About the SA Blog Network

Absolutely Maybe

Absolutely Maybe

Evidence and uncertainties about medicine and life
Absolutely Maybe Home

Inching closer towards a science base for justice

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

Photo of installation

Who does the crime? Whose power? Whose values? Belief + Doubt: Installation by Barbara Kruger

In a courtroom, the full power of the state comes down on an individual. No one should have to face that on their own.

A criminal defense lawyer was making this argument to me after a long day in the court we were both working in. I’d asked him, how could he defend that man? After what he had done.

Without this, he said, without a system to temper power, we don’t have civilization.

That was in Australia, back in the 1970s. I was a court reporter for four years or so – the stenographer that takes down the evidence and reports legal argument. I’d started when I was 17.

I was often on circuit – judge, court staff and lawyers from Sydney going to country towns to deal with whatever serious offenses had surfaced and navigated the police system there.

Being away from home in a small group gives people time to talk at leisure. But I never heard discussions about the need to empirically test issues related to aspects of justice. The wide-ranging rise of randomized experiments in this area by criminologists, psychologists and other scientists was still ahead.

Photo of courthouse

Colonial architecture: Bourke courthouse, 1978, outback Australia

I took this photo of the courthouse in Bourke in 1978. It’s stunningly beautiful country out there – very deep in the outback. “Back o’ Bourke” is one of Australians’ expressions for describing just how remote some place is.

Bourke is an amazing, complicated, rough town. The legacy of colonial genocide hits you hard there. A race riot in 1997 branded it the most racist town in Australia. It was only last year that the first shop owner in Bourke took down the security shutters that had become normal after that riot.

There had been rioting not long before our plane landed too. Feelings were running high because of what we were coming for: the trial of a white police officer who had shot a young indigenous man in the leg.

The police didn’t want us to set foot outside our hotel without their protection. As soon as they dropped us off there from the airport, though, the judge headed out on a long walk around town, including the parts with charred houses. People needed to see that the court was independent: “without fear or favor.” I went with him.

I felt like I’d walked into To Kill a Mockingbird that week. A version where Atticus Finch was the judge, but the outcome was the same. The all-white jury acquitted the policeman.

Image of female symbol of justice holding sword and olive branch

Law: mosaic by Frederick Dielman at the U.S. Library of Congress

Watching juries day-in and day-out for a few years made me doubt that they can rise much above the racial, gender and other prejudices of their communities. It’s heart wrenching. What happens in a court is at once the source of stigma and the enforcer of it.

It’s hard to know objectively, though, how biased or effective juries are: people would be unwilling to put the jury institution itself on trial. For many, it’s an expression of democracy that brooks no doubt.

So scientists work hard to do the most unbiased research possible within these constraints. There have been lots of studies with mock juries and simulated court cases. But it remains far from the reality of a deliberating jury.

There are good data on how often the presiding judge in a criminal trial in the U.S. disagrees with the jury’s verdict: it’s about a third of the time. When it gets complex, judges and juries interpret the strength of evidence and the law differently.

It’s hard to argue, from what we know, that a jury is very effective at “diagnosing” the truth – or that all the other components of trials achieve it either. It’s unclear whether a jury of 12 is better than another number, or whether a unanimous vote is more likely to be “right.” And we don’t know for sure how to quickly pre-select jurors who will be less prejudiced or less easily swayed.

Some other democratic countries, like the Netherlands, don’t have juries. The Netherlands is one of the countries whose justice systems were shaped by the Napoleonic Code. The Dutch system relies on judicial independence and open justice – keeping court proceedings open to the public – to temper the power of the state.

Other countries, like Germany, have a tribunal of professional judges and lay people who take the job for several years at a time. The history of Germany’s judicial policy illustrates the sociopolitical stakes and drama that underlie these institutions.

Judicial systems like the Dutch and German ones are called non-adversarial or inquisitorial, because the judges are responsible for the fact-finding. In adversarial ones, including offshoots of Britain’s common law system in Australia and the U.S., judges are more like referees between prosecution and defense. But even in these countries, many matters are tried directly from the Bench.

I’ve never been in a jury. But I have seen the view from the Bench when there’s no jury. In the 1990s, after I had been a health consumer advocate and researcher for years, I was appointed to a panel of people eligible to co-adjudicate disciplinary hearings for doctors in the state I lived in.

A full Medical Tribunal there is a court case, in a court room, with a judge, two doctors and a layperson who has been accepted by both the consumer protection side and the medical profession. I ended up sitting on the Bench with a judge I’d worked with years before as a reporter.

