Science + Courtrooms = Bad Science


There’s an article in the LA Times from last week all about how the US Chamber of Commerce wants a trial about Global Warming. What’s really weird about it is that they’re calling it “The Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century,” and the thing about that is… the Scopes monkey trial is the perfect example for why this shouldn’t be in a courtroom.

John T. Scopes, circa 1925, unpublished photograph donated to the Smithsonian Institute

John T. Scopes, circa 1925, unpublished photograph donated to the Smithsonian Institute

The first weird thing about the Scopes references is that they’re being made by the members of the Chamber of Commerce. They’re trying to imply that they are the Scopes of this trial, and that the EPA is in the role of William Jennings Bryan. Well… no. To begin with, Scopes was the defendant, and not the prosecution. By going after the EPA, the Chamber of Commerce has clearly placed itself in the role of aggressor. Secondly, and more importantly, like Bryan, it is the Chamber of Commerce who are going against established science. In fact, the metaphor sort of makes perfect sense when you realize that it’s the US Chamber of Commerce that’s playing Bryan in this third adaptation of “Inherit the Wind”.

But back to the main point: this is not a debate that should be taking place in a courtroom. We should never forget, science lost the Scopes monkey trial. Because it was in a courtroom and not a laboratory; the rules of science were no longer running the show. Even though all of the science was on the side of Scopes, in the end, after a week of passionate speeches on either side, the jury decided to fine Mr. Scopes one hundred dollars for teaching evolution. Anti-evolution legislation stayed on the books for an additional forty years after the trial, not coming up again until 1965. Generations of kids grew up with biology textbooks that didn’t talk about the fundamental theory of all biology. When all was said and done, the Scopes trial proved that, even though it’s not always the case, the truth can lose in court.

Global warming is not something which should be decided by a jury. It’s not a democratic thing. We don’t get to pick and chose which science we like and which we don’t, that’s just not how it works. Science is a meritocracy. The ideas which are correct survive, those ideas that are false die. There are few institutions less democratic.

I suspect that those members of the US Chamber of Commerce that want this trial know everything I’ve just said. In fact, I’m sure they’re counting on it. They no longer believe they can win in a laboratory, and so they’re going to the public instead. It’s exactly like when pseudo-scientists have a press conference instead of trying to print in real scientific journals.

This is not an issue that is up for debate. In fact, science, in general, is not up for debate. There are, at times, legitimate controversies in the world of science, but the place to resolve those debates is not the courtroom, and in this particular case, the controversy has already been resolved. All that said, are there any lawyers out there that can help me sue scientists on this whole “gravity” thing? I think I’ve got a case!


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