Can Data and Law be Friends?

The article “The Supreme Court Is Allergic To Math” touches on a lot of ideas which I think relate to this class to a ‘T.’ Oliver Roeder, the author, introduces the idea well, so I will use their words to help introduce my post.

For decades, the court has struggled with quantitative evidence of all kinds in a wide variety of cases. Sometimes justices ignore this evidence. Sometimes they misinterpret it. And sometimes they cast it aside in order to hold on to more traditional legal arguments. (And, yes, sometimes they also listen to the numbers.) Yet the world itself is becoming more computationally driven, and some of those computations will need to be adjudicated before long.

This really ties into the focus of our class. It is a real world example of how data affects–or doesn’t affect–the decisions in politics. I could delve into the debatable conversation about the use of data in politics, but instead, I’d like to start with what I know, and that’s not politics. (I will most likely post more about this debate later, but I think it deserves another post. If I do write that post, I will link it here).

I related to this article on a personal level; as someone who really likes math.

When I respond with “math” to any number of questions that have to do with my studies or interests, most people respond with some rendition of “I don’t like math and you’re probably crazy for liking it, but that probably makes you really smart so good for you.” I don’t mean to sound pompous in any way, but I just mean to say that more often than not, math is prevalently disliked, and people typically don’t react well to it. And it makes sense. Math can be extremely difficult to understand if it is not presented in the right way, and more often than not, math can have a lot of discrete and specific complexities required to understand it. If you can’t understand something, it becomes frustrating and there builds a dislike for the subject.

So I understand why the justices may have a difficulty listening to the numbers. Math is hard if you aren’t working with your ‘niche’ of math (for example, I’m trash at calculus but I love statistics). I imagine that the kind of maths and data that would be involved in a supreme court case are going to be very involved with layers of complicated calculations, even for the persons presenting the data. So for an outsider to the issue, even with a strong background in the specific mathematic calculations at play, it could still take a lot of work to dive into the data and analyze its validity and prevalence to the case.

Now what if, for example, you got a law degree and not a math degree? Now we start to see the problem.

Justices know constitutional law. It’s their ‘niche.’  Obviously they are (or should be) versed and practiced in other forms of law and politics, but the constitution is where it’s at. So asking them to fully consider maths and data that they do not have the time or education to fully understand shouldn’t be expected.* I think of a metaphorical example for myself. Say I was doing a really difficult proof and someone came up and said “Hey, if you used some high level calc, this would be easier.” I wouldn’t super like it, but I’ve dealt with calc, and with some help, I could limp though using complicated calculus in my proof. Now if someone came up and said “Hey, I’ve got this really complicated constitutional bill that will help you solve your proof” I would probably scoff and flip them off.

So back to the judges. Although the data could be processed by experts, the judges solve problems in law with, well, law knowledge. So they might flip off the data experts. Just because there is an overarching trust of numbers in our society doesn’t mean that everyone should be expected to incorporate it into their job or decision making.

Right now, I’m going to take the stance that the judges are just fine with ignoring the numbers. However, even just typing that sentence makes me want to throw up a little. I want to yell “Don’t ignore the data!” but I can see and agree with multiple angles for this argument. So I end here knowing full well that there is more to be said on this topic and there is a flipped to my argument that probably makes just as much sense. But like I said earlier, If/when I write on this again, I’ll put it right ->here<- .



*  Westminster’s political science and justice studies majors do not currently require math courses. To graduate in WCore, students only need 3-4 Quantatative Emphasis credits and 6-8 credits of Science and Math (WCSAM). These courses could vary greatly, meaning students could graduate from these programs with varying levels of math experience in quantity and type.


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