It was a patient-to-patient HIV transmission case. Catherine Waldby and colleagues studied that Tribunal, coming to the conclusion that it was a more appropriate way to deal with the complexity of the virus and its transmission than the criminal court approach used elsewhere.

It was very high pressure. There were days you’d have to dodge TV cameras to get into the courtroom. I lost a lot of sleep during the days of that hearing. I can’t imagine how I would have made up my mind with confidence if I couldn’t get as many answers from expert witnesses as I needed, and then deliberate with legal and content experts. It gave me a lot of sympathy for the worried looks I used to see on jurors’ faces.

Image of artwork

Waiting for the judgement of the gods c. 1300 BCE: The weighing of the heart, Book of the Dead of Ani (British Museum, Wikimedia Commons)

“I know your laws: now you can understand mine.”

Those are the words of Joe Ngallametta, an Elder of the people of Aurukun in west Cape York, Queensland, northern Australia. He passes the knowledge from the laws of The Dreaming to young people in his community, and shares them with the non-indigenous world too. Those traditions are thousands of years old, and they point to some ways that might improve our relative newcomer systems of regulating human affairs.

Traditional Australian Aboriginal laws aren’t about the state acting, and there’s a focus on restorative justice. Restorative justice is not about interrogation and punishment. It is concerned with getting towards truth with depth of understanding, the sincere apology a victim needs, making amends, and a path to a future without re-offending.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up in 1995, is another example of drawing on traditional laws, this time from Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s Xhosa tradition of ubuntu. The post-apartheid South African constitution embedded more traditional restorative justice perspectives into law.

In 1989, a criminologist from Queensland, John Braithwaite, published a book arguing that we had much to learn from the Aboriginal peoples’ traditions of managing shame, re-integrating criminals and healing the social harm crime causes. You can read more about this in the background of this recent systematic review by Heather Strang and colleagues. (And more on systematic review methodology here and on meta-analysis – the analysis of data from more than one study – here.)

That review analyzed 10 randomized trials of restorative justice conferencing (RJC) with 1879 offenders, based generally on the Braithwaite model. Trained facilitators bring together victims, offenders and perhaps kin and community who want to come to an agreement about what the offender can do to repair the harm they had caused.

Those authors concluded that compared with conventional options like going to court, RJC improved victims’ satisfaction and reduced re-offending – with the proviso that a trial in Australia was toxic for the Aboriginal people who participated.

Their meta-analyses show impressive results, but we really do need to see more trials before we can be sure who is helped, and when it is an appropriate alternative to criminal prosecution. We still need trials for a wider range of offenses and crimes, including sexual assault. We need to be sure the comparatively negative ratings by victims in the control groups weren’t because they were disappointed about missing out on getting to safely express their feelings to the offender.

A systematic review by Nuala Livingstone and colleagues, published a few months before, covered largely the same body of evidence, but came to a different conclusion: they don’t believe the trials show a definite benefit.

I’ve written before about the problem of dueling meta-analyses, then in relation to preventing post-traumatic stress disorder. In this case, several factors contribute to the difference in conclusions. The Livingstone review is about children and teenagers, and while the overlap is major, there are trials in adults covered additionally by the Strang review.

Livingstone’s includes a trial with a negative outcome that Strang’s group rejected on quality grounds. Including it drags the results down. And there were different choices in data analysis that moved the needle.

Whether you agree with the more positive take from Strang’s team, the less enthusiastic one from Livingstone’s, or, like me, land somewhere between the two, these trials still make the case for giving this alternative model a chance to fully develop.

Strang’s review points to areas where versions are already embedded in justice systems. In New Zealand, a traditional Maori practice now called the family group conference became a standard for juvenile crime in 1989. In Australia, diversionary conferences can be available as an alternative to police prosecution. In non-legal settings like employment and education, it’s called transformative justice.

Statistical results in a forest plot

Scared straight meta-analysis: increased crime (Odds ratio, 95% CI, fixed effects model)

It can be important for new systems to get the kind of rigorous empirical testing that our conventional systems have not had. This image displays the compelling results of a group of trials in a forest plot that serve as a cautionary tale of how badly wrong well-intentioned ideas can go.

In 1978, a documentary called Scared Straight! won an Academy award. It advocated for confronting teenagers who had committed offenses with harsh encounters with prisoners and prisons as a deterrent. It became a movement that grew quickly.

Years later, a systematic review of randomized trials of “Scared straight” programs would find not only no benefit, but an overall increase in the rate of crime. (That review was updated last year. It’s a riveting read.)

