The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘court’

How Secularists Should Respond to the SCOTUS Ruling on Sectarian Prayer at Government Meetings

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 7, 2014

You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard the news about Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows sectarian prayers at government meetings.  My skeptical colleague Hemant Mehta at the Friendly Atheist has an excellent breakdown on the background of this case – check it out here.

Essentially, the SCOTUS ruled that explicitly Christian and other sectarian prayers are allowed in the opening of local government meetings (just as they have been for years in the federal and state legislatures) under the Constitution.  Regarding this ruling, I think the devil is in the details; specifically, the SCOTUS did not rule that only Christian prayers were allowed.  It ruled that sectarian prayers are allowed… from any religion (or non-religion)… which means that anyone can make a motion to pray at such meetings.  Further, Justice Kennedy stated in his opinion that:

“If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbeliev­ers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.”

Whoops, that’s already happened; just look at how there are some self-righteous fundamentalist religious jerks who misinterpret this ruling as saying that “only Christian prayers are allowed” - which is exactly the kind of thing more reasonably-minded members of the SCOTUS noted might happen.  Indeed, the problem here is that this ruling has a huge potential to cause even greater religious animosity and division at the same time our country is becoming ever more (non)religiously diverse (with as many as 20% claiming “no religion”).  Specifically, Justice Kagan said:

“The monthly chaplains appear almost always to assume that everyone in the room is Christian. … The Town itself has never urged its chaplains to reach out to members of other faiths, or even to recall that they might be present. And accordingly, few chaplains have made any effort to be inclusive; none has thought even to assure attending members of the public that they need not participate in the prayer session. Indeed, as the majority forthrightly recognizes, when the plaintiffs here began to voice concern over prayers that excluded some Town residents, one pastor pointedly thanked the Board “[o]n behalf of all God-fearing people” for holding fast, and another declared the objectors “in the minority and … ignorant of the history of our country.””

So… what is a secularist to do?  Shall we bemoan our fate, lamenting that “this was another win for the religious right”?  I think not.  In fact, I think this ruling can lead to a really big problem for the religious right; but don’t take it from me, take it from an evangelical Christian writer (and constitutional scholar) for Christianity Today magazine:

“So what’s the harm of government prayer? First, it leaves a few deeply resentful, with hearts hardened to Christianity. One need look no further than the two complainants here. Many more of our fellow citizens are confused about evangelical methods and motives when we hitch our wagon to Caesar, and they are misled about the nature of Christ’s invitation and a person’s freedom in response to him. Moreover, because what goes around comes around, municipalities in less friendly territory than Greece, New York, will seize this newly approved legality and use it to offer up invocational prayers that will be unrecognizable to evangelicals. Already this is occurring in the Town of Greece, where a Wiccan priestess has offered up prayers to Athena and Apollo. An atheist has also petitioned, by appealing to “inclusion,” that she be allowed to take a turn at rendering the invocation. She did so, not because she wanted to pray, to protest the city policy by rendering it absurd. The Supreme Court’s ruling means we will be seeing more of this mischief.” [emphasis added]

Did you hear that?  Mischief!  :)

la-abcarian-satan-pix-20140505

At the next county board meeting, ask if you can get a “Hail Satan!” (image source)

And he’s right.  Now that the SCOTUS has explicitly opened the door to sectarian (note, that’s a different word that “Christian”) prayers, then all those Christians who so badly wanted to win this case had better be prepared for people of other religious (or non-religious) beliefs to come calling for their turn to give invocations at local government meetings.  I’m guessing they won’t be too happy to have a Muslim imam, Jewish rabbi, Hindu priest, or humanist/atheist open with a prayer or statement; just look at how they threw a hissy-fit when a Hindu priest opened a session of the U.S. Senate with a prayer:

Well, these conservative Christians had better get used to it, because plenty of highly non-Christian folks are now more than ready to start attending local government meetings with the express purpose of opening them with non-Christian prayers/invocations.  For example:

**The American Humanist Association is planning to launch a program to “provide resources for atheists and humanists to deliver secular invocations during legislative meetings.”

