What law may do

By skepticlawyer

There is a lively debate going on among members of the skeptical listserv I frequent about Senator Fielding’s call for a Royal Commission, with one poster commenting:

I always thought that Senator Fielding was a dill, but his latest call for a
Royal Commission into climate science really takes the cake. The notion that
lawyers (who do most of the talking in Royal Commissions) can credibly debate
scientific issues, or that scientists would take any notice of what lawyers
think about climate science, is absurd. It displays a very revealing ignorance
by Senator Fielding of science and how science works.

There then follows some cordial (and not so cordial) lawyer-bashing, until a couple of people pointed out that, well, when it’s been asked to do the job, the law has been very good at getting to the bottom of something complicated. The most recent example (on the science front) was the Dover Intelligent Design Case, which required a ruling as to whether something was, or was not, science. 

I then made the following comment, which I think is worth distributing more widely:

For once (sticking up for the lawyers here, probably because I am one)  I agree with [xxxxx]. People on all sides should be careful what they wish for, because good lawyers are uncommonly talented at digging through a mountain of data and extracting nuggets of useful and relevant information. [xxxxx] has already mentioned the Dover Intelligent Design Case, but the lawyers had to do the same thing with the David Irving case in 2000 in the UK (there, the question concerned whether something was ‘history’ or not). There have been plenty of other similar cases, too.

I realise many people despise lawyers, in large part because they often seem more skilled in circumvention of the law than in its application, but good ones — as those put in charge of Royal Commissions and Inquiries and the like usually are — will be very bright, very organised and capable of assimilating more data in a week than most people have to assimilate in their lifetimes. They also have particular court-conferred powers, like discovery, where parties are forced on pain of a contempt ruling to put everything on the table.

Going to law, in this case, may actually be very useful for people on all sides of the issue: the data will be made available, the data will be analysed with great care in an environment designed to drain the emotion out of the debate and lawyers will bring a particular set of forensic skills to that analysis. The David Irving case (and subsequent work in Oxford across both disciplines) taught me that most lawyers make notably better (and more careful) use of evidence than most historians (largely because lawyers are unencumbered by ideology, which has infected history faculties terribly of late). To the extent that science has allowed itself to become infected by ideology, then law will do similarly sterling service there.

I have no idea why lawyers are not very interested in ideology. Probably because we’re more interested in money…

One Comment

  1. Posted December 11, 2009 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    I’ve always thought of murder (and for that matter, most other criminal offences) as having a property component as well – the State getting compensation in some way for the harm or loss of a taxpayer (whether actual or theoretical), and why so many legal systems – Viking, Saxon, shariah – have a component of civil compensation for the victim’s family – ie wergild ….

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  1. […] I’ve pointed out that good lawyers are perfectly capable of ‘doing’ science, or history, or [insert […]

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