Most people have probably seen the recent news that Monsanto has been ordered to pay $289 million following the ruling by a California jury that Monsanto’s glyphosate (a.k.a. Roundup) is dangerous and likely contributed to Dewayne Johnson’s cancer. I could write many lengthy posts about why that ruling is wrong. I could talk about the numerous scientific studies that failed to find evidence that glyphosate causes cancer (e.g., this large, long-term cohort study with over 50,000 participants that wasn’t funded by Monsanto and failed to find an association between glyphosate use and cancer among farmers [Andreotti et al. 2017]). I could talk about the well-established fact that the toxicity of glyphosate is quite low. I could talk about the fact that multiple well-respected scientific bodies have examined the evidence and concluded that it does not suggest that glyphosate causes cancer. I could also talk about how the one dissenting scientific report (i.e., WHO’s IARC report) cherry-picked their evidence and reached a conclusion that has been widely criticized by the scientific community. Plenty of other pages have, however, already done all of those things, so I won’t spend more time on them here. Rather, I want to discuss why trials like this one are inherently problematic. Citing court rulings is an extremely common tactic among science deniers (anti-vaccers do it all the time), but it is not a logically valid tactic because courts don’t determine what is and is not a scientific fact.
The first major problem is simply that juries don’t consist of experts in the relevant scientific field. As I’ve talked about before, science is complicated. It takes years of carefully training, study, and hands-on experience to learn everything that you need to know to be able to properly evaluate scientific evidence. The notion that an untrained jury is going to master that over the course of a trail is absurd. Further, it is especially ridiculous when you consider that courtroom conditions inherently involve two opposing sides arguing as if they have equivalent merit. To put that another way, it is extremely easy to cherry-pick evidence to make it look like the science isn’t settled on an issue or, worse yet, like the scientific consensus is the opposite of what it actually is, and in a courtroom, a lawyer will do precisely that. They are obligated to argue in favor of a given position, regardless of whether that position is actually supported by the evidence.
Let me try an example. Imagine that there is some issue with your heart that you want diagnosed, and someone suggested to you that it might be because a particular aspect of your diet (i.e., you eat X, and they think X is bad for your heart). So, you take two approaches to figuring out whether your diet is the cause. In the first approach, you get multiple respected scientific organizations to examine the scientific evidence that X can lead to heart problems. These bodies of highly trained and experienced experts spend months or even years systematically examining the studies on this topic. The look at all the evidence that they can get and, ultimately, they conclude that there is no compelling evidence for X contributing to heart problems.
For the second approach, you construct a jury using the same criteria as in a court, then you get two lawyers to debate the issue as in a courtroom. One of them tries to convince the jury that X does cause heart problems, and the other tries to convince the jury that X does not cause heart problems. Rather than systematically examining all of the evidence, both lawyers cherry-pick evidence that supports their position, attempt to play on the jury’s emotions, bring in cherry-picked “expert” witnesses, etc. At the end of the trial, the jury concludes that X does cause heart problems (which is the opposite of what the scientific committees found).
Which conclusion seems more reliable to you? The one that was arrived at by experts spending months carefully and systematically examining all of the available evidence, or the one that was arrived at by non-experts basing a decision on a comparison of two extremely biased representations of the evidence? I think that the answer to that is pretty obvious.
To be clear here, I’m not saying that scientists are infallible or that the conclusions of scientific organizations are definitive statements of reality. That would be an appeal to authority fallacy. Rather, my point is that the courtroom system is fundamentally flawed and unreliable for determining scientific facts. The fact that a jury decided that X causes Y is completely and 100% irrelevant in any scientific debate. It has no bearing on reality, and you would be crazy to trust it instead of relying on numerous high-quality studies and reviews and meta-analyses of those studies that were systematically assembled by teams of experts. Whether or not something is a scientific fact has to be determined by actual research, and a jury’s opinion about that research is irrelevant.