Use and Misuse of the Law in Science

Aside from patent law, science and the law are hardly bosom pals. But there are many parallels between them: above all, they’re both crucially dependent on evidence and logic. However, while the legal system has been used to defend science and to settle several scientific issues, it has also been misused for advocacy by groups such as anti-evolutionists and anti-vaccinationists.


In the U.S., the law played a major role in keeping the teaching of creationism out of schools during the latter part of the 20th century. Creationism, discussed in previous posts on this blog, is a purely religious belief that rejects the theory of evolution. Because of the influence of the wider Protestant fundamentalist movement earlier in the century, which culminated in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, little evolution was taught in American public schools and universities for decades.

All that changed in 1963, when the U.S., as part of an effort to catch up to the rival Soviet Union in science, issued a new biology text, making high-school students aware for the first time of their apelike ancestors. And five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the last of the old state laws banning the teaching of evolution in schools.

In 1987 the Supreme Court went further, in upholding a ruling by a Louisiana judge that a state law, mandating that equal time be given to the teaching of creation science and evolution in public schools, was unconstitutional. Creationism suffered another blow in 2005 when a judge in Dover, Pennsylvania ruled that the school board’s sanctioning of the teaching of intelligent design in its high schools was also unconstitutional. The board had angered teachers and parents by requiring biology teachers to make use of an intelligent design reference book in their classes.

All these events show how the legal system was misused repeatedly by anti-evolutionists to argue that creationism should be taught in place of or alongside evolution in public schools, but how at the same time the law was used successfully to quash the creationist efforts and to bolster science.

Much the same pattern can be seen with anti-vaccine advocates, who have misused lawsuits and the courtroom to maintain that their objections to vaccination are scientific and that vaccines are harmful. But judges in many different courts have found the evidence presented for all such contentions to be unscientific.

The most notable example was a slew of cases – 5,600 in all – that came before the U.S. Vaccine Court in 2007. Alleged in these cases was that autism, the often devastating neurological disorder in children, is caused by vaccination with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, or by a combination of the vaccine with a mercury-based preservative. To handle the enormous caseload, the court chose three special masters to hear just three test cases on each of the two charges.

In 2009 and 2010, the Vaccine Court unanimously rejected both contentions. The special masters called the evidence weak and unpersuasive, and chastised doctors and researchers who “peddled hope, not opinions grounded in science and medicine.”

Likewise, the judge in a UK court case alleging a link between autism and the combination diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) vaccine found that the “plaintiff had failed to establish … that the vaccine could cause permanent brain damage in young children.” The judge excoriated a pediatric neurologist whose testimony at the trial completely contradicted assertions the doctor had made in a previous research paper that had triggered the litigation, along with other lawsuits, in the first place.

But, while it took a court of law to establish how unscientific the evidence for the claims about vaccines was, and it was the courts that kept the teaching of unscientific creationism out of school science classes, the court of public opinion has not been greatly swayed in either case. As many as 40% of the general public worldwide believe that all life forms, including ourselves, were created directly by God out of nothing, and that the earth is only between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. And more and more parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children, insisting that vaccines always cause disabling side effects or even other diseases.

Although the law has done its best to uphold the court of science, the attack on science continues.

Next week: Subversion of Science: The Low-Fat Diet