence has been found on them accused, what is the probability that he is innocent?’ These sound very similar but they are quite different and lead to different conclusions.

Lawyers – the prosecuting barristers and the judges alike – undoubtedly need to have a much firmer grasp of the statistical approaches which may be relevant to their judgements; the current Stephen Lawrence case is another in which the lawyers (and indeed one would hope the jury) have their minds quite clear about what can and cannot be demonstrated based on the evidence and analysis presented.

So, it would be nice to think the Cabinet, collectively reading this new Royal Society report on neuroscience and the law, will realise their ignorance;  and those responsible for legal education will spring into action to ensure the lawyers of tomorrow have a firmer grasp of the requisite scientific methods, enabling them to make correct decisions based on the evidence in front of them.  Indeed it simply highlights the fact that science is pervasive, not something that can be squirrelled away in a corner as too difficult for most otherwise-well-educated people to have a grip on. As a community we need to keep pressing for scientific literacy amongst all, not just those the rest of the world sees as unfortunate geeks.

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7 Responses to Science and the Law

  1. Owen says:

    Surely connecting Cameron’s O Level Biology result with his ultimate responsibility for science is a bit silly? Leaving apart the fact that governing an activity and doing it will be two very different things anyway, this line of reasoning would require a PM to have qualifications in everything.

    Scientific literacy is important, but I don’t think you promote it by taking a pop at people for not being interested in the “right” things when they were fifteen.

  2. ricardipus says:

    Interesting post, Athene. I’m troubled by that recommendation from the neuroscience report, though. It smacks of an agenda that hasn’t been well thought out. How on earth could one educate prospective lawyers in neuroscience or behavioural genetics? Particularly when the latter is a field that is very rapidly moving, with a lot of unreplicated (or unreplicable?) studies in the literature, wide differences in methodology and study design, extreme biases in patient ascertainment criteria, etc. etc. etc. I think what that report is proposing is likely to be an example of “a little information can be dangerous”.

    From the point of view of introducing the ideas that such research exists and that there are likely to be difficulties in its interpretation – well, I’m all for that.

  3. Laurence Cox says:

    Sarah Teather, Minister of State in the Department of Education, has a 2:1 in Natural Sciences (St John’s College, Cambridge).

    I would also agree with Owen’s comment. It’s actually more important for the Civil Servants to have science qualifications than it is for the ministers, because they have to implement Government policy.

    • Sarah Teather was a specialist in pharmacology at Cambridge, doing a final year research project (and even publishing a couple of papers) with Prof Alan Cuthbert. She then started a Pharmacology PhD at UCL with one of David Colquhoun’s colleagues before changing her mind and switching to some sort of science policy job, and thence into full-time politics.

      Of course, scientific backgrounds don’t always seem to be a ‘pointer’ for ministerial rank in science – one suspects party loyalty weighs much higher. Thus Ian Gibson, probably the most notable bioscientist to be in the Commons in recent years – and also something of an exception for modern MPs in having had a prior career outside politics – never became a minister, though he did chair the Science & Technology select committee to good effect.

      • ricardipus says:

        I’m reminded that Paul Drayson had an engineering background, including a PhD in robotics, and co-founded a vaccine delivery company. Those seem like fairly reasonable “science” credentials to me. He’s gone now of course.

        In Canada, we don’t even have one. There’s a “Minister of State (Science and Technology)”. He’s a chiropractor. Make of that what you will.

        • Laurence Cox says:

          But you can expect Paul Drayson to come back in any future Labour Government as he is Baron Drayson and sits in the House of Lords. A more serious loss in 2010 was Dr Evan Harris, who lost his Commons seat to a Tory, and would certainly have been in line for a ministerial place had he still been in the Commons.

          BTW, a chiropracter is not the worst; you could have had a homeopath instead.

  4. Owen and Laurence
    I am not saying it is unreasonable for Cameron to make policy decisions about things he has not been formally educated in to a high level. That would indeed be silly. I am saying that there is a casual acceptance that scientific literacy, even at a basic level, is not important. Those trained in the humanities assume that scientists have a broad knowledge of Shakespeare, or know who Picasso was. But it is too easily assumed that general scientific knowledge is ‘beyond’ most people, and that is what I see as dangerous. I discussed this at more length in an earlier post .

    I totally agree that Civil Servants with scientific training are hugely important and needed. This (to build on long running discussions across the Occam’s Typewriter blogs) is the kind of thing that to my mind represents success not failure if postdocs choose to move into such jobs.

    Having read the neuroscience report in full, there seems (to my un-neuroscientific mind) a bit of a gap between the evidence they present specifically to do with neuroscience, and their recommendations about what should be in a law degree. But I think so much evidence presented in court does have a scientific basis, that training lawyers in what statistics (which you will note is what I have concentrated on in my post) is all about, the scientific method and other basic skills that scientists may take for granted, would have to be a good thing, even if it showed them what has to be factored in without a complete comprehension of the detail. I don’t think you can accuse the authors of the report of not having thought it out, though, because it is clearly simply something they recommend should be looked into.