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Ron Moore | Fermilab | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

A Civic Duty

For many people in the US, receiving a summons for jury duty causes immediate groaning and thinking of ways to avoid it.  While it seems like an inconvenient disruption to our daily routine, jury duty is an essential part of our legal system in which “trial by jury” may not be fully appreciated unless you’re the one on trial.

I had jury duty last week and I was selected to serve for a civil (not criminal) case.  One party sued the other to recover money paid as a result of damage to a car from an automobile accident; the other party counter-sued for damages to his car, so our jury actually had two cases to decide simultaneously.  (Thankfully no one was injured in the crash.)  Unfortunately, there was no “hard data” to examine – no photographs of the intersection, no measurements of skid marks, no police or eyewitness testimony.  It was a “he said, she said” case where we essentially had to decide what was likely to have happened and which driver was more believable.

The trial lasted only 2.5 hours or so before we started deliberating in the late afternoon, but we needed over 3 hours to reach a verdict around 7 pm.  I don’t think the judge or attorneys expected us to take so long, but the 12 of us were evenly split at the start.  We had some good discussions (and pizza) before reaching a unanimous decision that both parties  did share responsibility for the accident and should receive only half of the money they were seeking.  Although it seemed like we simply “split the baby” in our verdict, there was no way we could decide differently with the data we were given.

I’m glad that science is not conducted like court cases.  When you need data to test a theory or make a measurement, you do an experiment.  (And others will do it, too, to try to reproduce your results.)  There’s no judge telling you to reach a conclusion without information you may want.

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