Legal Questions and Scientific Answers : Ontological Differences and Epistemic Gaps in the Assessment of Causal Relations
Abstract: A large number of legal rules create an obligation to prevent, repair or otherwise mitigate damage to human health or the environment. Many of these rules require that a legally relevant causal relation between human behaviour and the damage at issue is established, and in the establishment of causal relations of this kind scientific information is often pressed into service. This thesis examines this specifically legal use of scientific information. It shows that many legally relevant causal relations cannot be established in this way. It also shows that the legal strategy for dealing with epistemic difficulties (uncertainty and ignorance) by relaxing the standard of proof is of limited value in tackling this problem. Consequently, the legal rules focused upon are less efficient tools for combating damage to human health and the environment than their appearances suggest. Other legal means to achieve this aim should therefore be considered. The thesis begins by presenting a framework which can be used to solve some important problems with communication and the division of labour that arise when scientific information is used to answer legal questions. This framework recognizes both epistemological and ontological differences between law and science. The latter are differences between the kinds of entity which are relevant in distinct theoretical contexts; the former, by contrast, are differences between applicable standards of proof. In subsequent parts of the thesis this framework shapes the discussion of the question: To what extent can legally relevant causal relations, involving legally significant entities, be established through the application of scientific information about other, scientifically relevant entities and legal standards of proof. The thesis concludes with a discussion of some of the ways in which the legal regulation could, potentially, be adapted, so as to counteract damage to human health and the environment more efficiently.
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