Good Reasons to Trust a Courtroom Over a Laboratory When Trying to Determine What Happened in the Past

83I’m sometimes challenged to defend what I believe with science. In a culture that places a high value on scientific exploration and empirical evidence, folks often claim that they can’t trust anything that can’t be demonstrated scientifically. But there are, in fact, many things that we know without the benefit of science. In fact, the very statement, “Science is the only way to really know the truth” cannot be verified with any kind of scientific experiment; it is, instead, a philosophical proclamation about the nature of truth. I’m also challenged at times to defend the value of an approach toward truth that draws its inspiration from the courtroom rather than the laboratory. Isn’t it true that scientists share their research with colleagues and ask for advice? Doesn’t the peer review process assist the scientific endeavor and help scientists to find the truth? Lawyers, on the other hand, seem to be working in a much more adversarial courtroom environment; one attorney is advocating for one side while another is being paid to advocate for the opposite position. Shouldn’t we trust the intellectual rigor of scientists over the partisanship of lawyers?

Well, there are several good reasons to trust a courtroom over a laboratory when trying to determine what happened at some point in the distant past:

The Nature of the Courtroom Vets Claims Aggressively
If you trust that a scientific peer review process ensures an accurate outcome, you’re sadly mistaken. The antiquated prior theories in virtually every discipline of science (theories that have now been abandoned by the scientific community) were all subject to peer review. This process of review was inadequate to exclude false ideas. Courtrooms have a far more aggressive vetting process. Opposing attorneys begin by opposing each other’s ideas and claims. This public vetting of truth claims is far more aggressive than scientific peer review.

Historical Events Are Largely Unrepeatable
In addition, historical events are poor candidates for scientific experimentation in the first place. We cannot establish experiments that capture the precise elements and physical relationships that were present at the time of the first event under consideration. How many times have you asked your kids to tell you what happened earlier in the day? Have you ever been inclined to verify their claims with an experiment? Instead, weren’t you more likely to find another eyewitness if you wanted to make sure your kids weren’t lying? We intuitively lean toward courtroom models rather than laboratory models when investigating events in the past because we understand the limitations of the scientific method in this area.

Science Is Not Absent from the Courtroom
It’s important to remember that courtrooms are not devoid of scientific examination. There are many limited aspects of historical events that can be examined scientifically to corroborate the claims of eyewitnesses and help to establish what happened at a particular crime scene. There are many forms of forensic science that are employed in corroborating such claims, and while these scientific endeavors are inadequate to fully tell us what happened, they are sufficient to provide us with limited information to assist in the process. The courtroom is not a place where science is ignored or demeaned; it’s simply a place where the limited role of science is understood and acknowledged.

Lawyers Don’t Make a Final Decision Anyway
Our culture trusts scientists far more than it trusts lawyers, that’s a fairly safe statement. When a scientist tells the culture that something is true, it is far more likely to be embraced without challenge. That’s another reason why courtrooms are a far better place to determine what happened in the historic past. When a scientist makes a claim standing in a laboratory, he is often the final arbiter of truth. Other scientists may weigh in and agree (or disagree) with the first scientist, but “non-scientist” observers play little role in the process. When a lawyer makes a claim standing in a courtroom, he is never the final arbiter of truth. Other lawyers may weigh in and agree (or disagree), but an entire collection of “non-lawyer observers” play the most important role in the process. Jurors make the final decision in the courtroom and it’s the juror’s decision that is then examined and questioned by the culture. Jurors stand between the claims of lawyers (and their associates) and the culture that is waiting for a decision. There is no such jury standing between the claims of scientists (and their associates) and the culture that is waiting for a decision.

The daily process of determining truth that occurs in courtrooms across America has been established for a reason. It’s still the single best method of determining what happened in the past. It’s time-tested and vetted. It has an elaborate set of regulations and precautionary rules that strive to limit error and provide for appeal when error occurs. It still provides the best possible models and analogies for determining what happened in the recent past (i.e. the historical claims related to criminal cases) and in the distant past (i.e. the historical claims related to Christianity).

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

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