At the Crossroads: Uncertainties, Life, and Litigation

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11Dec2013

At the Crossroads: Uncertainties, Life, and Litigation

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In an ideal world, we could just wait for science to provide us with ultimate truths to guide our actions. But we are not living in that utopia and, in this real world, science is as full of change and uncertainty as any other field of human endeavor.

Thirty years ago popular scientific opinions held that we were headed toward a new Ice Age if pollution was not curtailed. Currently, broadly held opinions dictate that use of fossil fuels is causing global warming.

But that view is far from unanimous. Over 17,000 scientists have signed on to the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine’s Global Warming petition which states that the Kyoto protocol and any similar agreements should be rejected since “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.”

This uncertainty even applies to fundamental basics of physics.

“What you have been taught in school is almost certainly wrong,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist George Chapline told Scientific American magazine recently regarding the behavior of black holes.

Science doesn’t exist just in the laboratory and it affects far more than professors’ tenure. Whether we are talking about medicine, physics, chemistry or any other scientific endeavor, it impacts everyone’s life on a daily basis.

Litigation often lies at the crossroads between the current state of scientific knowledge and human experience. Life can’t be put in suspended animation waiting for scientists to definitively answer all the questions of existence. Whether sitting in the jury box, selecting a mate, or deciding the best way to lose ten pounds, we constantly evaluate conflicting data and make our own choice.

It’s a system fraught with mistakes. That’s why a jury has twelve members and there are several levels of appeal. That’s why the law permits divorce. That’s why the Innocence Project applies new science to correct past errors.

No, life is not certain. But it must be lived.

Sheila Atkinson-Baker

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