You might not think of the renowned scientist as a purveyor of legal advice, much less advice that any lawyers these days would take seriously. However, Carl Sagan had some sage words to offer lawyers in one of his books Demon-Haunted World.
The book deals directly with pseudoscience, like astrology, tarot card reading, and other forms of mysticism that are still bafflingly popular and followed today. Carl Sagan listed a number of rules for dealing with supernatural phenomena and pseudoscience in a very scientific way. One of the more interesting ideas he proponed was a fallacy known as absence of evidence.
The notion is this, that just because something cannot be proved to exist does not mean that it does not exist and vice versa. If you cannot prove without a doubt that it does not exist, that doesn’t mean it is definitely something that exists. There are a great many things that one can prove exists but that many people still believe in. Because no one has the total sum knowledge of everything in the universe there is always a .0001% chance that what they believe in exists, even if there is no proof that it does.
How does this relate to legal matters?
The notion of a burden of proof is common in personal injury law. Don from Toronto Personal Injury Lawyer says that “lawyers have to be able to prove that an injury to their defendant occurred, for instance. If someone spilled hot coffee on another person, the lawyer must demonstrate that damage was caused. However there is always the possibility of claiming something nebulous that cannot be proved without any contradiction and beyond a shadow of a doubt. If the injuries are mental and psychological, for example, the lawyer could say that damage was caused but may have trouble proving it. The defense can state that he feels emotional and mental injury but may not be able to prove it. “
The fact remains that the prosecution cannot prove that no psychological or mental damage occurred. They can demonstrate that there is lack of evidence, but the defendant’s lawyer can always retort with the idea that this is the kind of damage that cannot always be easily proven.
This creates a conundrum for the courts. Some judges may throw out the case based on a lack of evidence. Others may more carefully consider the words of the defendant even if there is no substantial proof. According to Sagan’s fallacy, simply being unable to prove something does not mean that it didn’t happen or does not exist. Of course, that also means that there may be lack of solid evidence, and the decision for the case may ultimately go to the judge. A judge could set a verdict even without ample evidence because of the reasonable doubt that exists and the possibility that the defendant could be right.
Carl Sagan is oft quoted in many circles, but this could be one of the more interesting places where his ideas have reached and left a lasting impression.