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Peter Huber
1991 Book Review With Commentary

Huber deals with two features of humanity that are still alive and well in our day of terror: a legal system that is not up to the challenge and the power of myth. He makes a number of cases demonstrating the former as it butted heads with the latter. This situation persists into our time.

His pet peeve is junk science, where "professional witnesses" who may be neither professional nor witness, are allowed to testify in a court where the issue is what happened, not what might have happened or could have happened in some convoluted sense. Further, media attention can instigate trouble where none existed, as "60 Minutes" did to Audi in the "sudden acceleration" syndrome purported to be a defect in Audi 5000 automobiles. People who didn't realize they were pressing the accelerator instead of the brake were able to pass off the resulting accident as being Audi's fault. The litigation wave that followed was pure hysteria. Class action lawsuits followed. Never mind that the Audi 5000 had one of the lowest fatality rates of any car on the market. Never mind that the brakes were powerful enough to stop the car even with the accelerator floored.

Guilt by association is another aspect of junk science Huber illuminates. In this example, a truth became distorted beyond all reason. Asbestos in one form was determined to be carcinogenic among shipyard workers during WWII. Later, buildings, containing a second kind of asbestos, for which there was no such proof, were held to be the cause of lung cancer in cigarette smokers. Junk science and jerky judges ignored the facts and found for the plaintiff.

Reading Huber, one gets the feeling that the entire legal system has gone awry, that frivolous lawsuits are the order of the day. Only partly. While abuses have and still do occur, most of the legal system operates in a smoothly functioning manner in turning out just decisions. Of course, there are situations where the attorneys on the job or sitting on the bench are less than competent. And, of course, the guilty-rich escape punishment more freqently than the guilty-poor do.

Huber's book dramatically illustrates the power of myth in American culture, or is it avarice that drives the frivolous law suit syndrome? It is both, obviously.

Read in these contexts, "Galileo's Revenge" is as timely as it ever was. We give it three stars on interpretation, four and a half stars on reporting, five stars in its purpose.


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