By Sebastian Deri
As someone who was better at English and history than math and science in high school, what I chose to study in college was partly an effort to shy away from the latter fields and take refuge in "softer" subjects. "Leave the questions of science to the scientists, I am concerned with justice and morality," we, who chose humanities, said! These two domains were exclusive -- "non-overlapping magisteria" as Stephen Jay Gould might say. No meaningful dialogue between the disciplines was possible or necessary.
This attitude, however, is lazy and destructive -- or at best, hopelessly antiquated.
The scientific study of human behavior is shedding new light on our actions and inner life. To ignore these insights is not just a mistake. It is criminal.
I'm on our school's mock trial team and have done mock trial for seven years now. There was a point at the beginning when I really felt that I was crusading on the side of righteousness in a system optimized for delivering justice. But eventually, I came to realize the solutions being offered in the courtroom simply could not get to the heart of the matter in the way science could. This realization came not from inside a courtroom, but rather from a brain scientist writing in a magazine.
In an article in The Atlantic, "The Brain on Trial," David Eagleman makes the case that we must wade out of the swamp of the medieval machinations of our legal system -- obsessed with the ancient and largely useless preoccupation with assigning blame.
He cites a seemingly straightforward pedophilia case. Eagleman describes the case of a 40-year-old man who "developed an interest in child pornography" and began to make "subtle sexual advances toward his prepubescent stepdaughter." Eventually he was sent to prison. It was only after the discovery and successful removal of a tumor in his brain that he was able to abandon his pedophilia. Eagleman explains, "When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. The drives you take for granted... depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery." Eagleman argues that "we can build a legal system more deeply informed by science, because when modern brain science is laid out clearly, it is difficult to justify how our legal system can continue to function without taking what we've learned into account."
But, David Eagleman is a neuroscientist. Of course he would be inclined to make such a grandiose claim for his discipline. Well, we are hearing the same calls from within the law.
Jon Hanson is Law Professor at Harvard. He has a bachelor's degree in Economics and a degree in law. Yet, eventually his studies in law -- and specifically the tobacco industry -- led him to abandon this field for the study social psychology, social cognition and other mind sciences.
He has since founded "The Project on Law and the Mind Sciences" at Harvard Law School and advocates for his version of the theory he calls "situationism." As though it were coming straight from the mouth of Eagleman, Hanson writes that situationism "is premised on the social scientific insight that the naïve psychology... on which our laws and institutions are based is largely wrong. Situationists... seek first to establish a view of the human animal that is as realistic as possible before turning to legal theory or policy. To do so, situationists rely on the insights of scientific disciplines."
And those insights are impossible to ignore. Take the MAO-A gene. Having a certain form of this gene (the low MAO-A gene), when combined with childhood mistreatment, significantly increases your chances of becoming violent. Yet, I have only ever heard of one case where such evidence was even up for discussion. In response to that evidence, the D.A. said, "The more of this information that you put before a jury, the [greater the] chances of confusing them." In other words, the claim is not that such evidence is irrelevant, but rather we are too stupid to handle it. How condescending and pessimistic. Even the prosecution's rebuttal expert claimed "it's way too early to use this research in a court of law." If we are ever to progress morally and socially we cannot afford to hold such views.
Not just our legal system, but our political system too could use an injection of scientific reasoning. Many political claims are testable scientific hypotheses and ought to be treated as such. To support the "war on drugs," for example, under the claim that it reduces crime and drug use is to make a scientifically testable and falsifiable hypothesis. Of course, the data is messy and experiments hard to come by, but the very act of framing these as scientific questions will help us hack through this choking epistemic relativism in which everyone is entitled to an opinion by virtue of the fact that their justification may correspond to a possible version of reality. The world is not essentially unknowable. And the tools of science can help us peer into the eyes of reality. And from that reality, we should build our society.
I'm not worried that we run the risk of ignoring science as a great tool in our legal system, political debates or moral reasoning. Its encroachment into these domains is inevitable. The question is how quickly we're going to embrace it rather than resist it at the cost of progress. With great gusto and speed, not only must scientists become lawyers, politicians and preachers but lawyers, politicians and preachers must become scientists.
Sebastian Deri is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.