**The Freedom From Religion Foundation has already announced “Nothing Fails Like A Prayer”, a nationwide contest for the best secular invocation delivered at a government meeting.

**And the Satanic Temple (yes, the same one that is petitioning to erect a statue of Satan outside the Oklahoma state house under their “religious monument” law) is getting in on the act, too.  In fact, they’ve already got the following prayer/invocation ready to go:

“Let us stand now, unbowed and unfettered by arcane doctrines born of fearful minds in darkened times. Let us embrace the Luciferian impulse to eat of the Tree of Knowledge and dissipate our blissful and comforting delusions of old. Let us demand that individuals be judged for their concrete actions, not their fealty to arbitrary social norms and illusory categorizations. Let us reason our solutions with agnosticism in all things, holding fast only to that which is demonstrably true. Let us stand firm against any and all arbitrary authority that threatens the personal sovereignty of One or All. That which will not bend must break, and that which can be destroyed by truth should never be spared its demise. It is Done. Hail Satan.”

I have a message for all the conservative Christians hailing this ruling: Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it  :)

 

 

Posted in politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Charlatan Kevin Trudeau Goes to Prison

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 22, 2014

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about that most infamous of anti-medical charlatans, Kevin Trudeau, and how he was doing all that he could to dodge both common decency and the law by continuing to push his “Natural Cures” nonsense…

Many times you’ll hear skeptics venting their spleens about this huckster or that charlatan and “How is it possible they’re allowed to get away with this crap?!”  One of the worst such pseudoscientific offenders in recent years has been “natural cures” quack Kevin Trudeau, who has used his infomercial sales pitches to convince countless people that he has a cure for cancer (he doesn’t) and that they shouldn’t trust modern, science-based medicine because “‘They’ don’t want you to know the truth”.  I think it would be reasonable to say that Trudeau has not only bilked people out of millions of dollars with his bogus “cures”, but in addition that his nonsensical anti-scientific conspiracy mongering has even gotten some people who believed him killed. …

… Well, I think this is one case in which the charlatan is getting his just-desserts.  Of course, to Trudeau’s followers, this will likely be interpreted as more evidence of their “Big Pharma/Big Medicine/Big Government” conspiracy theory, and they will paint Trudeau as a martyr for the alt-med cause. Which is fine with me, so long as Trudeau is a martyr in jail. [emphasis added]

Well, today I am happy to report that, while the wheels of justice do indeed grind slowly, Kevin Trudeau has finally gotten what he deserves: a long stay in prison :)

TV pitchman Kevin Trudeau gets 10-year sentence

Best-selling author Kevin Trudeau, whose name became synonymous with late-night TV pitches, was sentenced to 10 years in prison Monday for bilking consumers through ubiquitous infomercials for his book, “The Weight Loss Cure ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About.”

As he imposed the sentence prosecutors had requested, U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman portrayed the 50-year-old Trudeau as a habitual fraudster going back to his early adulthood. So brazen was Trudeau, the judge said, he once even used his own mother’s Social Security number in a scheme.

“Since his 20s, he has steadfastly attempted to cheat others for his own gain,” Guzman said, adding that Trudeau is “deceitful to the very core.” …

I could go on, but suffice it to say that despite Trudeau’s lame attempts to defend himself and his actions, the judge was having none of it.  Too often hucksters and liars like Trudeau play upon the fears and ignorance of science and critical thinking among the general population in order to line their own pockets or push an agenda (other notable examples include the late Sylvia Browne and creationist Ken Ham).

What is so satisfying about this outcome is the fact that, when the chips are down and someone like Trudeau and his ilk wind up in court, what really matters isn’t talking points, it’s all about evidence and logical arguments.  That’s why creationists have consistently lost in the courts, and that’s also why Trudeau is now going to prison… because they have no evidence to back up their baseless claims.

