Judges should enrol in Neuroscience 101, says US bioethicist

Xavier Symons
16 Nov 2013
Reproduced with Permission

The debate over neuroscience in the courtroom continues. The latest word the discussion comes from Nita Farahany - a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. In a keynote lecture at the world's biggest neuroscience conference, Farahany forcefully criticised the use of flimsy evidence and misinterpreted studies in the courtroom. She called on judges to learn more about "the criminal mind" through neuroscience crash-courses.

In her address Farahany presented her own study of 1500 court cases involving neuroscience from 2005 to 2012. She found that the number of "neurolaw" cases rose from 100 to 250 a year.

"It seems like judges are particularly enamoured with the adolescent brain science," said Farahany. "Large pieces of their opinions are dedicated to citing the neuroscientific studies, talking about brain development, and using that as a justification for treating juveniles differently."

However, the most common use of neuroscience evidence is to argue for incompetence of the defendant. According to Farahany, many defendants claim that they weren't in a fit state to give a reliable statement to police subsequent to their alleged crime. They draw on evidence of brain damage or abnormalities to defend this claim. Harvard psychologist Joshua Buckholtz concurred. He said judges need to understand "what a scientific study is and what it says and what it doesn't say and can't say".