Good Reasons to Trust a Courtroom Over a Laboratory When Trying to Determine What Happened in the Past
by J Warner Wallace
I’m sometimes challenged to defend what I believe with science. In a culture that places a high value on scientific exploration and empirical evidence, folks often claim that they can’t trust anything that can’t be demonstrated scientifically. But there are, in fact, many things that we know without the benefit of science. In fact, the very statement, “Science is the only way to really know the truth” cannot be verified with any kind of scientific experiment; it is, instead, a philosophical proclamation about the nature of truth. I’m also challenged at times to defend the value of an approach toward truth that draws its inspiration from the courtroom rather than the laboratory. Isn’t it true that scientists share their research with colleagues and ask for advice? Doesn’t the peer review process assist the scientific endeavor and help scientists to find the truth? Lawyers, on the other hand, seem to be working in a much more adversarial courtroom environment; one attorney is advocating for one side while another is being paid to advocate for the opposite position. Shouldn’t we trust the intellectual rigor of scientists over the partisanship of lawyers?
Well, there are several good reasons to trust a courtroom over a laboratory when trying to determine what happened at some point in the distant past:
The Nature of the Courtroom Vets Claims Aggressively
If you trust that a scientific peer review process ensures an accurate outcome, you’re sadly mistaken. The antiquated prior theories in virtually every discipline of science (theories that have now been abandoned by the scientific community) were all subject to peer review. This process of review was inadequate to exclude false ideas. Courtrooms have a far more aggressive vetting process. Opposing attorneys begin by opposing each other’s ideas and claims. This public vetting of truth claims is far more aggressive than scientific peer review.
Historical Events Are Largely Unrepeatable
In addition, historical events are poor candidates for scientific experimentation in the first place. We cannot establish experiments that capture the precise elements and physical relationships that were present at the time of the first event under consideration. How many times have you asked your kids to tell you what happened earlier in the day? Have you ever been inclined to verify their claims with an experiment? Instead, weren’t you more likely to find another eyewitness if you wanted to make sure your kids weren’t lying? We intuitively lean toward courtroom models rather than laboratory models when investigating events in the past because we understand the limitations of the scientific method in this area….
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