Link to YouTube video with Chris Ofili

Chris Ofili talks about injustice, grief and his haunting portrait of Doreen Lawrence: No Woman, No Cry

Whether it’s a novel or conventional system, it will involve the police: one of society’s most challenging roles.

Policing – the good and the bad – was another issue at the heart of the trial in Bourke. That police officer was on trial, not because his colleagues arrested him, but because of intervention from Sydney. The force also took action after the jury’s acquittal.

I didn’t encounter the police as a force of good and protection as a child, though – a consequence of being born on the wrong side of the tracks, and into a life long shadowed by the threat of outbreaks of domestic violence.

I only ever sought police help once when I was a kid. My mother whispered to me to get help. I crept on hands and knees behind furniture, then darted out behind my father to the door, and ran to the police station as though the devil were after me. But the police wouldn’t come. Profound distrust was born of the fear and despair I felt as I walked back to my mother with the news that we were on our own. It lingers.

That story is a microcosm of a critical aspect of procedural justice. There has to be community cooperation and belief in the legitimacy of the police and the neutrality of the force. There has to be dignity and respect in authorities’ interactions with the community, and trustworthy motives – no profiling or favoring on the basis of race or anything else. A consequence of not experiencing procedural justice is a lack of respect for the laws of the state. Not surprisingly, that can increase crime. Distributive justice – who gets the bulk of police protection – affects police legitimacy, too.

systematic review by Lorraine Mazerolle and colleagues published a year ago found and analyzed 30 studies on police-initiated interventions that intend to increase community perceptions of police legitimacy or at least one aspect of procedural justice.

Mostly they were programs in community policing – training officers, involving them in community activities, doing foot patrols. Some were programs for police-based alternative dispute resolution processes instead of taking people to court – including a couple of the trials of RJC. Plus a few specific programs had components that met the study criteria – like this one aiming to reduce illegal gun possession and fear of gun violence in New Haven, Connecticut. There was one neighborhood watch program, too.

So did any of it work? There’s still a way to go to know exactly what works best, and in what context. But there was enough impact on community confidence and reduced reports of being victims of crime to be encouraging. With effort, change can come faster.

Photo of statue

Raymond J. Kaskey's Justice Delayed, Justice Denied (at Alexandria Courthouse, Virginia, USA)

That science is being brought to bear on these issues gives me a lot of hope. But these days, it seems somewhat ironic to me that our symbol of justice is a woman. I chose this image of her as my final for this post – “Justice Delayed, Justice Denied” – to symbolize the system’s partial blindness to the suffering of women.

When I was a teenager working in courts, the second-wave of feminism was swirling around me. It changed the course of my life and the way I looked at the world. In my work, I’d see society’s prejudices about women reflected in unfairness, especially in trials of violence against women.

I thought it was going to change more quickly. More than 30 years later, and justice for women is still too often denied. It seems to me, if the justice system worked well for women, and if our attitudes towards women had changed enough, women would be experiencing less sexual transgression, and women would be far safer from personal violence. Locally and globally.

Recently, science writers have been going through great turmoil over the issue of sexual harassment, respecting women’s boundaries and how to deal with offenses and allegations that fall outside clearly established systems for dealing with these matters. As women began to talk about what was happening in their lives, it struck me starkly just how much unfinished business we as a society still have. And how ill-equipped we are to neither sweep things under the carpet nor allow things to spiral excessively when we’re hurt or angry.

A meta-analysis in 2003 by Remus Ilies and colleagues found that work-related harassment is under-recognized, under-reported and unlikely to be exaggerated. Ilies’ review of literature suggested that women tend not to describe incidents as harassment – but whether they do or they don’t label what happens to them as harassment, the negative impact of the incidents themselves is the same.

Based on more than 86,000 respondents in probability samples, Ilies’ meta-analysis concluded that around a quarter of women in the U.S. have experienced sexual harassment at work, as defined by researchers.

What about sexual assault? Consider these conclusions in 2006 by Erin Casey and colleague: from the ’70s till then, there may have been a small, but not major, drop in sexual assault in the ’90s. However after that, although sexual assault in young girls may have decreased, there appeared to be an increasing rate of sexual assault in adolescents. And women’s perceptions of community responsiveness may have worsened slightly.

Rates of sexual assault are hard to assess reliably and often exaggerated, but it’s unquestionably far too common a part of our experience as women. In 2011, Jody Raphael and colleagues estimated that the rate of rape remains fairly constant at about 15 – 18% of women, and it’s still greatly under-reported. While only 2 – 8% of reports may be false, many still seem to treat all allegations as though they’re highly likely to be unfair on the accused.