Personally, I’d like to see more of this kind of thing; hopefully, it will send a message to those pseudoscientists who want to play doctor but not actually be responsible for what they say.  But for now, I shall bask in the afterglow of Trudeau’s epic pwning…

pwned-facekick

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Supreme Court Strikes Down Prop 8 and DOMA, Religious Right Collectively Loses Its Sh*t

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 26, 2013

Well, if you haven’t heard the news, here it is: today the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) struck down the discriminatory Prop 8 law in California outlawing gay marriage and aspects of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which denied federal benefits to married same-sex couples.

**Applause!** :)

I applaud because, at it’s heart, these discriminatory laws are purely religiously based; that is, they have been pushed by those who wish to impose their particular religious belief upon the rest of us.  The religious right whack-a-loons want to use their narrow view of religion as the law of the land; in short, they wish to impose a theocracy here in the U.S.

If you have any doubt that the motivations behind these anti-gay laws are not rooted in fundamentalist religion, just look at the reaction of one of the biggest religious right-wing groups out there, the American Family Association, wherein they claim that this decision will lead to God’s judgement/wrath:

And everywhere I’ve looked so far, pretty much every religious right outlet is having the same reaction…

thestupiditburns

Of course, now that the religious bigots have lost in the courts, watch them start to get even crazier in the states. Expect to see different laws proposed placing more restrictions on gay couples getting married, “pro-family” laws, and similar nonsense. In short, the religious right is going to head into meltdown mode over this, but then they will only hasten their own collective demise because as they get ever more extreme and crazy, they will increasingly marginalize themselves from civilized society.

Posted in politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Purveyor of Fake “Bomb Detectors” Found Guilty of Fraud

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 25, 2013

Wow, sometimes the good guys win one. In case you didn’t know, there has been a long-running skeptical campaign against a pseudoscientific fraudster, James McCormick, who sold bomb dowsing kits to the Iraqi military. Yes, you read that correctly, dowsing kits – as in “water witching”! And no, dowsing doesn’t work. And yes, it resulted in a lot of people getting killed, because these things didn’t do squat to detect bombs. And yes, it pleases me greatly to see this criminal finally receive justice…

James McCormick guilty of selling fake bomb detectors

James McCormick arrives at the Old Bailey
McCormick’s fake bomb detectors were used at Iraqi checkpoints staffed by the British military

A millionaire businessman who sold fake bomb detectors to countries including Iraq and Georgia, knowing they did not work, has been convicted of fraud.

James McCormick, 56, of Langport, Somerset, is said to have made £50m from sales and sold more than 6,000 in Iraq, the Old Bailey heard.

Police said the devices, modelled on a novelty golf ball finder, are still in use at some checkpoints.

One Iraqi bomb victim described him to the BBC as a “morally bankrupt” man.

During Tuesday’s hearing at the Old Bailey in London, the court was told McCormick’s detectors, which cost up to $40,000 (£27,000) each, were completely ineffectual and lacked any grounding in science.

Richard Whittam QC, for the prosecution, said: “The devices did not work and he knew they did not work.”

McCormick’s claims

McCormick had claimed the devices could bypass “all forms of concealment”, detecting drugs and people along with explosives, the court heard.

He claimed they would work under water and from the air, and would track an object up to 1km (3280ft) below the ground.

The bomb detectors came with cards which were “programmed” to detect a wide array of substances, from ivory to $100 banknotes.

Other substances could be detected, it was claimed, if put in a jar with a sticker which would absorb its “vapours” and was then stuck on a card that would be read by the machine.

In reality, McCormick’s device was based on $20 (£13) golf ball finders which he had purchased from the US and which had no working electronics.

