Monday, August 22, 2005

Jury System

One of my favorite bloggers, Professor Bainbridge, has several great posts recently. The best lately is a questioning of the jury system with respect to science based cases.

Unfortunately, if the WSJ($)'s reporting is to be believed, the jurors basically didn't understand - and, indeed, didn't even try to understand - the science:

Merck argued that Vioxx couldn't have caused Mr. Ernst's death because, according to his death certificate, he died of an arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat, not a heart attack. While scientific evidence suggests Vioxx can promote blood clots leading to a heart attack, no data have linked the drug with arrhythmias.

Jurors who voted against Merck said much of the science sailed right over their heads. "Whenever Merck was up there, it was like wah, wah, wah," said juror John Ostrom, imitating the sounds Charlie Brown's teacher makes in the television cartoon. "We didn't know what the heck they were talking about."

At the very least, this incident thus raises serious questions as to the competence of lay jurors to resolve technical issues. To be sure, there is some evidence that how technical evidence is presented matters a lot, and some suggestion in the press accounts that Merck's lawyers may not have done a very good job of presenting the evidence in a way that would maximize understanding. Even so, at the very least, this case confirms the urgent need for objective study of the ability of lay juries to understand and process scientific evidence. If it turns out that they cannot do so, perhaps it is time to take these sorts of issues out of their hands.

Read the whole thing.

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