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A Jury of Citizens

Entry 1916, on 2018-05-28 at 20:58:07 (Rating 3, Politics)

In the past I have supported the idea of direct democracy, but critics claim the idea is unworkable and would result in poor decisions because of the lack of experience and skills of the "average person".

I often respond to this by saying that, even if the people make a bad decision at least it is a decision they can own, and they should have the freedom to make bad decisions if they want to. Additionally, many elected representatives also make bad decisions so would we be any worse off anyway?

A recent podcast I listened to was quite pertinent to this issue, I think. It described a research project involving a "citizens' jury". This involves a group of people, selected at random, and asked to decide on a contentious issue after hearing information from experts.

The issue on this occasion was the law on voluntary euthanasia, specifically whether there should a law change to legalise "assisted dying". In the past similar juries were asked to consider the age at which breast screening should start, and whether identifiable medical data should be available for medicine safety research.

In the breast screening example, people were asked whether the age the screening started at should be 40 or 50. The experts supported 50, and the advocates favoured 40. You might ask why not start at the earlier age, because that would detect a few cases which might be missed otherwise, and this is exactly what the all woman jury thought initially.

But after the experts revealed some points against the younger age - such as the increased risk of false positives, and the extra cost which might be better spent elsewhere - all the women on the jury, except one, changed their mind and supported the older age.

While all this happened the government decided on a compromise of 45, but if the jury had made the decision instead the superior option of 50 would have been chosen. The age of 45 has stayed the same for many years since, and I have to wonder how many extra lives could have been saved if that 5 years worth of wasted money could have been spent on other health-prevention measures.

There are some important factors here: first, the jury was made up of individuals from the affected group (women); second, they changed their minds after hearing the expert evidence (apart from one, and there is always likely to be a few unaffected by facts); third, the decision was reached after three days, instead of months or years; and finally, they made the right decision, instead of choosing the easy option or making an unnecessary compromise.

As far as I can see from my limited knowledge the citizen jury worked far better than the government did, in this case.

The next example asked the jury to consider the issue of whether it should be legal to use identifiable medical data for research into the effectiveness and safety of medicines. At the time it was up to ethics committees to decide whether the data could be used, but they were uncomfortable with that role.

Again, there was an obvious answer which the majority believed before the exercise: that was that privacy should take priority and the data should not be made available. But after hearing the experts' information on the subject everyone changed their mind and decided that the use of the records should be allowed.

And again, the right decision was made, because the small chance of leaked data after the safeguards were put in place, was outweighed by the huge potential public good.

The final example was the most recent one, and the one that was the main subject of the podcast. It was: is legal voluntary euthanasia OK? Clearly this is a very emotional, difficult, and controversial subject, and one where there might not be a right or wrong answer.

Of the 15 people chosen, initially most were in favour of the change to allow euthanasia, and only 1 was strongly against it. After hearing the evidence from experts this changed somewhat to 10 in favour and 5 against.

I do have to say that the reasons in this case might have been less logical than the others. For example, one person said that they rejected the law change because once euthanasia was allowable for terminally ill people who were fully informed and in sound mind, then in future it was likely this would be extended to making euthanasia available for the disabled without their full consent.

This is the classic "thin end of the wedge" or "slippery slope" fallacy, and while it isn't impossible, it doesn't make a lot of sense to use it as a reason to reject a carefully controlled law which would never be triggered for a disabled person.

But even in this situation the process was relatively brief, well considered, respectful, and uncompromised. In this case no one was right or wrong, so it's impossible to say if the "right" conclusion was reached (just for the record, I strongly believe euthanasia is an option everyone should have). The more important factor is that everyone saw both sides of the story and generally had good reasons for their conclusions

So it seems to me that "normal" people can make good decisions. Maybe decisions should be made this way based on random selections of citizens who are given brief (a few days) background information on all aspects of a topic under consideration. Maybe that is the answer to the "leader problem" I often discuss (that is that leaders rarely make decisions which are genuinely good for the people they lead).

Hey, it's worth a try!

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