By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
The expert takes the stand, his credentials proudly displayed to the jury as he launches into the dissertation of his testimony. Amid the complex chains of reasoning, the opaque references to other testimony, and the indecipherable jargon, it seems that he is giving an opinion on the case. But the impression the jury gets is "learned" and "detailed" but, unfortunately, not "helpful." And when it comes time to deliberate, they're likely to fall back on their own intuitions and experiences instead of using that expert's opinion. That is what happens when the expert succeeds at his own goal of providing a sound opinion, but fails at the more important goal of good and clear communication.
A recent article appears in Scientific American: "Why Can't Scientists Talk Like Regular Humans?" Author Katherine Wu, a Harvard graduate student and director of 'Science in the News,' an organization devoted to better communication of science, describes her own experience in being trained to communicate mostly with other scientists in her field, and to dissociate that from the broader public. "The minute I started thinking of the general public as 'other,'" she writes, "I compromised my ability to be an effective communicator." The act of becoming an expert separates you from everyone else. She continues, "Suddenly, I was wheeling and dealing in the private, elite trade of science, far from prying eyes. I felt as though I had been inducted into a secret society: I had transitioned out of the common masses and joined the ranks of the fabled Jedi." She blames current gaps in the public's understanding of key scientific concepts, like climate change and genetically modified foods, in part on scientists' separation from the general public. For expert witnesses, that separation is ultimately destructive to the witness's goal of communicating in a helpful manner. Wu includes her own list of implications for scientists in the public square, and in this post, I include my own list for those in the witness box.