January 4, 2018

Ask Your Potential Jurors: Do You Believe in Science?

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:

We don’t always have systematic reasons for believing what we believe. Often, it boils down to a feeling, a preference, or an implicit trust based on how we learned it. Motivation plays a big role. But there is one setting where that rationale is supposed to be systematic, logical, and methodical: expert witness testimony. The law expects expert conclusions to be grounded in a clear and reproducible way of knowing. And when those conclusions are drawn from some kind of science, then the foundation for the testimony is going to be the scientific method.

But do jurors trust the scientific method, and science generally? It’s probably never been fully reliable to assume that they do. In times past, the big question was, “Do they understand it?” Now, however, that question is joined by a question that matters as much or more: “Do they ideologically accept it?” Based on its role in some hot-button issues that have become polarized in recent years, the idea of science has taken a hit. I’ve written previously on some of the alarming data indicating a loss of faith in science. In this post, I’ll share a number of questions that are useful in finding out how much this affects your panel. When your case depends on jurors’ acceptance of science and the scientific method, and especially when your advantage over the other side rests in part on you having the better science, it helps to ask your potential jurors what they think. In this post, I’ll share some questions that can be asked in oral voir dire or in a questionnaire in order to get at their views on science.

Here are some questions about your potential jurors’ relationship to science.

Experience Questions: 

Do you work, or do you know anyone who works, in any area of science?

Not counting high school, have you had any education or training in science or scientific methods? 

How often do you read articles about science? 

Do you watch any television programs like “Cosmos” or follow any online programs about science?

Choice Questions: 

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? 

Do you believe conclusions backed by scientific method are more valid, less valid, or about the same as conclusions backed by reasoning, experience, or prior beliefs? 

Agreement or Disagreement Questions: derived from a couple of scales (Nadelson et al., 2014 and Slater & Huxster) – note that some are reverse-coded

Scientists ignore evidence that contradicts their work.

We should trust that scientists are being ethical in the work.

When scientists form a hypothesis they are just guessing.

We cannot trust scientists because they are biased in their perspectives.

Today’s scientists will sacrifice the well-being of others to advance their research.

When scientists change their mind about a scientific idea it diminishes my trust in their work.

When many scientists agree on something, it’s worth listening to them.

I generally accept what the scientific community says is true.

If my personal opinion differed from what scientists agree is true, I would probably rethink my opinion.

Knowing what scientists think about an issue would not necessarily influence what I believe.

When politicians disagree with scientists about an issue, it’s hard to know who to trust.

Scientists know best what is good for the public.

It is important for scientists to get research done, even if they displease people by doing it.

Scientists should do what they think is best, even if they have to persuade people that it is right. 

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Other Posts on Science: 

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Thanks to Persuasion Strategies’ Research Assistant, Katerina Oberdeick for her work on these questions.

Nadelson, L., Jorcyk, C., Yang, D., Jarratt Smith, M., Matson, S., Cornell, K., & Husting, V. (2014). I Just Don’t Trust Them: The Development and Validation of an Assessment Instrument to Measure Trust in Science and Scientists School Science and Mathematics, 114 (2), 76-86 DOI: 10.1111/ssm.12051

Slater, M. H., & Huxster, J. K. Trusting the Scientific Community. Undated.

Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license
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