Science Bench Book for Judges

On July 1st of this year, the National Judicial College and the Justice Speakers Institute, LLC released an online publication of the Science Bench Book for Judges [Bench Book]. The Bench Book sets out to cover much of the substantive material already covered by the Federal Judicial Center’s Reference Manual:

Acknowledgments

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: Why This Bench Book?
  2. What is Science?
  3. Scientific Evidence
  4. Introduction to Research Terminology and Concepts
  5. Pre-Trial Civil
  6. Pre-trial Criminal
  7. Trial
  8. Juvenile Court
  9. The Expert Witness
  10. Evidence-Based Sentencing
  11. Post Sentencing Supervision
  12. Civil Post Trial Proceedings
  13. Conclusion: Judges—The Gatekeepers of Scientific Evidence

Appendix 1 – Frye/Daubert—State-by-State

Appendix 2 – Sample Orders for Criminal Discovery

Appendix 3 – Biographies

The Bench Book gives some good advice in very general terms about the need to consider study validity,[1] and to approach scientific evidence with care and “healthy skepticism.”[2] When the Bench Book attempts to instruct on what it represents the scientific method of hypothesis testing, the good advice unravels:

“A scientific hypothesis simply cannot be proved. Statisticians attempt to solve this dilemma by adopting an alternate [sic] hypothesis – the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis is the opposite of the scientific hypothesis. It assumes that the scientific hypothesis is not true. The researcher conducts a statistical analysis of the study data to see if the null hypothesis can be rejected. If the null hypothesis is found to be untrue, the data support the scientific hypothesis as true.”[3]

Even in experimental settings, a statistical analysis of the data do not lead to a conclusion that the null hypothesis is untrue, as opposed to not reasonably compatible with the study’s data. In observational studies, the statistical analysis must acknowledge whether and to what extent the study has excluded bias and confounding. When the Bench Book turns to speak of statistical significance, more trouble ensues:

“The goal of an experiment, or observational study, is to achieve results that are statistically significant; that is, not occurring by chance.”[4]

In the world of result-oriented science, and scientific advocacy, it is perhaps true that scientists seek to achieve statistically significant results. Still, it seems crass to come right out and say so, as opposed to saying that the scientists are querying the data to see whether they are compatible with the null hypothesis. This first pass at statistical significance is only mildly astray compared with the Bench Book’s more serious attempts to define statistical significance and confidence intervals:

4.10 Statistical Significance

The research field agrees that study outcomes must demonstrate they are not the result of random chance. Leaving room for an error of .05, the study must achieve a 95% level of confidence that the results were the product of the study. This is denoted as p ≤ 05. (or .01 or .1).”[5]

and

“The confidence interval is also a way to gauge the reliability of an estimate. The confidence interval predicts the parameters within which a sample value will fall. It looks at the distance from the mean a value will fall, and is measured by using standard deviations. For example, if all values fall within 2 standard deviations from the mean, about 95% of the values will be within that range.”[6]

Of course, the interval speaks to the precision of the estimate, not its reliability, but that is a small point. These definitions are virtually guaranteed to confuse judges into conflating statistical significance and the coefficient of confidence with the legal burden of proof probability.

The Bench Book runs into problems in interpreting legal decisions, which would seem softer grist for the judicial mill. The authors present dictum from the Daubert decision as though it were a holding:[7]

“As noted in Daubert, ‘[t]he focus, of course, must be solely on principles and methodology, not on the conclusions they generate’.”

The authors fail to mention that this dictum was abandoned in Joiner, and that it is specifically rejected by statute, in the 2000 revision to the Federal Rule of Evidence 702.

Early in the Bench Book, it authors present a subsection entitled “The Myth of Scientific Objectivity,” which they might have borrowed from Feyerabend or Derrida. The heading appears misleading because the text contradicts it:

“Scientists often develop emotional attachments to their work—it can be difficult to abandon an idea. Regardless of bias, the strongest intellectual argument, based on accepted scientific hypotheses, will always prevail, but the road to that conclusion may be fraught with scholarly cul-de-sacs.”[8]

In a similar vein, the authors misleadingly tell readers that “the forefront of science is rarely encountered in court,” and so “much of the science mentioned there shall be considered established….”[9] Of course, the reality is that many causal claims presented in court have already been rejected or held to be indeterminate by the scientific community. And just when readers may think themselves safe from the goblins of nihilism, the authors launch into a theory of naïve probabilism that science is just placing subjective probabilities upon data, based upon preconceived biases and beliefs:

“All of these biases and beliefs play into the process of weighing data, a critical aspect of science. Placing weight on a result is the process of assigning a probability to an outcome. Everything in the universe can be expressed in probabilities.”[10]

So help the expert witness who honestly (and correctly) testifies that the causal claim or its rejection cannot be expressed as a probability statement!

Although I have not read all of the Bench Book closely, there appears to be no meaningful discussion of Rule 703, or of the need to access underlying data to ensure that the proffered scientific opinion under scrutiny has used appropriate methodologies at every step in its development. Even a 412 text cannot address every issue, but this one does little to help the judicial reader find more in-depth help on statistical and scientific methodological issues that arise in occupational and environmental disease claims, and in pharmaceutical products litigation.

The organizations involved in this Bench Book appear to be honest brokers of remedial education for judges. The writing of this Bench Book was funded by the State Justice Institute (SJI) Which is a creation of federal legislation enacted with the laudatory goal of improving the quality of judging in state courts.[11] Despite its provenance in federal legislation, the SJI is a a private, nonprofit corporation, governed by 11 directors appointed by the President, and confirmed by the Senate. A majority of the directors (six) are state court judges, one state court administrator, and four members of the public (no more than two from any one political party). The function of the SJI is to award grants to improve judging in state courts.

The National Judicial College (NJC) originated in the early 1960s, from the efforts of the American Bar Association, American Judicature Society and the Institute of Judicial Administration, to provide education for judges. In 1977, the NJC became a Nevada not-for-profit (501)(c)(3) educational corporation, which its campus at the University of Nevada, Reno, where judges could go for training and recreational activities.

The Justice Speakers Institute appears to be a for-profit company that provides educational resources for judge. A Press Release touts the Bench Book and follow-on webinars. Caveat emptor.

The rationale for this Bench Book is open to question. Unlike the Reference Manual for Scientific Evidence, which was co-produced by the Federal Judicial Center and the National Academies of Science, the Bench Book’s authors are lawyers and judges, without any subject-matter expertise. Unlike the Reference Manual, the Bench Book’s chapters have no scientist or statistician authors, and it shows. Remarkably, the Bench Book does not appear to cite to the Reference Manual or the Manual on Complex Litigation, at any point in its discussion of the federal law of expert witnesses or of scientific or statistical method. Perhaps taxpayers would have been spared substantial expense if state judges were simply encouraged to read the Reference Manual.


[1]  Bench Book at 190.

[2]  Bench Book at 174 (“Given the large amount of statistical information contained in expert reports, as well as in the daily lives of the general society, the ability to be a competent consumer of scientific reports is challenging. Effective critical review of scientific information requires vigilance, and some healthy skepticism.”).

[3]  Bench Book at 137; see also id. at 162.

[4]  Bench Book at 148.

[5]  Bench Book at 160.

[6]  Bench Book at 152.

[7]  Bench Book at 233, quoting Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 595 (1993).

[8]  Bench Book at 10.

[9]  Id. at 10.

[10]  Id. at 10.

[11] See State Justice Institute Act of 1984 (42 U.S.C. ch. 113, 42 U.S.C. § 10701 et seq.).

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