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Tales Of Our Times: Look Beyond Politics Into Climate, Science, Inquiry By Trial

on January 25, 2019 - 8:15am

Tales of Our Times

By John Bartlit
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Look Beyond Politics Into Climate, Science, Inquiry By Trial

Climate change has been a powerful issue in our country for decades. The 116th Congress now proposes to expand the struggle. Over the decades, the issue has been muddled in the public arena, which talks less about the science than about kinds of people who pervert the science. This new normal for public discourse has clouded the “climate of science” in our democracy.
More broadly, our nation’s continued success depends on a renewed public awareness of methods of rigorous inquiry—in science, in law, and other basic fields. The tools of inquiry prove their worth in formal use, where validating is a stricter process than referring again to a remembered claim in the media. There, in a nutshell, is how greatly a formal means of pursuing truth differs from ranging through viewpoints. A strong democracy employs both, where each one fits. Our nation needs a clearer forum where citizens can watch rigorous inquiry working in detail. A timely case to spotlight is climate change.
Political forces have boiled the issue down to a quasi standoff:
  • Each side often says the opposing side is afraid to answer questions about weak points in its case.
  • Each side often says its foes distort how science advances by constant questioning.
  • Each side often says its foes’ energy ambitions corrupt its science.
In sum, each party says the other has lost sight 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. Whatever is cleared up about climate change is a bonus on top of seeing rigorous inquiry at work.

To find answers, a trial has set procedures, each step of which is infixed in all participants 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.
  • Names of witnesses and evidence they will present 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 mock trial would be qualified by having won cases of similar scope. To remove favoritism, a coin toss could decide which lawyer takes which side in 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 experts to testify.
Such a trial may or may not reshape the climate change rift. Nonetheless, the test would be a valuable refresher 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 weakened this grasp. Discord gathers. Our nation speaks of science and the rule of law, while clouding their key processes.

A mock trial instead would display for all to see the discipline of seeking truth, striving to be certain. The topic would be climate change; on display, however, would be the rigors of inquiry, as applied in science and in trials. Experts brought in by each side would testify on the science. Lawyers for each side would ask their hard questions of the experts, bringing answers. Data would be questioned. Other experts could give rebuttal evidence. The full jury would listen throughout.

The subject would not wander, as it does in the streets and media briefs. 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, the National Geographic Channel or Discovery Channel.

The earnest methods of science and a jury trial are worlds different from frothy talk shows and press statements. Watching the processes at work has national value far beyond the climate change dispute.

The origins of inquiry must be taught.