Police said McCormick showed a complete disregard for the safety of those who used and relied upon the device for their own security and protection. …

Serves this scumbag right.  I hope they throw the book at him, not only for his crimes but also to send a clear message to the other fraudsters and charlatans out there: we’re watching you.  Skepticism matters.

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Creationist Proposes Show Trial to “Disprove” Genesis

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 29, 2013

Okay, so this news has been all over the Internet in recent days: a California creationist is challenging anyone to disprove the literal  interpretation of the book of Genesis.  More on this:

Creationist Wagers $10,000 That No One Can Prove Genesis Wrong

adam-eve-apple

…The wager is $10,000, the arena is a minitrial (featuring a  bailiff and a court reporter along with the judge), and the rules state that  evidence must be “objective, valid, reliable and calibrated.”

“They [evolutionists] are not stupid people, they are bright, but  they are bright enough to know there is no scientific evidence they can give in  a minitrial,” Dr. Joseph Mastropaolo,  who has a PhD in kinesiology and taught biomechanics and physiology at a  California University for more than 25 years, told The Guardian.   “It turns out that there is nothing in the universe [that] is evolving — everything is devolving, everything is going in the opposite  direction.”…

And here are the rules as outlined by Dr. Mastropaolo…

  • The non-literal Genesis advocate puts $10,000 in escrow with the judge.
  • The literal Genesis advocate and contributing writer for the Creation  Science Hall of Fame, Joseph Mastropaolo, puts $10,000 in escrow with the  judge.
  • If the non-literal Genesis advocate proves that science contradicts  the literal reading of Genesis, then the non-literal Genesis advocate is awarded  the $20,000.
  • If the literal Genesis advocate proves that science indicates the  literal reading of Genesis, then the literal Genesis advocate is awarded the  $20,000.
  • Evidence must be scientific, that is, objective, valid, reliable and  calibrated.
  • The preponderance of evidence prevails.
  • At the end of the trial, the judge hands the prevailing party both  checks.
  • The judge is a superior court judge.
  • The venue is a courthouse.
  • Court costs will be paid by the prevailing party.

Please make note of that bolded point in particular, because it really begs the question as to what exactly Dr. Mastropaolo (and other Young-Earth Creationists) consider to be “scientific evidence”.  And this is nothing new, as Mastropaolo has been here before, calling this challenge the Life Science Prize in the past.  As this excerpt from an article by Dr. Michael Zimmerman (creator of the Clergy Letter Project) details, in his previous attempts to put on these show trials, Mastropaolo seems to play fast and loose with definitions:

… When I proposed that we agree on definitions of evolution and creationism as a starting point, things went awry pretty quickly.  In response to my suggestion that we use the classic textbook definition for evolution (a change in allele frequencies in a population over time), Mastropaolo’s second argued that “change in allele frequency is about as meaningless a definition of evolution as can be offered.”  Mastropaolo himself countered with the following:  “evolution is the development of an organism from its chemicals to its primitive state to its present state.”  My Ph.D. in evolutionary biology didn’t help me make any sense out of that definition.  Mastropaolo went further and said that I “may not be competent to contend for the Life Science Prize.”

He very much liked the phrase “competent to contend for the Life Science Prize, also warning me that “Evolutionist hallucinators so out of touch with reality are psychotic by medical dictionary definition, and therefore not mentally competent to contend for the Life Science Prize.” … [emphasis added]

This displays a flaw common to creationist thinking: they define evolution to be something other than what scientists (or “evolutionists”, as they call them) define it to be!  So by playing around with the definitions like this, the creationists can stack the deck in their favor through simple equivocation.

But it gets better.  This whole thing seems to be copied from the famous JREF Million Dollar Challenge; a problem with how this is set up which is different from the JREF challenge: it is asking the challenger to prove a negative, whereas the JREF challenge is asking the challenger to demonstrate a particular claimed ability. This is a big difference, because by asking the challenger to prove a negative, it allows the creationists in this case to play fast and loose with definitions, standards of evidence, etc. – just as Mastropaolo has done in the past.