When it comes to “he said, she said,” the woman may be discounted every step of the way in her life, and in the justice system. In the unfair world we live in, whether it’s gender, race or any other area of systemic inequity, the accused can seem to have so much more to lose by virtue of that unfairness.

Whatever we’ve been doing hasn’t worked – or it hasn’t worked enough. Women’s suffering remains too invisible. It’s hard to make it visible, though, when to do so may not protect us from people we fear or can’t avoid – or it would harm people close to us, people that we love. Perhaps making it more visible when we can, will help.

That offenses against women on such a scale aren’t being dealt with in a way that makes society respond with greater protection and support for women’s safety, indicates, I believe, systemic problems. The level of these problems are not the same in every community: it’s not an inevitable part of life. The trend towards innovation and empirical tests in justice is another chance to address them.

I started this post with an argument a lawyer made when I was a teenager. It helped me develop more confidence in a system that had failed me and was manifestly regularly failing many others before our eyes. A good system of justice is a pre-requisite for a society in which people can flourish – and not only those with power. You only have to look at a community where justice has completely broken down to be reminded of that. Justice and fairness need to be common practice – and not just in a courtroom.

Science isn’t “the” answer. But science can help edge us closer towards justice systems that work.


If you’re looking for information for support after trauma, there are resources for psychological first aid from the VA National Center for PTSD, including Handouts for Survivors.

If you’re interested in systematic reviews of aspects of the justice system, a great place to start is the Campbell Collaboration.

I took the photo of Barbara Kruger’s Belief + Doubt installation at the Smithsonian Hirschhorn Museum in Washington DC in 2013. See also this interview with Kruger.

The image of Frederick Dielman’s mosaic “Law” at the U.S. Library of Congress is from Wikimedia Commons.

The photo of The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani was taken at the British Museum by Edna Russmann (from Wikimedia Commons).

No Woman, No Cry by Chris Ofili (1998) is at the Tate Modern in London. More about the murder of Doreen Lawrence’s son, Stephen Lawrence.

Raymond J. Kaskey’s statue at the courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia is called “Justice Delayed, Justice Denied.” This photo of the work is from Dan4th Nicholas on flickr.

Comments and discussion are welcome at this blog, but the comments wait for my review before release.

* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hilda Bastian About the Author: Hilda Bastian likes thinking about bias, uncertainty and how we come to know all sorts of thing. Her day job is making clinical effectiveness research accessible. And she explores the limitless comedic potential of clinical epidemiology at her cartoon blog, Statistically Funny. Follow on Twitter @hildabast.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 18 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. geowiz875 1:41 pm 01/13/2014

    WTF does ‘meta-analysis mean?’ Now I tutor statistics to high school students, but didn’t know. Even after reading Wiki on the subject, I am still dubious as to its validity since it seems to carry a huge raft of assumptions and prejudices of its own into any such study.
    More to the point: this kind of jargon is so typical of the social sciences that, of course, they are mistrusted by the average intelligent reader – including me! (Just more ‘social engineering’)
    Explain yourself in plain language, however many words it may take, or not at all.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Noone 2:47 pm 01/13/2014


    Very well presented rubbish. Justice based on meta-analysis? Doesn’t that mean the justice meted out in both Stalin’s and Nazi courts, supported by 98% of the people, 98% of the jurists, 98% of the legal scholars, and 98% of the social scientists from 1934-1937 was the best that could have been achieved?


    Link to this
  3. 3. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 2:56 pm 01/13/2014

    Geowiz875 (#1): I had a link in there to an explanation, but I’ve added a sentence making links to brief, non-jargon explanations of both systematic reviews and meta-analysis. Actually, I’m not a social scientist, and it’s methodology and statistical analysis that’s most commonly used for the evaluation of the effects of drugs and other health care interventions.

    Even if I accepted this dismissal of the validity of this approach to evaluating the results of multiple studies on the same issue (and I clearly don’t), I don’t understand the connection with ‘social engineering.’ Indeed, I would argue the opposite is the case: whatever you mean by ‘social engineering’ is more likely in a policy environment where no one has to demonstrate whether or not what they are doing or proposing does more harm than good.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 3:09 pm 01/13/2014

    Noone (#2): Well, I guess it wasn’t actually very well-presented then!

