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The nation’s bitter dispute over climate change drags public discourse to new extremes of futility. Worse yet, the hostile views of man-made climate change expand into a kindred dispute about the tools of science itself.
The fray sharpens three key observations:
• Each side says the opposing side is afraid to answer questions about weak points in its case.
• Each side says its foe distorts how science advances by constant questioning.
• Each side says its foe’s energy ambitions corrupt its science.
In sum, each party says those other guys have trampled on the methods of science.
These parallel views bring to mind a fair means that is the pride of democracy — the jury system.
Imagine a mock trial — or call it a “test run” — to judge whether man-made climate change is true or false, and to what extent. A test run follows all the same rules as a legal trial, except the jury’s verdict is not legally binding on anyone.
To find answers, a trial has set procedures, each step of which is infixed in all parties by the judge and the force of law. The familiar term “contempt of court” means someone ignored a required procedure.
Specified steps include:
• The question to be decided is defined for the trial and cannot wander.
• Evidence pertinent to the issue must be sent to the opposing side well before the trial.
• Jurors are screened to avoid prejudgers.
• Jurors weigh competing evidence that meets the time-tested rules of evidence. The rules work to distinguish opinion from fact and sort hearsay (heard in passing) from firsthand knowledge.
• Jurors are stopped from using outside information, as from news commentary.
• Anyone who testifies is subject to cross-examination. That is, witnesses must answer, if they can, every specific question the trial lawyers ask about their testimony.
Lawyers chosen for the test run would be qualified by having won cases of similar scope.
To minimize the chance that one side recruits the best trial lawyer, a coin flip could decide which lawyer takes which side of the issue.
Top trial lawyers are skilled in preparing the best case for either side of a dispute. Preparing the best case includes enlisting the best expert witnesses to testify for their side.
Such a trial may or may not bring fresh perspectives into the climate change rift.
Nonetheless, the test would have tremendous value for American democracy.
Democracy cannot thrive without a healthy grasp of how evidence is pursued and found in science and in trials. More and more the political forum has muddled this grasp.
Discord gathers. Our nation seeks the ways of science and the rule of law, while it muddles the methods each of them uses.
A test run would display for all to see the discipline of seeking truth. The topic would be climate change; on display, however, would be the rigors of inquiry, as applied in science and in trials.
Experts on both sides would testify on the science for their side. Lawyers for each side would ask their hard questions of the experts, bringing answers. Data would be questioned. Experts could be called to give rebuttal evidence.
The subject would not wander, as it does in the streets and media. The strong points for each side would be visible and also the weaker points of each.
A leading university could relight our nation’s fundamentals in a mock trial. Or the test run could be done by PBS or the National Geographic Channel on national TV.
The earnest methods of science and a jury trial are worlds different from frothy talk shows and chatrooms. Watching the processes at work has national value far beyond the climate change dispute.
The origins of inquiry must be taught.
John Bartlit is a member of New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air & Water.