Last, but certainly not least, creationism has been put on trial as recently as 2005, and it lost quite badly.  Does anyone remember a little thing called the Dover v. Kitzmiller trial? :)

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Necessity of Vigilance: Fundamentalists Ignore the Law in Texas

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 12, 2013

Well, you have to give the religious fundamentalists in this country (the United States) one thing: they are indeed persistent.  In fact, the situation in Texas public schools goes beyond the blatant teaching of creationism (which is a problem), because it extends to these fundamentalists pushing their narrow religious interpretations in public school “Bible classes”…

In Texas schools, failing grade for Bible courses

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the devotional use of the Bible by public schools, in its ruling on Abington Township v. Schempp.

But many school districts in the Lone Star State still haven’t gotten the message, according to a report released last month by the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) entitled “Reading, Writing and Religion.”

Conducted by religious studies professor Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University, the study examines elective Bible courses offered in 57 Texas school districts and 3 charter schools and concludes that “evidence of sectarian bias, predominantly favoring perspectives of conservative Protestantism, is widespread.” (The full report is available at http://www.tfn.org/biblecourses.)

In other words, school officials in many parts of Texas convert public schools into Sunday schools in violation of the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion. … [emphasis added]

So there you have it.  When these fundamentalists lose in court they just ignore the law and continue with their illegal and unconstitutional proselytizing in public schools.  This shows the necessity of vigilance on the part of those of us who value a secular society which fosters good science education and keeps church and state separate.  So if your child attends a school with these kind of Bible courses, make sure to check up and see that they’re being taught in a constitutionally sound manner.

Posted in creationism, education, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The State of Louisiana Comes Lurching into the 20th Century!

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 5, 2012

My friend and skeptical colleague Phil over at Skeptic Money has passed along some welcome news: the Louisiana private school voucher program has been found to be unconstitutional!  Whoo-hoo!!!  :)[**Aside: If you recall, the state of Louisiana has been a hotbed of creationist activity over the years; more on that here and here.  And yes, that fact is important.  Read on...]

This is news partly because the program was being used to funnel public school money to private religious schools which specialized in indoctrinating children into fundamentalist forms of Christianity which taught, among other things, creationism as “science”.  In addition, let us also not forget that this was the award-winning 21st century educational plan which would teach that the Loch Ness Monster was real as a way of supporting creationism.  Phil has some more interesting information on these developments:

Louisiana $11 Million Creationism Give Away 

News from the State of Louisiana today!

“A state judge on Friday shot down Louisiana’s sweeping school voucher program, ruling that the state could not use funds set aside for public education to pay private-school tuition…”

This is huge.  They were going to spend $11 Million to teach creationism.

“Louisiana is preparing to spend over $11 million to send 1,365 students to 20 private schools that teach creationism instead of science as part of Governor Bobby Jindal’s new voucher program.”

This $11 Million is to come out of the public schools.  According to a report from “American Legislative Exchange Council” Louisiana ranks 49 out of 51 (They also ranked the District of Columbia).  I guess they want to race to the bottom.

The governor is not happy about the ruling.

“Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who had championed the program, called the ruling “wrong-headed” and “a travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education.” “

A great education?  These children are not being educated.  They are being thrown back to the bronze age.  We might as well teach them that 2+2 equals “fish”.

“While State District Judge Tim Kelley ruled the voucher program unconstitutional, he did not issue an immediate injunction to stop it. The 5,000 students currently receiving vouchers will be able to continue attending their private schools pending an appeal, state officials said.”

What?  The state creates a blatantly illegal program and a judge rules against it but yet it continues.  It looks like they are still going to spend that $11 Million on creationism.  I feel like we live in some kind of bizzaro world.

This is all promoted by a guy that wants to be the next President of the United States Bobby Jindal.

