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Weighing Complex Evidence in a Democratic Society

From: Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal
Volume 22, Number 2, June 2012
pp. 139-162 | 10.1353/ken.2012.0009



Weighing complex sets of evidence (i.e., from multiple disciplines and often divergent in implications) is increasingly central to properly informed decision-making. Determining "where the weight of evidence lies" is essential both for making maximal use of available evidence and figuring out what to make of such evidence. Weighing evidence in this sense requires an approach that can handle a wide range of evidential sources (completeness), that can combine the evidence with rigor, and that can do so in a way other experts can assess and critique (transparency). But the democratic context in need of weight-of-evidence analysis also places additional constraints on the process, including communicability of the process to the general public, the need for an approach that can be used across a broad range of contexts (scope), and timeliness of process (practicality). I will compare qualitative and quantitative approaches with respect to both traditional epistemic criteria and criteria that arise from the democratic context, and argue that a qualitative explanatory approach can best meet the criteria and elucidate how to utilize the other approaches. This should not be surprising, as the approach I argue for is the one that most closely tracks general scientific reasoning.

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