Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Law and Physics

After the mayhem of last week, spending 8+ hours a day with ATLAS software, this week has taken on a whole new character: Jury Duty. After holding off the New York Supreme Court for a few months back in the autumn, I was finally compelled to drop by the courthouse this morning. I can't give much in the way of details, but I can report a few things that surprised me.

Jury duty takes a lot less time than it used to: apparently it was two weeks, only a few years ago, but it's certainly never going to end after a day. Minimum is two days, and it's looking like typical cases can take days. Consider that next time you pick your next postponement date. The orientation is cheesy, the time lost from work is a little excessive, but after a while you really start to get into it. While it really looks like a hardship in the abstract, seeing a few details of how the legal system works is pretty neat. Heck, I'm a physicist: I like to know how things work, and the law is supposed to be a machine of sorts, right? Based on laws, just like physics, right?

Well maybe, but they certainly don't seem to value the scientific outlook. While I really can't say much about what went on the courtroom, I can say that I was in the first (large) group of people to be brought down to be considered for a jury. I can also say that I was in the first group of 12 to be considered out of the larger group. So for a few minutes I felt kind of proud of myself, that I could serve my civic duty. Then the questions began, as we cycled through our renditions of the "Voir Dire", a set of questions related to our ability to serve impartially on the jury. Have you ever been a victim of a crime? Do you know anyone in law enforcement? And so on. Most of us didn't set off any alarms in this way, as few people are so scarred by their experiences with courts or law enforcement that they can't consider a situation objectively.

Then they asked us what we did for a living and where we went to school. At first I didn't understand why, although it was fascinating to see the wide cross section of people they had selected, from a wide range of backgrounds and occupations. But a funny thing happened as soon as I said: "Physicist, PhD, MIT". "So you want to be an astronaut?" asked the New York Supreme Court Judge. That started to make me suspicious. Then the prosecuting DA asked: "Mr. Steinberg, scientists typically want objective means to verify facts. Do you think you will be able to believe testimony given by witnesses in the case?" I had to think about this one: "I would feel responsible to my duty to the court, but I really prefer to have some objective verification of facts I am given." I thought this seemed reasonable, to express a high standard for evidence. But the judge lit into me: "You scientists want all the answers! One has to be able to find a defendant guilty on the testimony of a single witness. It's not about the quantity, but the quality!" I realize that this has to be the case, for the system to convict anyone, but I've always been taught to verify everything, since even the smartest, most reliable, people can make mistakes in their perceptions or interpretations.

The defense attorney picked up on my response, however, in a way that made me very suspicious. After he asked me a few questions of what kind of physics I do ("nuclear physics? that's my favorite!" said the judge), he extended this issue of questioning testimony: "I hope all of you will be able to consider that a story given by a witness could be a lie." Always a possibility, but at that point I started to wonder if I was a goner. And after a short recess I was a goner, along with six others in my group, sent back to the pool of potential jurors. Although it wasn't the only reason to cut someone from a jury, the very training I was so proud of, the one that made me so sensitive to various issues in how we know what we know, made me essentially unqualified to serve in one of our most important civic institutions.

So while there are clearly laws of physics, there doesn't seem to be much room for physics in the law. Hasn't anyone seen Minority Report? Better luck tomorrow!


Anonymous said...

Interesting thought indeed.But, you have to grant the point that practice of law necessarily has to weed through lies and hence requires people who are good at detecting lies.

Sure, scientists are good at detecting lies but not in the scale that courts ought to. For example, it is indeed very very rare that you sit in a conference with a suspicion that the speakers are lying !

In this sense, yes science does make scientists gullible in short-term, as the defence attorney seems to have hinted at. In long-term, of course we expect that a lie in science would be found out by other people trying to repeat a calculation/experiment/simulation.

But, it is certainly wrong to say that a scientist cannot come to a conclusion on a single witness. There are after all some objective facts like the way a witness answers questions, possible motives which might lead him/her to lie etc. And definitely I would expect good scientists to be slightly better than layman in analysing these facts.

Peter said...

Hi anonymous - maybe i misspoke, but what i meant was that they were worried we would be too *mistrusting* of the evidence, i.e. that on average we would be better at analyzing facts to the disadvantage of one side or another. and thus, whichever side would feel threatened by that possibility would certainly cash in a "wild card" and reject the scientist as a juror. seems sad, but also seems to happen often (from various conversations i had with another scientist in the jury pool!)

Rob W said...

Law actually is quite like physics. What's important is that you understand the boundary conditions and the rules. There is a highly complex and very-poorly defined set of rules which can be bent to fit any situation. An example is the standard of proof known as "reasonable doubt."

Each standard of proof has a relative position relative to others. "Preponderance of the evidence" means more likely than not. This is the standard for civil trials.

However, when you get in to questions about what is a reasonable doubt, you are reaching an area harder to define, because the jury is essentially a black box. Althouh some do ask juries what the reasoning was, one does not know what is going to go on in the jury room, and the concept of reasonable doubt is one created by 12 people collectively. The concept is so unclear as to make it impossible to truly understand its application.

That is to say, clear as mud.

Gotenstrasse said...

Also the practice of law makes you pretty good at detecting lies. It is pretty much your job to do so. Normally you pick through the earlier testimony, find inconsistencies and then get prepared. At trial you make the witness commit to the story and then reveal to the jury the inconsistency through questioning. The more inconsistent the responses and the explanation, the less likely the jury is to believe the story.

Juries are usually quite good at seeing through lies. Its sort of like the uncertainty principle as the person who is lying is desiring to influence the jury, and this desire to influence shows up in the way he speaks to the jury. At least 1 of 12 people will see right through it. One is all you need.