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July 23, 2019

Prof. Says Way Courts Determine Scientific Facts Is “Crazy”

A professor at the Vanderbilt Law School told Legal Newsline having non-scientist jurors determine questions of scientific fact after hearing competing sets of experts and cross-examinations is “a crazy way to handle the situation.”

Professor Edward Cheng, who studies scientific questions in courts, discussed two cases in which there are disputes over scientific consensus: Roundup and talcum powder litigation. Plaintiffs’ experts and government regulators are at odds over whether the Roundup weed killer’s active ingredient is a cancer risk. Similarly, a federal judge in New Jersey said plaintiffs’ experts in the talcum powder litigation made “numerous leaps of logic that defy scientific knowledge and methods” in testimony from a doctor who presented findings that asbestos was found in the powder. That doctor’s results have yet to be replicated by other experts.

Professor Cheng said the current system leaves these questions to the jury, not the judge, and that “law doesn’t require the usual scientific standards of proof to decide a case.” He says a system similar to medical malpractice cases, in which juries determine if the doctor went outside of the expert community’s standard of care rather than determining scientific questions, would change the issue to “trying to ascertain what the expert community might conclude,” rather than what scientific evidence says.

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