Why Have Courts Abandoned the Scientific Method?

July 24, 2020
Why Have Courts Abandoned the Scientific Method?
AP Photo/Martin Meissner
Why Have Courts Abandoned the Scientific Method?
AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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Sister Mary Isabel was perhaps the greatest teacher I ever had. Among the many lessons she drilled into my classmates and me that has stood the test of time and memory was the scientific method.

Nearly every American was taught the same six steps that serve as a fundamental building block to scientific education: Make an observation, ask a question, form a hypothesis, make a prediction based on the hypothesis, test the prediction, and use the results to make new hypotheses or new predictions.

I have since applied the principles of the scientific method throughout my personal and professional life because it makes sense: One shouldn't make major decisions based on assumptions. Rely on facts.

Yet, a recent decision by a U.S. District Court judge to prohibit scientists from conducting an objective and unbiased research study on a specific chemical’s cancer-causing capability flies in the face of the principles of the scientific method and is further evidence of the growing disconnect between fact-based science and economic coercion in courtrooms across the United States.

It began with two significant—and absolutely contradictory—legal developments surrounding the use of glyphosate (the active ingredient in the popular herbicide Roundup), a chemical that has been extensively studied and widely used by commercial farmers and backyard gardeners for decades.

In an earlier ruling, a federal judge permanently blocked efforts by the state of California to require cancer warnings on Roundup, citing overwhelming scientific evidence that such labels would be misleading, as they were not backed up by regulatory findings. His ruling aligned with findings from numerous domestic and international regulatory agencies, all of which have found no association between glyphosate and cancer risk.

While the ruling stood as a significant victory for science, it appears to have not been enough in the court of public opinion—or economics. That same week, Bayer opted to pay more than $10 billion to settle claims that glyphosate had caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While most may believe these funds will find their way to deserving victims, the hard truth is the majority of these funds will go to attorneys.

Bayer made the decision to settle the existing claims rather than spend decades—and incalculable costs—to defend each case in state courts, the ultimate example of the “science vs. settle” dilemma.

However, Bayer and the plaintiffs’ attorneys included a provision to settle all future claims: Attorneys for both sides asked the court to appoint a scientific panel, funded by Bayer, to conduct an independent, unbiased review to evaluate the relationships between glyphosate and cancer. Of note, both sides agreed to accept the researchers’ findings—regardless of outcome—as the basis and precedent for future court decisions, meaning that all future rulings would be based on evidence-backed research. 

Finally, the scientific method to the rescue—or so it would seem.

Unfortunately, the judge poured cold water on the proposed study, saying that judges and juries are capable of making decisions on complex and confusing scientific issues without the benefit of having all the objective evidence available, essentially eliminating the chance to conduct a fair and objective independent review.

This a massive loss for science and for those who respect expertise in both the courts of law and public opinion. The decision has the potential to elevate emotion over objective evidence in the courtroom, a move that puts businesses and consumers with legitimate claims in limbo and at the discretion of bias.

And it will only proliferate the “jackpot justice” system of mass class action lawsuits that clog courtrooms, force companies to pay billions of dollars in settlements for claims that are not backed by scientific evidence (most of which goes to a handful of large law firms), and increase the prices of countless household products for consumers.

Our teachers taught us better than this. We cannot leave legal decisions involving chemicals up to emotion or assumptions. We need to return to basics—to employing common sense in science, examining objective evidence, and relying on the fundamental building blocks that we were taught as children.

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