Monday, February 18, 2013

Argument from "It's admissible in court"

I've been encountering a type of argument with increasing frequency. One of the points I'll make to many apologists is that they aren't meeting the scientific standards of evidence. This argument from "It's admissible evidence in court" seems to try to circumvent that failure, by appealing to whether testimonial evidence is valid.

An argument I covered attempted to make the case that the different gospels/witnesses in the gospels qualify under legal standards as corroborating testimony:
The legal maxim and standard of truth is that truth is established to certainty by two or three primary sources of the same event. These sources are tested for conspiring by verifying these sources to be consistent on two or more points without two or three explicit contradictions.
I have no idea where the author got that, or how much he twisted it, but the idea is that since they can't pass the muster of science, they're trying to appeal to another realm of investigation - legal standards. Of course, I'm not a lawyer, so that "legal maxim" max actually exist, even if it's messed up.


There's two basic ways that testimony can appear in court: documented or in-person testimony.

The documented testimony (sound/video recording of someone saying something, or letter/email) can be admissible, provided a few conditions are met, and there's no objections from either defense or prosecution. 

The in-person testimony (person is called to the stand in court), is also restricted. The person must swear to tell the truth on penalty of perjury. This witness can also be cross-examined by both sides (which is typically the point). 

In either case, hearsay is strictly verböten. Meaning, if someone's testimony was "I was there and Jesus said that Star Wars was better than Star Trek", that would be shot down very quickly.


Oddly, this is where the appeals to legal standards truly breaks down.

Anecdote time! Back in 2010, I served on the jury of a trial regarding an alleged incest/molestation case against a father of a family. It was fascinating to see the process from jury selection to deliberation. The trial started, and the lawyers did their thing - frequently objecting to each others' arguments, utilizing a set of legal standards that I was only faintly familiar.

Then, we deliberated. That's when the standards ended.

The judge gives the jury a set of instructions. They make it really easy on the jury, since they're just a random selection of people off the street, practically. These are the ones I remember, so forgive me if I miss any:
  • Don't talk to anyone outside about this.
  • Don't read any newspapers or anything about this case.
  • Until you deliberate, don't talk to each other about the case.
  • Don't consider the penalty to the defendant when considering your verdict.
  • You're trying to determine whether you believe the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • The entire jury must come to consensus on the verdict.
That was about it. We were not given any "legal maxims" or "three corroborating sources to establish something to certainty".

In short, it was basically up to us what would convince us of the guilty/not-guilty verdict.

I was actually a bit disturbed how willing most of the jurors were to simply accept the testimony of the witnesses. The fact was, there was only circumstantial evidence, and no direct evidence that the crimes were committed. I took issue with that, saying to the other jurors "I don't want to live in a country where three or four people could merely accuse me of something, and I get sent to jail." It's quite a frightening concept.

If it wasn't for 4 or 5 of us, that would have happened. We, on the other hand, insisted on more objective evidence. I personally was unwilling to accept their testimony at all. It wasn't until we painstakingly parsed all the available objective evidence that we were able to bring the remaining 4-5 people onboard with the guilty verdict.

... and I'm still not sure it was the correct decision. 

This is my point - the actual legal system breaks down into a free-for-all in terms of standards. There's no process the jurors must use to evaluate the evidence. It merely comes down to whether the members of the jury are gullible enough to just believe someone's testimony or not.

Legal vs Science

I imagine that's why they're trying to appeal to legal standards. They are very chaotic, and it's much easier to slip insane delusional accusations under the radar.

Unlike science, there's an urgency to these court cases. Someone committed a crime, and we think we have the criminal, and we need to figure out if that's the case, and send him/her to jail so he/she cannot do more harm. Science, on the other hand, can take its time and wait until sufficient good evidence is uncovered, to make its case.

Science is very application-based. Everything from general relativity to evolution become the basis for further research. If evolution were wrong, then all the sub-fields of study that rely on it would be churning out gibberish as results. Court cases don't work like this. 

Scientific cases are submitted as publications for other experts in the field to evaluate and reproduce... not grabbing a random selection of people from the county, like what happens with trials.

Jurors do not have to reveal how they came to a decision, what their thought processes were, etc. They only have to give a guilty or not-guilty verdict  In science, all work must be shown. All assumptions must be revealed and evaluated, because even the core thought process of the experiments need to be peer reviewed.

Ultimately, the legal system is a convenient loophole for them. They can't survive the scientific scrutiny so they have this other set of standards which they can supposedly survive, but is also considered legitimate.

Extraordinary Claims

Once again, it comes back down to extraordinary claims and extraordinary evidence.

If someone took the stand and claimed he visited a parallel universe here sentient kiwis ruled a vast intergalactic civilization, should I accept that testimony as true? What if ten people all claim tha ? Do I accept it then? What if they had video/photo evidence, do I accept it then?

Even with video/photo evidence, it's more likely that it's been doctored and they're all lying (or were tricked) than that they actually visited a parallel universe. 

What if these people claimed to have seen someone walk on water, create lots fish/bread from only a few, cured people of various diseased by touch, etc? I'd be in the same position - it's more likely, for whatever reason, that these people were mistaken.

As I mentioned before, testimony can be accepted... or not. In the above scenarios, it'd most likely be the "not accepted" option, because it's in stark violation of what is demonstrably true right now. It'd take significant amounts of evidence to override that.

... Not because a book said so. Not because some people said so... even in a book.

Not even close.


Of course, not all legal cases go to trial. A defendant has that constitutional right, but not all cases are done like that. Most of the FFRF cases are decided by judge, for instance.

Then again, we don't usually bring archaeological questions to the judicial system either... so we're intrinsically trying to use an incompatible system. Whether Jesus existed or not is not a legal question. It's an epistemological question. There's some overlap between the legal system and science, but they are definitely two different beasts.

That's where the dishonesty of the "legal maxim" arguer really starts to reek. They are trying to argue why we must accept something as true by abusing another system, and declaring that we must accept something as certainty, even if it makes little sense to do so. 

If the legal system really does have a evidentiary standard like that, my response isn't to accept it. My response is to advocate a complete ground-up reconstruction of the entire legal system, since it would be so epistemologically bankrupt. It's more likely it was a rule of thumb to try to parse though a lot of data fast, since the courts are frequently overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of cases they must process.

It's also an indication that no critical thinking transpired. Do these people really think it makes sense to conclude with certainty that someone performed miracles because three different sources from a book said so? What about the other possibilities, like testimony contamination, or that they were merely tricked by a professional magician? Why must we accept the most absurd possibility available?

In this case, it truly is a word game. You can tell, since they've apparently put no thought into the implications of their appeal to the legal system... not that the legal system supports their interpretation in the first place.

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