Monday, July 19, 2010

Science and the Supremes

With Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings just completed and a vote expected at some point next month, let’s review a few interesting Supreme Court cases that have impacted science.

Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) – Creationism cannot be taught in science classes
In 1982 the Louisiana state legislature passed the “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act”, which required that when evolution was taught in a public school, “creationism science” must be taught as well. Lower courts ruled against Louisiana citing that the actual purpose of “creation science” was to promote a specific religious doctrine. The State of Louisiana appealed to the Supreme Court.

In 1987, in a 7-2 to vote, the Act was ruled unconstitutional. The Supreme Court found that although the Louisiana legislature claimed the Act protected academic freedom, it actually limited a teacher’s ability to decide what scientific principles to teach.

Daubert v. Dow Pharmaceuticals (1993) – Scientific evidence can only be presented in court if the scientific method was used
Jason Daubert was born with serious birth defects. His parents believed that Bendectin, a drug used to treat morning sickness manufactured by Dow Pharmaceuticals, was the cause of the defects. The Dauberts sued Dow, and during the trial submitted scientific evidence that the defense claimed was based on questionable animal research and reanalysis of other published studies. A district court sided with Dow Pharmaceuticals when judges on the case determined that the Dauberts' medical evidence was not scientifically valid. The Supreme Court was asked to review the decision and agreed to do so.

In 1993, in a unanimous 9-0 vote, the Court ruled in favor of the Dauberts. The previous standard for submitting scientific evidence vaguely stated "the thing from which the deduction is made must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs." The Daubert case forced the Court to get more specific, and they outlined the The Standard on Governing Expert Testimony:

1) Testimony must be scientific in nature and grounded in knowledge – this has since been interpreted as meaning that the scientific method must be used
2) The scientific knowledge must assist in the understanding of the specific issues at hand
3) The judge decides if rule 2 is met

Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency (2007) – The EPA must regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases
In 2003 the EPA decided that under the Clean Air Act, it lacked the authority to regulate carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases for climate change purposes. Twelve U.S. states took the EPA to court in an attempt to get the Agency to change this determination. In 2006, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

In a highly controversial and super charged political trial the Supreme Court voted 5-4 against the EPA. The Court rejected the EPA's argument that the Clean Air Act was not meant to refer to carbon emissions. The four dissenting judges argued that there was not enough evidence to claim that greenhouse gas emissions contribute to climate change, but they found themselves in the minority.

Considering the current political climate, we can expect Elena Kagan to have many opportunities to weigh-in on cases involving science. Issues of cloning, stem cell research, and energy policy will most likely appear before the nine black robed powers in the very near future.

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  1. Love the creationism caption!

  2. The Court didn't do such a good job of connecting scientific data with medical results in Daubert v Dow. In subsequent testing, the FDA has not found any connection between between Benedictin and birth defects. This drug was voluntarily removed from the US market by Dow, but is a very popular morning sickness remedy in the rest of the world. Preganancy websites are full of instructions of how US women can make a substitute (Unisom + vitamin B)