The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Bioethics Commission Recommends Creation of Educational Tools for Neuroscience in the Legal System

On March 26 the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) released the second part of its two-volume report on neuroscience and ethics, Gray Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society (Gray Matters, Vol. 2). In Gray Matters, Vol. 2, the Bioethics Commission addressed the application of neuroscience to the legal system. Advances in neuroscience offer a deeper understanding of human behavior and, when applied to legal decision making and policy development, can potentially improve accuracy, reduce errors, and advance justice. However, the application of neuroscience to the legal system is not without ethical concerns, including questions about scientific reliability and overreliance.

Neuroscience is already and increasingly being used in criminal and civil court cases and to influence policy at the highest levels. Bridging the interdisciplinary gap between neuroscience and the law can be difficult. To understand and accurately interpret neuroscience, stakeholders must be educated. Specifically, the Bioethics Commission recommended:

Government bodies and professional organizations, including legal societies and nonprofit organizations, should develop, expand, and promote training resources, primers, and other educational tools that explain the application of neuroscience to the legal system for distribution to members of the public, jurors, judges, attorneys, and others.

Practical challenges make it difficult for neuroscience to be applied accurately to the legal system. Neuroscience and the law are two disciplines that involve vastly different kinds of expertise, assumptions, terminology, and goals. Generally, neuroscience research aims to make correlations in the aggregate across populations, whereas the law seeks to draw conclusions about individual behavior and motivation. Neuroscientific evidence also can be relevant and add value to decision making processes, but the persuasive allure of brain images can unduly influence decision makers.

Judges and lawyers need to understand and accurately interpret new kinds of scientific evidence—including neuroscience evidence—and work to avoid overreliance and misapplication. In addition, members of the public that might serve as jurors would benefit greatly from educational resources that help bring high-level scientific concepts and information into lay terms. Efforts to train lawyers and judges are already under way. For example, organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the MacArthur Foundation have created materials, hosted seminars, and developed continuing education programs that help legal decision makers understand and keep up with developments in neuroscience.

Neuroscience has the potential to improve legal and policy decision making. But its effective use requires easing the translation of concepts and results across disciplines. Education is essential to achieving this goal.

Gray Matters, Vol. 2 and all other Bioethics Commission reports are available at Bioethics.gov.

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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

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