Saturday, May 30, 2009

Very Squishy Knowledge

Physics and mathematics are known as the pure sciences. The accepted "facts" of these disciplines can usually be verified by mathematical proof. If 2+2=4 then 4-2=2. It doesn't leave a lot of room for argument. The late Harvard University Paleontologist Steven Jay Gould referred to Biology and the Social Sciences as the "squishy" sciences. These disciplines do not provide clear mathematical proofs, but rely primarily on statistical probabilities to support their theories.

In courtroom trials of the "he said-she said" variety, there is often a complete lack of any meaningful physical or corroborating evidence. The jury must make a decision based primarily by weighing the perceived credibility of one person's word against another, and of course, the pomp and theatrical abilities of their respective lawyers. In child sexual abuse trials this is often the case. But the reality is that most juries find child witnesses to be highly credible, in spite of the fact that it has now been shown that children often lie on the witness stand, for a variety of reasons. Juries also convict not because there is innocence beyond a reasonable doubt, but because there is the possibility that the accused person might be guilty, and they don't want the responsibility of setting them free to abuse another child. This is a manifestation of the child sexual abuse hysteria that has become an integral part of our culture over the last quarter century. By reaching verdicts based on these fears, juries have sent untold innocents to prison for decades, or life.

In reviewing the sparse and often circumstantial evidence in these cases, one can never be absolutely certain of whether or not the alleged assault actually occurred. Anytime any adult is alone with a child there is the possibility that a sexual assault could have occurred. Eventually you have to come down on the side of guilt or innocence of the accused. That decision is based on epistemological knowledge. After reviewing all of the evidence we ask ourselves the question - does this accusation seem plausible and reasonable? That is as much an intuitive decision as it is a logical one. And therefore, it is a decision subject to the pitfalls of human fallibility, fear and ignorance.

Very squishy knowledge indeed!