Introduction to Science Court

By Ellad Tadmor, University of Minnesota


The United States democracy is facing the double threat of record low trust in institutions and record high polarization. These phenomena amplify basic limitations in the way humans reason that make it impossible for people to agree on facts, let alone come to consensus. Distrust and polarization are the results of century long trends and are not going to reverse quickly. Therefore, it is necessary to find ways to allow a democracy to function in the current hostile environment. Science Court (SciCourt) is an adaptation of the U.S. jury system, based on understanding from scientific research on how people reason and collaborate, designed to ensure agreement on facts and a rational decision-making process for controversial societal issues.


The health of a democracy hinges on the active participation of citizens and their faith in the system. Today a large portion of the population feels unrepresented and trust in government and in democracy itself are at historic lows. The echo chambers of the internet have magnified people's personal grievances and have created an unstable polarized population. In the United States around forty percent of the people do not vote at all and a significant fraction of those who do adopt extreme positions. The scientific community, which should be representing the voice of reason, is largely identified with the liberal left and is ignored by wide swathes of the population. This has led to a general rejection of “facts,” seeing them as weapons instead of the foundation for sound thinking.

This state of affairs amplifies basic limitations in human cognition. We all like to believe that we are rational beings that make decisions in Mr. Spock like fashion based on facts. In reality social science and neuroscience research over the last few decades has shown that that is not how humans reason. People have more at stake when making decisions than just accuracy. A decision that is based on facts but undermines one’s identity or one’s sense of self can be damaging. Human reasoning is therefore a complex mixture of facts and emotions.

The question is how do we get people to think critically about a given issue, based on a set of facts that everyone agrees on, and make an informed decision? An example of a framework designed for this purpose is the U.S. jury system. Although far from perfect, our jury system works remarkably well. A group of ordinary citizens is presented with information for and against a case with a judge present to ensure the integrity of the process. They consider the facts, deliberate, and make a decision. The success of the system is evidence that people rise to the occasion and take the process seriously. Our aim is to use a similar approach to get people to think rationally and collaboratively about the many contentious issues that divide us.

Science Court

The idea is to create a Science Court, a mock trial system designed to investigate societal and political issues with a reasoned, scientifically-based presentation arguing both sides in front of a judge to a jury of citizens. The SciCourt process resembles a trial, while keeping it interesting and engaging for a public audience. However, unlike a traditional trial, the objective is not to resolve disputes between parties with winners and losers, but rather through a process that maximizes collaboration to reach consensus on controversial topics of broad interest. Evidence presented at the trial must be backed by scientific research and be mutually agreed upon by the defense and prosecution in a pretrial process mediated by the judge. Trial procedures and jury deliberation are redesigned based on current understanding from law and social science research to reduce polarization and decision bias while promoting rational thinking. This involves changes to jury selection, adversarial courtroom procedures, and the way that juries participate in the trial and deliberate.

Suitable SciCourt “cases” are selected that deal with fundamental disagreements in society. The success of the effort hinges on the selection of good cases. These must address head-on the issues that concern people, whether or not they are politically correct. However, care must be taken not to choose highly charged hot-button issues that conflate morality and scientific evidence. Thus, the question whether abortion should be illegal is not an appropriate topic, but school policy on reproductive health education could be. Some examples of potential SciCourt cases include: Should universities allows students and staff to carry guns for their safety? Should childhood immunization be mandated to protect society? Should research and development of artificial intelligence be regulated due to the risks of this technology? And so on.

All stages of the SciCourt process (jury selection, evidence selection, defense and prosecution presentations, jury deliberation, and the decision) will be recorded, and parts will be streamed or presented live. An edited version will be released as a serialized podcast or vodcast. If done well, this could captivate audiences in the same way that good legal dramas do on television. The fact that many people are already familiar with courtroom procedures from such shows will help.

A successful SciCourt trial could be a notable event, capturing people's imagination, reengaging them in the democratic process, and combating the sense of some that their views are not being respected. People who watch will see ordinary citizens being taken seriously and making the ultimate decision.

Honors Seminar

The program described above is implemented in the University of Minnesota (UMN) Honors Seminar titled “Science Court: Strengthening Democracy through Rational Discourse” (HSem 3511H). The seminar is interdisciplinary involving students from across the university. It is structured like an engineering design course with the students working collaboratively in three teams (Science, Legal and Media) to select, plan, research, execute, and report a SciCourt case. Each team is advised by an expert in that area and will include students from both the sciences and liberal arts to foster interactions across disciplines. First, in a series of exercises the class researches, develops and refines the SciCourt case that will be the focus of the rest of the semester. Following this phase, the Science Team is responsible for collecting scientific research on the case, preparing it in a manner accessible to the non-specialist, and presenting the information to the judge and jury. The Legal Team is responsible for developing cases pro and con the motion by weighting the facts considering ethics, policy, and the human perspective. The Media Team is responsible for multimedia production of web, audio and video content and communicating with the public. The teams will work closely together throughout the process. Jury members will be solicited from the public and selected based on heterogeneity criteria to promote cooperation. The trial will be judged by a Law School faculty member, judge, or prominent lawyer from the broader Minnesota community who volunteer their time. The trial and verdict will be open to the public and will include an open discussion at the end. The SciCourt process will be adapted and improved over time based on experience gained by offering the course and recommendations from students, advisors, judges, jury members, the public, and other participants.

Future Vision

The longer-term vision for SciCourt is for it to go beyond the university to reach the wider Minnesota population. A key difficulty in doing so is how to gain access to communities that may already be suspicious of external influence. To this end, the students participating in the course will serve as natural ambassadors to their home communities. Of particular interest are places where voting percentages are low, and people feel disconnected from the democratic process. A topic of interest to one of these communities will be selected as the SciCourt case. The case will be prepared by SciCourt students guided by their advisors and tried by students in front of a local citizen jury at home in their community. The results will be widely publicized and distributed, and could have a positive effect on citizen engagement in the selected community as well as similar communities around Minnesota and the country. In addition, it is hoped that a reasoned decision made by a citizen jury on a controversial topic may help educate legislators dealing with related issues.