By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
This past weekend saw not just Earth Day, but also a nationwide “March for Science.” On Saturday, people across the country, and in some other parts of the world, turned out in order to show support for the role of science. The message behind these marches is distilled in a four-minute viral video from Neil deGrasse Tyson, viewed more than 25 million times in the past few days. Tyson argues that science should help us understand the world and shape public policy, but due to a decline in public support for science, “people have lost the ability to judge what is true and what is not, what is reliable, what is not reliable.” As long as science is viewed as just a chosen and often politicized belief rather than as a means of finding truth, the public won’t have the best guidance on a number of issues like vaccines and medicines, food safety, and climate change. Marchers had the goal of defending scientific knowledge at a time when it is often relegated to just a belief. Critics of the march, however, point out that the idea of large crowds of people marching for science the same way they might march for a political candidate, particularly when most of those marchers seem to represent the left side of the political spectrum, could further erode faith in science, making it seem more like a political stance and less like a neutral source of knowledge.
The conflict is played out on a background of changing attitudes. As Gallup has been documenting, there has been a decades-long, relatively steep decline in trust in institutions in general. When it comes to attitudes toward science, however, the decline has been even steeper (Gauchat, 2012). Breaking that out by political leaning, however, it appears that most of that decline is the result of changes in one group: Conservatives have gone from being the most science-supporting group to the least supporting group, falling 25 percent in the last four decades. While distrust of science can influence the left as well (research on vaccines or genetically-modified foods for example) (Griffin, 2016), the biggest effect has been that the use of science in supporting regulations or in pointing toward limits to economic development and energy use has meant that conservatives have discounted science in order to maintain cognitive consistency in support of pro-growth policies. Court cases don’t often address the big science behind issues like climate change, but parties do often ask jurors to understand, assess, and apply the scientific method when dealing with the testimony of expert witnesses. For that reason, the waning trust in science itself matters to trial persuasion. In this post, I’ll take a look at a few ways that experts and attorneys can adapt to these changing views of science.
Voir Dire on Scientific Attitudes
As the data indicate, a creeping distrust of science is not a uniform attitude. It varies, based largely on political viewpoint. So you could use politics as a kind of proxy for views on science. But when your case depends on a jury that holds more favorable attitudes on science, it is even better to ask directly about their views on science:
Do you tend to see science as just another potentially biased viewpoint, or as a more neutral source of truth?
Do you think that public funding of scientific research is generally good for society or not?
Not counting high school, have you had any education or training in science or scientific methods?
In addition to general questions like these, you can also ask about some of the scientific issues that might relate more specifically to your case, and the reasons your expert is better than theirs: experimental methods, controls, replication, agreement with scientific consensus, etcetera.
Acknowledge the Problem
Sensitizing people toward a potential bias isn’t a cure, but there’s reason to believe that it can be an antidote of sorts, helping to mitigate the expression or the influence of the bias. If, for example, your expert is going to be relying on government research that could be greeted with skepticism, then it might help to bring the issue up yourself:
I know that science isn’t always uniformly trusted these days. Perhaps because it has sometimes been misused or even politicized, science can be greeted with skepticism sometimes. But as you listen to the science in this case, no matter which side it comes from, I’d encourage you to focus not just on the conclusions or even on the sources for those conclusions. Instead, focus on the methods. Just like your math teacher did in grade school, you should demand the witnesses to “show your work.” If they followed the right steps, then they should arrive at the most reliable results. So treat it as a method and not just as a belief or an opinion. And you should always be critical of science, but never dismissive of it.
Try to Escape the Position/Choice Frame
In a way, the problems science faces in the courtroom can be seen as a microcosm of the problems science faces in society. Because research comes from one side’s expert or the other side’s expert, it is easy to see it as just a position that is being adapted to the purposes of the advocate. The act of conducting research itself can also be seen as just marshaling support for a choice you have already made. That “hired gun” effect is something that I’ve written about in an earlier post, and research (e.g., Cooper & Neuhaus, 2000) shows that distrust of experts is common in courtroom settings, but is most pronounced when the testimony itself is complex and hard to understand. When the expert is able to clearly and usefully explain the methods, and to really become a teacher for the jurors, then they’re much less likely to be distrusted as a hired gun.
In a broader framework, perhaps that same approach applies to the defense of science in general. If scientists take it as their role to do a better job of explaining their approach and teaching the scientific method, if they’re a little bit more like Neil deGrasse Tyson, then perhaps science itself is less likely to be seen as just a hired gun in support of an agenda.
Other Posts on Attitudes Toward Science:
- Teach the Difference Between Science and Junk
- Inoculate Against False Information
- Fight the “Flight from Facts”
- Meet Your Skeptics Where They Live
Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license, edited.