Cosmos Briefing: Science v law

Experts discuss whether scientific evidence is properly considered in our courts.

Australia’s legal system should reconsider how seriously it regards scientific evidence, according to today’s Cosmos Briefing.

Recent genetic evidence has prompted dozens of eminent Australian scientists to petition for Kathleen Folbigg’s pardon, raising questions about the complicated relationship between science and the law.

Gary Edmond, a law professor at the University of NSW; Anna-Maria Arabia, chief executive of the Australian Academy of Science; and Richard O’Brien, an endocrinology professor at the University of Melbourne and frequent expert witness, came together to discuss this topic.

“When it comes to scientific, technical and medical evidence,” explains Edmond, “there’s no requirement that the person giving evidence will be giving you evidence that’s reliable, or the procedure that they’re basing their inferences from will be valid.”

This is a problem, he says, because it’s left to a jury – who may not have specialist scientific knowledge – to determine whether something is scientifically sound.

Calling in expert witnesses with particular expertise would help, O’Brien adds; in the Folbigg case, he was astonished to hear that “there wasn’t an expert statistician in that review process where everything hinged on the statistics”.

But there needs to be an independent process for vetting such witnesses so the court knows they are genuine experts.

“People can make a substantial income from being expert witnesses,” O’Brien notes. “There is to some extent a conflict of interest where people might accept…a role as an expert witness when they don’t genuinely have what I would regard as expertise.”

Arabia spoke to the broader problem that there is no shared language or agreed set of standards between the legal and scientific processes and methods. The law favours finality, she explains, while “the generation of scientific knowledge is iterative – it is tested and retested time and time again through the peer-review process”.

So how can these two cultures work together? Watch the Briefing to discover how these experts suggest we could better incorporate science into the legal system.

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