Science in the Courts

Science surfaces in a range of court cases, from patent disputes, to DNA evidence in a criminal trial, to product liability claims. Over the course of six years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued three rulings that specifically address the admissibility of expert testimony, including information presented in court by scientists.

Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (1993) directed federal judges to serve as “gatekeepers” of expert testimony. In particular, the Court instructed judges to examine the “relevance” and “reliability” of testimony offered by experts. In a subsequent decision, the Supreme Court set a high bar for overturning trial judges’ decisions about admissibility of expert testimony: appellate judges were to uphold trial judges’ decisions unless they could find that the trial judge abused his discretion (General Electric v. Joiner) (1997). In 1999, the Supreme Court clarified that it intended Daubert to apply to all expert testimony, not just evidence that relies on science (Kumho Tire v. Carmichael).

There is little rigorous empirical research on the impacts of Daubert, yet myriad examples raise concern. Critiques of how attorneys and judges use scientific evidence in civil and criminal proceedings illuminate potential consequences of the Daubert decision. Disparate attitudes among judges about different types of scientific evidence — toxicology, forensic data, medical case studies, and epidemiology — have led to inconsistent and inappropriate conclusions. What are the implications for science when a society’s non-science institutions (e.g., courts) reject legitimate scientific methods and findings?

For more on Daubert: "Daubert: The Most Influential Supreme Court Decision You've Never Heard Of" (Read an HTML excerpt or report PDF) Read about Daubert on The Pump Handle blog

Related pages

SKAPP's research grant program, launched in 2004 to encourage rigorous academic inquiry into the use and impacts of scientific evidence in the courts.

Scholarship providing a range of perspectives and insights on the philosophy of science, the interface of science and the law, and the implications of legal decisions related to the admissibility of expert scientific testimony

Selected resources.

Supreme Court decisions that address expert testimony, including evidence presented by scientific experts.