Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/October 1910/A Supreme Court of Science


By Professor J. PEASE NORTON


IN the government of the nations, political parties and elections are the slow methods by which national policies are determined. Movements are started in response to conditions which seem to require legislation. Gradually, these movements are combined within the political parties in the platforms of which the issues are suitably expressed. If the interests are sufficient in the combination rapidly to propagate the platform, the party comes into power. When in power, by agreement in the congress or the legislature, laws are placed upon the statute books. These laws are passed by the party after careful consideration by the committees having these matters in charge.

In all this, there is a great waste of effort, because the results are modified by small minorities who are able at tactical points to bring to bear immense pressure on individuals. In this manner, the will of the majority of the people, which is the vague desire to remedy wrongs or to perfect a better method of conserving the prosperity and of increasing the national comfort, is thwarted. As a result the laws in some instances are a generation out of date. When the situation becomes intolerable, a too radical reaction is inevitable, and, in the end, the peaceful, orderly development of a people is impaired to the great loss of the whole nation.

Now, many of the issues which divide the country, in fact all countries, into opposing camps are scientific in their nature. Long campaigns must be fought to decide policies which are capable of easy solution, if only an impartial court existed before which such issues could be tried. Just as technical questions require technical experts, technical issues require a technical court. The administration at Washington favors the establishment of a court of commerce. Why should there not be a court of science to determine questions of scientific truth, the application and the feasibility of issues based on scientific knowledge?

Let us take an example. We find there exists a powerful society with state branches and paid agents for carrying on a campaign against vaccination, which is a scientific issue. The conditions are substantially these. Many states have compulsory vaccination laws. School children are being vaccinated on a wholesale scale as a precaution against a danger which is probably little greater than the danger of being struck by lightning. How these laws came upon the statute, books, anti-vaccinationists explain by citing illustrations of activity on the part of the lobbyists maintained by the virus makers. They say school children are being vaccinated to sell virus. Now this movement is costing a large amount of money. This society feels that pressure must be brought to bear on legislatures throughout the United States in order to modify the laws. These laws rest on the implied scientific knowledge that vaccination is efficacious in a degree sufficient to justify a wholesale application of the remedy to the people, and that the danger of smallpox is sufficient to justify the application and that no other remedy is available against the danger so desirable as the remedy called for by the compulsory vaccination laws.

We should remember that these laws were made by legislatures of states, and that the legislatures passed the laws on the recommendations of committees composed of men of average intelligence who could not have had scientific knowledge of the issue without expert testimony. Now, such laws as these are apt to be passed without careful consideration, and it is doubtful whether this scientific knowledge has been sufficiently determined. We must as scientists differentiate between traditional scientific knowledge and scientific knowledge based on evidence which is conclusive enough to stand the test of a court of science. Who would not like to see a case brought against the custom of vaccination in a supreme court of science before a grand jury consisting of twenty-five scientific and engineering experts drawn from the various walks of the scientific professions. Let such a case be argued by legal counsel and all evidence introduced by experts on both sides be subject to cross examination. In a comparatively short time and at a relatively small expense, society would be in a position to know whether in the judgment of a jury of impartial experts trained to the weighing of real scientific facts, the evidence justified the position that vaccination is clearly efficacious to a degree sufficient to justify a wholesale vaccination of little children in the schools throughout the country, and even if efficacious in such degree whether the danger of smallpox is sufficient to justify the application of the precaution, and further that no other remedy, less dangerous and less costly or more efficacious exists, such, for instance, as effective quarantine, which is considered by the anti-vaccinationists to be the more desirable. In such a way, this question, which has disturbed us for forty years or more and will furnish a running agitation for a decade or two longer in all probability, could be settled once for all with dispatch.

Before such a court of science, all interested parties could appear with experts; on the one side the virus manufacturers, the physicians and those public-health officials who believe in the practise, and on the other side the taxpayers and the people represented by the government. The findings of such a court would be of great service to lawmakers and other courts of the land. For the virus makers and the physicians are not the only interests which are interested in vaccinating the people for something. The laws which have been passed are countless in number. If all laws could be declared void which were based on implied scientific knowledge which is false or not proven, a vast number of undesirable laws could be economically erased. Most laws passed for grafting purposes would fail in a court of science.

When we consider how many are the issues which disturb the country and which cause the expenditure of millions of dollars in agitation to no good result, and, at the same time, the ease with which many of the disputed scientific issues could be settled, the desirability of a court of science with proper rules of procedure is apparent. It is amazing to consider the struggles which occur, the endless substantiations of a position for or against an "ism" by arrays of opinions, the violent charge and counter charge of factions and parties, all of which might be settled by a court of science. All that is required is a relatively small expenditure for the collection and the presentation of the evidence.

When the costly agitations of the past are analyzed, such as a tariff on any commodity for the purpose of "protection," "silver sixteen to one," "vaccination compulsory," "vaccination voluntary without quarantine," as in Minnesota, "conservation"—in short, the countless "isms," why should they not be settled in a court? When such "isms" become popular enough to become the basis or the cause of legislation which means that the "isms" are to be forced on others than on believers, then it would seem that those who favor the "ism" should be placed on trial before a scientific jury in the supreme court of science. Many issues may be narrowed down to the determination of a few simple questions which may be answered by a jury of intelligent men. In what degree is the "ism" efficacious and does the degree of truth found justify the application? On the side of the conditions to be remedied, are the facts grievous enough to justify a general remedy? Is there no other remedy more efficacious?

Should the supreme court of science decide after a fair trial that compulsory vaccination was indefensible on the evidence, and that the practise of vivisection was defensible and desirable within proper limits, two costly "movements" would be ended with these findings. We may rest assured, if the supreme court of science impartially decided on the evidence in accordance with a regular procedure, that the truth would prevail with far greater dispatch than under the present system of countless "movements." Many of these associations have an income just about sufficient to make the "wheels go round" in the office and the surplus available wherewith to grind grain is a very small fraction of the funds required to keep the wheels in motion. Under the billing system for small dues from hundreds of members and new membership campaigns, often seventy-five to one hundred per cent, of the funds are consumed. Instead of wasting so much capital in beating the tom-toms and in asserting and defending from attack alleged scientific knowledge, one quarter of the energy would be sufficient to settle these scientific questions for all time if expended in bringing the evidence suitably before an impartial scientific tribunal whose decision would command respect. With the same decision, much agitation and annoyance would be saved our good people, who are wearing themselves out trying to form intelligent opinions on all kinds of technical questions without proper evidence presented on either side.