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Legal Doubt, Scientific Certainty

Legal Doubt, Scientific Certainty: What Scientific Knowledge Does For and To the Law

April 11, 2008

This symposium charts the complex ways in which law consumes, uses, and is influenced by scientific information. Both law and science derive their normative and epistemological legitimacy from their publicly known and accessible processes. Yet, despite their purportedly open and available procedures, both are experienced in popular culture as arcane, impenetrable, and often uninterpretable. Finally, the ascendance of both law and science has been achieved in competition against other modes (e.g. religion) of interpreting nature, human relations, and society. This symposium will examine the ways in which science is introduced into legal disputes or policy debates. Is science treated/understood primarily in terms of the technical assistance it offers in establishing social and physical facts for legal projects? The rules of evidence limit the admissibility of scientific research in litigation to “relevant” facts that would be consequential to the outcome, and to evidence that makes those facts “more or less probable” than they would otherwise be.

But the courtroom is not the only place where science meets law. Everyday complex regulatory decisions require scientific expertise. Whether assessing the safety of nuclear power plants or acceptable levels of risk in the workplace, whether deciding on the safety of new pharmaceuticals or whether new car designs satisfy safety standards, those who make administrative ruling and design regulations must be educated consumers of scientific information.

Starting by examining the historical and contemporary role of science in law, this symposium considers law and science as complementary and competing knowledge paradigms and inquire about how each seeks to know the world, their distinctive evidentiary conventions, the conditions under which each treats something as proven, and the constraints each imposes on the other.

Organized by Professor Austin Sarat, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst and Justice Hugo L. Black Visiting Senior Faculty Scholar for the 2007-2008 academic year at the University of Alabama School of Law.

Participants include:
Sheila Jasanoff, Harvard University
Jennifer Mnookin, University of California, Los Angeles
Scott Brewer, Harvard University
O. Carter Snead, University of Notre Dame
Steph Tai, Wisconsin University

Welcome and Introduction

Dean Ken Randall and Professor Austin Sarat

Session I
Doubting Evidence: Is Skepticism Material to Evidence Law?

Scott Brewer

Session II
Whose Science Is Our Science? Institutional Roles in Assessing Science and the Impact of Scientific Knowledge

Steph Tai

Lunch and Keynote
Law’s Rules and Nature’s God: Problematic Constructions of Science in the Law

Sheila Jasanoff

Session III
Law, Science, and Incommensurability

O. Carter Snead

Session IV
Under the Influence of Technology: Evidence, Law, and the Production of Objectivity

Jennifer Mnookin