    Totalitarian regimes have been able, and will continue to be able, to pervert judicial and policing systems, as well as all kinds of scientific methods – regardless of how scientists would choose to work to inform decision-makers about the effects on people and communities of their policies.

    The kind of science I am talking about in this post is actually pretty much the antithesis of determining public policy purely by the exercise of state power, or by polling experts or communities.

    Link to this
  5. 5. aidel 7:06 pm 01/13/2014

    There is a statement that I once believed very strongly in. I held it so dear that I considered it one of the core guiding principles of my life. That statement is “Justice, justice thou shalt pursue.” I now believe that this is an empty concept. Look at these ungrateful comments. Look at the world. While the most oppressed continue to struggle for justice, too many have lost their own humanity (as in sense of justice for others.)

    Link to this
  6. 6. bashford 8:30 pm 01/13/2014

    I’d just like to comment on one point: “It’s hard to argue, from what we know, that a jury is very effective at “diagnosing” the truth – or that all the other components of trials achieve it either.”

    I’ve been on several juries in the US both civil and criminal, including a 12-week civil trial. And one thing has always struck me – “truth” isn’t even relevant to the trial. Nobody involved except a few of the jurors seemed to care what actually happened that led to the trial. Procedure, confusion, and “authority” were the primary tools used to sway the juries. Witnesses lied blatantly, but nobody called them on it, including the jury. Jurors argued as much or more about stipulated facts as the facts in question and ignored others completely. The summing up, which took the judge 30+ minutes to speak, wasn’t supplied to the jury to re-read or reference.

    In none of the trials was it a matter of truth vs deception. It was a matter of a lot of things but what actually happened wasn’t one of them.

    I was surprised by your earlier sentence: “There are good data on how often the presiding judge in a criminal trial in the U.S. disagrees with the jury’s verdict: it’s about a third of the time.” That’s only a bit better than random! (Assuming they’re both correct when they agree.)

    As somebody said after one of the trials “in over 200 years, this is the best we can do?”

    Link to this
  7. 7. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 9:16 pm 01/13/2014

    Thanks, aidel (#5): Justice still matters – far more than most things. There are plenty worse things than internet rudeness! Yes, I think so many people have never really experienced serious injustice at the hands of the state, or feared that they might, that for them it’s an abstract concept perhaps. I also think many aren’t used to thinking about the need to be scientific in thinking about many aspects of life. I’d point back to Barbara Kruger’s fabulous installation, too (the links are worth looking at if you haven’t already): I think she hit lots of important nails on the head, and the supremacy of the word “doubt” in this piece is crucial. Too many people suffer from a chronic lack of doubt.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 9:28 pm 01/13/2014

    That’s depressing, but unfortunately probably not unusual, bashford (#6). There’s also plenty mostly concerned, in Australia where I worked in courts at least, with what they’re getting out of it, not what the responsibility is. I remember a person who knitted throughout the days – never mind the historical connotations of that – but the sheer trivialization was hard to watch. I don’t suppose they can imagine a time when they or someone they love is at the mercy of the court.

    Yes, those data are shocking. There is a proportion of open and shut cases – and after that, it does indeed get rather random. “This is the best we can do?” is exactly the right response to this ritual, isn’t it? I understand the spirit of the time and the aspiration that the establishment of this institution embodied: but people’s ideals might change, if they saw some of the alternatives and tested them.

    Link to this
  9. 9. geowiz875 2:04 pm 01/14/2014

    Dear Ms. Bastian,
    Thank you for the rebuttal but I have a problem. In an online magazine like SciAm, do I have to chase up links and references to understand the jargon in an article?
    So I missed your link and so would most readers. Since I do teach maths, I did take the trouble to hunt down ‘meta-analysis’ and, though Noone’s comment is exaggerated, it is a valid criticism of the whole method.

    Now consider the final paragraph in your letter of rebuttal.After the colon following ‘social engineering’, the rest of your sentence makes no logical sense whatsoever. Did you spend too many years in a courtroom listening to idiot lawyers?