So… the program will continue for the immediate future (probably until the end of the current academic year), which will no doubt give Jindal and his political allies time to come up with another cockamamie scheme that will bilk the taxpayers and direct their money towards religious zealots who have no interest in teaching their kids (or anybody else’s kids) science.

I agree with Phil.  The irony here is that Jindal and his religious right allies go on and on about “giving the kids a great education” but it’s apparent they wouldn’t know good science education if it bit them squarely in the ass.  Remember folks, these are the same people who want to give public tax money to schools that teach the Loch Ness Monster is real.  Just chew on that for a bit, folks…

In conclusion, I think it is appropriate to end this post with the following clip from Bill Maher’s movie Religulous.  In it he is interviewing a U.S. Senator (Mark Pryor from Arkansas) who is trying to justify creationism.  When challenged by Maher, the Senator responds with the following, quite telling, line: “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate…”

Yup, he really said that.  Watch for yourself (the dialog leading up to the line starts at 4:00):

Wow.

Posted in creationism, cryptozoology, education, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Birthers Hit a New Low…

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 20, 2012

So there’s this nutjob… err, I mean law enforcement officer… named Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona who has apparently taken it upon himself to “prove” that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen (a conspiracy theory known as “birtherism“).  This has consisted of basically engaging in rampant conspiracy mongering that President Obama’s birth certificate (which you can see here) is a forgery, despite the fact that it has been certified as authentic repeatedly.  Well, in their quest to pursue their bigoted… err, I mean intense and serious… investigation of the citizenship of the POTUS, they have hit a new low.

And here it is:

The Globe Magazine… that bastion of journalistic excellence.  *Sigh* ‘Nuff said.

Posted in conspiracy theories, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Judge Proposes Cutting Ten Commandments Down to Six

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 10, 2012

For many years now, various fundamentalist Christian groups have been attempting to post the Ten Commandments (which version?  Good question…) in public buildings, using the lame argument that they serve a “secular purpose” as a way of skirting lawsuits for violation of church-state separation.  Well, now those folks have been hoisted by their own pertard :)

Image Source

Cut Ten Commandments down to 6?

Judge Michael Urbanski suggested a possible compromise to the issue that has been raging in the Giles County school system.

By Laurence Hammack 981-3239

Could the Ten Commandments be reduced to six, a federal judge asked Monday.

Would that neutralize the religious overtones of a commandments display that has the Giles County School Board in legal hot water?

That unorthodox suggestion was made by Judge Michael Urbanski during oral arguments over whether the display amounts to a governmental endorsement of religion, as alleged in a lawsuit filed by a student at Narrows High School.

After raising many pointed questions about whether the commandments pass legal muster, the judge referred the case to mediation – with a suggestion:

Remove the first four commandments, which are clearly religious in nature, and leave the remaining six, which make more secular commands, such as do not kill or steal.

Ever since the lawsuit was filed in September amid heated community reaction, school officials have said the display is not religious because it also includes historical documents such as the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

“If indeed this issue is not about God, why wouldn’t it make sense for Giles County to say, ‘Let’s go back and just post the bottom six?’” Urbanski asked during a motions hearing in U.S. District Court in Roanoke.

“But if it’s really about God, then they wouldn’t be willing to do that.” … [emphasis added]

I think this judge is a genius.  He’s asking the obvious question which clearly shows the motivations of these fundamentalists: to use public institutions to force their religious beliefs upon the rest of us.  Up until this point, the fundamentalists have tried to have it both ways, using the wiggle room argument of a “secular purpose” as a wedge.  But I think that’s the point of what the judge here is saying: to deny them any wiggle room at all. They must either step up and admit flat out that they had (and still do) a religious intent when displaying the Ten Commandments, and thus risk being on the losing end of a costly lawsuit; or they must accept the compromise, and thus risk encurring the wrath of their constituents. This lame attempt on their part to play coy and try coming up with an ad hoc “secular purpose” after the fact won’t fly with this judge.

