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Simple Jury Persuasion: Educating jurors about science may have no effect

Friday, September 7, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

It’s very frustrating to present logical explanations to jurors about science or technology only to have it fall on deaf ears. What we have come to understand is that if you tell a story that jurors relate to, they are globally more receptive and your scientific explanation fits more easily in their day-to-day lives.

Hard to accept the idea that education doesn’t really work? Take a look at this new (and intriguing) review of studies about scientific versus supernatural explanations for illness. Researchers from four major universities (UT Austin, Michigan, Northwestern and Harvard) collaborated to explore the relationship between scientific and supernatural explanations of why certain people contract AIDS.

Generally, we think of children as having more supernatural beliefs. As they age and gain education and information (as well as brain development) they abandon the supernatural for science. Right? Apparently not. These researchers show that we retain both supernatural and scientific ideas–flexibly combining or interchanging them to explain various events.

For example, “a person might explain AIDS using witchcraft in one instance, biology in another, or combine the two in a third instance”. Indeed, say the researchers, the tendency to invoke the supernatural explanation increases with age rather than decreases!

One of our favorite examples of this comes from some work we did in East Texas last year where an older white female mock juror [who happened to be a school teacher] described a popular social networking site as “the devil’s work”. The grins in the observation room quickly faded and jaws dropped as we saw numerous other mock jurors nodding grimly. She was a school teacher. None of them appeared to be kidding.

So to explore this combination of the scientific and supernatural explanations, the researchers reviewed more than 30 studies completed in the past decade–showing examples of how scientific and supernatural beliefs are combined. Their samples included children and adults (ranging in age from 5 to 75) across multiple cultures (America, South Africa, Mexico and more). It may be surprising for you that supernatural explanations for AIDS were not confined to developing countries.

Here are some of the supernatural explanations in comments made by study participants in studies about AIDS:

“To medical doctors it seems like AIDS but it is not. The spell was supposed to look like AIDS.”

“It’s a mixture of germs, evil spirits and magic spells.”

“Witchcraft, which is mixed with evil spirits, and having unprotected sex causes AIDS.”

These were all comments made by adults. Overall, the researchers say that many of us combine both supernatural and scientific explanations as we offer our real beliefs about various illnesses, death, the origin of the species, and/or the transmission of AIDS. Further, the inclusion of supernatural explanations (in both industrial and developing countries) is higher among adults than it is among younger children.

It is as though we struggle to incorporate our religious beliefs and our sense of the “unexplained” into our views of how things happen. We may believe that there is a scientific basis for AIDS itself, but we work to explain why AIDS happens to certain people. The how may be scientific, but our why is where the supernatural often comes into play.

It’s one of the important reasons to do pretrial research when your story involves ambiguous technology, scientific, medical or other high-level information. ‘How’ is important, but we frequently find far more effort being made to understand ‘why’ something happened. Of course causation is important, but so is motivation. When jurors are deciding issues about the previously unknown, you need to know when they might think what happened is the will of God, the influence of witchcraft, or even the work of the devil. In our experience in working in venues across the country, jurors (of all ages) are not at all embarrassed to bring up those hypotheses in deliberations.

Legare CH, Evans EM, Rosengren KS, & Harris PL (2012). The coexistence of natural and supernatural explanations across cultures and development. Child development, 83 (3), 779-93 PMID: 22417318


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