Baruch College hosted a talk titled “Neuroculture—Neuroscience and the Law: Are We There Yet?,” in the Engelman Recital Hall on March 9 as a part of Brain Awareness Week 2017. The purpose of the talk was to begin a discourse on whether or not neuroscience should be implemented into decision-making when it comes to interpreting human intentions and culpability. The two guest presenters were Jed S. Rakoff, the U.S. district judge of the Southern District of New York and Jennifer Mangels, a Baruch professor and neuroscientist.
Rakoff was nominated for the district judge position by former president Bill Clinton in 1995, gaining senior status in 2010. He also taught at Columbia Law School and is currently on the governing board of the MacArthur Foundation’s Law & Neuroscience Project.
Mangels is a professor of psychology at Baruch and at the CUNY Graduate Center and is also currently the chair of Baruch’s department of psychology.
Both presenters gave insight into the role neuroscience could play in law, and the audience was given perspectives from both a scientific and legal standpoint.
The event began promptly at 7 p.m. At the door of recital hall, all attendees were handed clickers and programs detailing the structure of the event.
Once inside, and after a brief introduction on the part of the presenters, the talk started with Mangels engaging the audience by posing a question: should neuroscience and the law be intertwined? With their clickers, audience members could respond with “yes,” “no,” “depending on the circumstances” or “not enough information to answer properly yet.”
The results showed that around 70 people responded to the question with majority of the people voting that for neuroscience and law could be brought together depending on the circumstance.
After seeing the results of the vote, Mangels asked the audience, “Should neuroscience be used to help make decisions about the length sentences given?” The available options were the same as the first question except this time more people answered “no” than before.
Mangels and Rakoff followed the questions by educating the audience on how neuroscience could be used to help the law in place of tools like polygraphs.
They talked about the pitfalls of the polygraph test and how it was cheatable, as well as the neuroscience alternative: fMRIs. An fMRI is a neuroimaging procedure that gives pictures of the brain and its areas. When a person is questioned during an fMRI, different parts of his or her brain light up depending on whether or not he or she is telling the truth. This is a more reliable approach to lie detection compared to polygraphs, which can easily be cheated.
Although fMRIs advance the lie detection field, the presenters revealed that the tests could be faulty and not always give consistent results. Rakoff followed this revelation by giving insight into how courts judged the validity of evidence.
“In federal court, scientific evidence can only be admitted if it passes a Daubert test. [The evidence] has to have been well tested, has to have been peer reviewed, has to have been the subject of publication in scientific journals, has to have a reasonably known error rate and has to be accepted within scientific communities,” said Rakoff. Since fMRIs do not meet all of these standards, they are primarily used in out-of-court settlements.
The conclusion that both presenters divulged to the audience was that neuroscience was useful in certain situations, but it is still not capable of making decisions for the law.
One example given was psychopathy in which the person scanned does not have the same brain responses as other people. A person like this might be given a lighter sentence or no sentence at all because an fMRI would not suggest guilt in the person.
Another case of how neuroscience could fail justice was the case of a man with a tumor the size of a golf ball in his brain. The man had pedophilic tendencies, which disappeared once the tumor was removed. Seven months later, his tumor started to regrow and his pedophilic tendencies returned. This case showed that many different factors could affect the brain and, as a byproduct, affect how judges presided over cases.
The case of the pedophilic man demonstrated how easily the brain could be affected, showing that neuroscience was still not a sure science.
The event ended with the presenters asking the two initial questions again. This time the amount of people who voted “yes” went down significantly, but the amount of “in certain circumstances” answers still remained relatively high, despite Rakoff stating that neuroscience could not be used in court judgements just yet.
To the sentencing question, surprisingly, the number of people who voted “yes” was relatively high, though “in certain circumstances” was still the most popular option.
Although neuroscience is still far from being accurate enough to help in the courtroom, it shows promise for the future. Someday, neuroscience may be able to help delegate proper sentences and more accurate rulings.