    As a fellow Aussie, I believe that your caveats of LAW are true when applied to other societies. (Loved the example of Maori justice.) But if you wish to write for a more general public, do not wrap your prose in jargon like ‘meta-analysis’. Even the slightly educated public knows by now that such jargon means the scientists don’t really know what they are talking about and worse – leads to an anti-science backlash.
    Cheers Teekay

    Link to this
  10. 10. Son of Liberty 5:49 pm 01/15/2014

    The problem was stated at the beginning, the power of the state vs the individual. A rather lopsided fight. I believe this is best countered not by a system, as the lawyer contended, but by allowing competition in justice. The idea of private courts is difficult for most to swallow, but if a private court isn’t meeting the needs of its clients, they at least have the option of using something else. At present, we are stuck w a bad system.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 6:31 pm 01/15/2014

    Well, Son of Liberty (comment #9), I’m among those who find the idea of private courts difficult to swallow – yet to be convinced by private prisons either. That’s not because of ideology, but because of results. We already have quite a bit of private inside the courts we’ve got: it can be extraordinarily lopsided when someone has a bottomless pit to spend, too.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Son of Liberty 1:36 pm 01/16/2014

    The objections to the current private prison status are valid, but irrelevant to private courts. W a private court system, one of the biggest incentives will be victim compensation by the criminal/injuring party. Punishment would be lower priority (in many cases, probably), which would, again probably, lower incarceration rates, and make prisons the least desirable option for justice, and reserved for violent offenders.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Son of Liberty 1:37 pm 01/16/2014

    And I appreciate your response, thanks

    Link to this
  14. 14. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 6:47 pm 01/16/2014

    I see what you mean, Son of Liberty (comment #11) – that is more complex. I will read it and think about it. (And you’re welcome.)

    Link to this
  15. 15. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 10:30 am 01/25/2014

    OK, Teekay/geowiz875 (#9): now I’ve not only added a brief explanation in-line, I’ve written a whole other post about it – 5 key things to know about meta-analysis. I think your and Noone’s (#2) comments suggest to me that even though this term is widely used in newspapers etc now, yes, many people will have to look up what meta-analysis means.

    It can be a tough time with explaining jargon. In my previous job, where we were publishing information for patients based on research data, we had an independent university group do focus groups on every draft. And the more we explained the jargon, the more people would complain that distracted from reading the text and shouldn’t be there. If you explain too many things in too simple language, many feel you are talking down to them. If you don’t explain enough, people don’t understand. It’s tough to get this right. Linking is one of the simplest solutions – and I do try to make mine really obvious now.

    I would have been happy to sit for more years in courtrooms listening to lawyers, judges, witnesses, and accused, actually! It was a great education in many important ways. I’ll have another go at phrasing that argument though, because I think it’s an important one. I took your phrase ‘social engineering’ to mean policies that manipulate society for reasons of ideology or power.

    Evidence-based policy, it seems to me, is just about the exact opposite of that. It’s about deciding how you organize systems and services on the basis of what optimally meets people’s needs. Although yes, those determined to do what they want can also use evidence to their own ends, I believe having evidence that is as robust, transparent and relevant as possible is an important part of achieving the society people in a democracy want to have. It’s the alternative to people arguing only on the basis of their beliefs and power.

    I don’t believe you could support your claim that the public believes using jargon means scientists don’t know what they are talking about. Which is why pseudo-science (even shampoo ads!) uses that language so much. I could whip out studies to show my point – but really, to settle the argument we’d need someone to have looked at all the studies…..a meta-analysis would be cool. ;)

    Link to this
  16. 16. quintby 4:40 pm 02/2/2014

    I question your conclusory statement that “…….whether [women] do or they don’t label what happens to them as harassment, the negative impact of the incidents themselves is the same.” Harassment is in the eyes of the beholder, not the sideline analyst with an axe to grind. It is incalculable how many women in the U.S. have dated or even married male co-workers who engaged in sexual innuendo with her to gain a woman’s attention. The truth of the matter is that the reason these and many other woman don’t regard some “objective” harassment as harassment is that they find the allegedly “harasser” attractive and finds the attention he directs as flattering, not as harassment.

    Link to this
  17. 17. quintby 4:49 pm 02/2/2014

    So the “negative impact” is not, as you wrongly state, “the same for every woman” Indeed, the impact can be either neutral or even positive, once again depending upon which particular man has engaged in the described conduct with which particular woman.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 5:20 pm 02/2/2014

    Quintby (#16, #17): The research I’m citing is about unwanted sexual attention. Sexual transgression and crime between people who are known to each other is one of the most difficult areas for individuals and societies to come to terms with. That’s understandable. Obviously, I do not consider the research I chose to rely on as coming from a “sideline analyst with an axe to grind.” Indeed, the risk of bias and weaknesses of research in this area were addressed in great detail by the researchers whose work I chose, and they went about complexities of interpreting this research in a rigorous way. The biggest problem doesn’t seem to me to be researchers who can’t tell between harmless and harmful attention, but men and, less often, women, who can’t tell when their attentions aren’t wanted.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article