Science for Non-Scientists
Illustration by Skip Sterling

Whether practicing in Silicon Valley or the Midwest, today’s lawyers and other professionals will confront issues in which scientific and technical knowledge is essential. They not only will need to know how to speak with scientists but they also will need to understand basic scientific principles and methods. Responding to this necessity, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, via a committee co-chaired by Paul Brest, professor of law, emeritus, and former dean, has created nine science education modules for use in professional schools, including law, public policy, medicine, journalism, and business. Each module uses case studies to provide students with the requisite scientific background.

“The goal,” says Brest, “is for professors to incorporate the modules into already existing courses.  For example, a criminal law or evidence class might use the module on interpreting DNA evidence. Or an environmental law class could incorporate the module on fracking.  

In addition to DNA evidence and fracking, subjects include vaccines, drug-induced birth defects, forensic pattern recognition, a new therapy for Parkinson’s disease, scientific evidence of factual causation, scientific modeling, and Brest’s contribution, the role of decision science in policymaking.

Each module comes with a teacher’s manual, which Brest hopes will encourage even science-phobic instructors to experiment.

“After all,” says Brest, “that’s what the scientific method is all about.”