We now value due process at least when judging people

The English abolished Star Chamber proceedings in 1641, and they counted this a great achievement. Trial by combat, compurgation, and ordeal have likewise become history. We now value due process, at least when judging people.

Court procedures illustrate the principles of due process: Allegations must be specific. Both sides must have a chance to speak and confront each other, to rebut and cross-examine. The process must be public, to prevent hidden rot. Debate must proceed before a jury that both sides accept as impartial. Finally, a judge must referee the process and enforce the rules.

To see the value of due process, imagine its opposite: a process trampling all these principles would give one side a say and the other no chance to cross-examine or respond. It would meet in secret, allow vague smears, and lack a judge to enforce whatever rules might remain. Jurors would arrive with their decisions made. In short, it would resemble a lynch mob meeting in a locked barn—or a rigged committee drafting a report.

Experience shows the value of due process in judging facts about people; might it also be of value in judging facts about science and technology? Due process is a basic idea, not restricted to courts of law. Some AI researchers[7], for example, are building due-process principles into their computer programs. It seems that due process should be of use in judging technical facts.

In fact, the scientific literature—the chief forum of science—already embodies a form of due process: In good journals, scientific statements must be specific. In theory, given enough time and persistence, all sides may state their views in a dispute, since journals stand open to controversy. Though opponents may not meet face to face, they confront each other at a distance; they question and respond in slow motion, through letters and articles. Referees, like juries, evaluate evidence and reasoning. Editors, like judges, enforce rules of procedure. Publication keeps the debate open to public scrutiny.

In both journals and courts, conflicting ideas are pitted against one another under rules evolved to ensure a fair, orderly battle. These rules sometimes fail because they are broken or inadequate, but they are the best we have developed. Imperfect due process has proved better than no due process at all.

Why do scientists value refereed journals? Not because they trust all refereed journals, or trust everything printed in any one of them. Even the best due-process system won't grind out a stream of pure truth. Rather, they value refereed journals because they tend to reflect sound critical discussion. Indeed, they must: because journals compete with one another for papers, prestige, and readership, the best journals must be good indeed. Journals grind slowly, yet after enough rounds of publication and criticism they often grind out consensus.

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