They only have themselves to blame for getting into this position in the first place. If they bothered to follow the First Amendment Establishment Clause in the beginning, they wouldn’t have this problem; but nooooo, they had to try pushing their religious beliefs.

Quite frankly, they deserve the smackdown coming their way.

Posted in politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Science & Skepticism Triumph in the New Jersey Courts

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 29, 2011

It’s not often spoken of, but I think perhaps one of the most critical reasons why it is that we need to have a populace that is well educated in basic critical thinking and reasoning skills can be summed up in how our court system works.  In the United States, many trials in court are decided by juries, which are composed of everyday folk like you and me.  And, as is sometimes the case, juries that are tasked with making major decisions – such as in murder cases – can all-too-often fall victim to sloppy thinking.  And, unfortunately, sometimes this sloppy thinking is actively encouraged by rules set by the courts themselves!

However, recently there as a welcome challenge to the status quo: the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued new guidelines and regulations for how to take into account the validity of eyewitness testimony and the fallibility of human memory regarding identification.  Read the following article from The Innocence Project for more information…

New Jersey Supreme Court Issues Landmark Decision Mandating Major Changes in the Way Courts Handle Identification Procedures

Today the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a landmark decision requiring major changes in the way courts are required to evaluate identification evidence at trial and how they should instruct juries.  The new changes, designed to reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions by taking into account more than 30 years of scientific research on eyewitness identification and memory, require courts to greatly expand the factors that courts and juries should consider in assessing the risk of misidentification. …

… The court’s decision requires judges to more thoroughly scrutinize the police identification procedures and many other variables that affect an eyewitness identification. The court noted that this more extensive scrutiny will require enhanced jury instructions on factors that increase the risk of misidentification. These factors include:

• Whether the lineup procedure was administered “double blind,” meaning that the officer who administers the lineup is unaware who the suspect is and the witness is told that the officer doesn’t know.
• Whether the witness was told that the suspect may not be in the lineup and that they need not make a choice.
• Whether the police avoided providing the witness with feedback that would cause the witness to believe he or she selected the correct suspect.  Similarly, whether the police recorded the witnesses’ level of confidence at the time of the identification.
• Whether the witness had multiple opportunities to view the same person, which would make it more likely for the witness to choose this person as the suspect.
• Whether the witness was under a high level of stress.
• Whether a weapon was used, especially if the crime was of short duration.
• How much time the witness had to observe the event.
• How far the witness was from the perpetrator and what the lighting conditions were.
• Whether the witness possessed characteristics that would make it harder to make an identification, such as age of the witness and influence of alcohol or drugs.
• Whether the perpetrator possessed characteristics that would make it harder to make an identification.  Was he or she wearing a disguise?  Did the suspect have different facial features at the time of the identification?
• The length of time between the crime and identification.
• Whether the case involved cross-racial identification.

Folks, this is a big deal, because there is a mountain of strongly-supported research which shows just how untrustworthy and malleable memories can be and how this can lead to all manner of mistakes regarding the positive identification of suspects in court cases.  For example, take a look at some of the work done by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus on this subject of the misinformation effect and false memories.

Th main point here that I want to emphasize is that the new Jersey Supreme Court took a huge step in the right direction by relying on the most well-tested science to guide its decision.  And that is important, because science – more than any other human endeavor – has allowed us to collectively sort out the good ideas from the bad ideas regarding how the world works.  And how the world works includes how we, as fallible beings, interact with it and each other.

In closing, I want to emphasize my point about critical thinking in the courts, and specifically in the jury box and deliberation room, by encouraging you to watch one of the best movies ever on the subject: 12 Angry Men.  The original was made in 1957, but it was remade in 1997, and I think either version is excellent viewing.  If you have never seen either version, take some time to check them out on Youtube or rent them, because I can only hope that every jury in the world is as rational as this one…

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