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What do those jurors really know about science and technology?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014
posted by Douglas Keene

THE BIG BANG THEORYLawyers are often taken aback when they hear mock jurors discussing their case and demonstrating little understanding of what was actually presented in evidence. We tend to see that emotional reaction go hand in hand with the excess consumption of peanut M&Ms. The more distorted the mock juror’s understanding of the evidence, the more the supply of peanut M&Ms in the room dwindles and the more attorneys pace back and forth and talk with their mouths full. 

My Dad was a pilot stationed in Italy during WWII, and enjoyed telling a story about a guy in his flight group who somehow thought that if he spoke English slowly and LOUDLY, the Italians (who spoke not a word of English) would understand him. The fact that it never worked didn’t make a difference to him. He blamed the Italians for not getting it. As smart as our readers are, I’m thinking that you know where this is heading…

It’s probably a good thing that the National Science Foundation surveys the American public routinely to see what we really know. And it’s probably a good thing for you to read it and understand how to gauge the appropriate level at which to present your case.

80% of Americans say they are interested in “new scientific discoveries”: That’s quite a lot of us. We would guess that while many are “interested”, few really bother to understand or seek out specifics beyond the headlines.

It’s the internet, not TV (and certainly NOT print media although online versions of newspapers are popular): First off, most people’s information about science and technology comes from the internet (40%, up from about 33% in 2010) and then TV. We are all familiar with the ever-present use of smart phones to look up a term or clarify our understanding, or see when our favorite reality show is showing reruns. A significant proportion still get their science and technology information from TV viewing, though. So what are they watching on TV or streaming on the internet? Bill O’Reilly, Jon Stewart, the Discovery Channel, or $10M Bigfoot Bounty? It would likely be to your benefit to know.

Zoos, aquariums, and museums: The majority of Americans say they visited a zoo, aquarium or museum in 2012 but attendance is down at zoos and aquariums. Science museums tend to be visited by those with higher income and education.

Americans scored 64% on a science factual quiz in 2012: And this is similar to our scores in previous years. Surprisingly, perhaps, Europeans score at about the same level as Americans. Questions posed had to do with evolution, the big bang theory, whether the sun revolves around the Earth or the Earth revolves around the sun, and so on. Yes, there is a big faction in our country that believes the Biblical account of creation dates the Earth to about 6,000 years, but they remain familiar with more scientifically validated ‘truths’.

We can answer a little on research design but are uncertain of specifics: Most Americans could answer two multiple-choice questions about probability but had trouble describing why one would need a control group in scientific experimentation. There was also difficulty in describing what makes an activity “scientific”.

And the list goes on and on. Americans are divided on climate change. Our support for oil and nuclear energy has rebounded. We have trouble identifying just which occupations are “scientific” and we have difficulty distinguishing science from pseudoscience. We’re not particularly concerned about genetically modified food stuffs compared to other countries. We see using stem cells from human embryos in medical research as “morally acceptable”.

We have an obligation to understand what language our jurors speak. If they don’t understand you, being loud or repetitious isn’t going to help you in court any more than it helped my father’s friend in Italy. If you know the limits of their knowledge, you can present the evidence in a way that teaches, not merely in a way that  justifies argument.

We work on a great deal of patent litigation, sometimes on software code or scientific processes that not even the lawyers for the parties truly understand. The judge doesn’t understand it. Certainly the jurors don’t. But a version of this densely scientific material can be taught. Understanding and patient testimony from an expert can reassure jurors that this witness can be trusted, and that this person will help them find their way through this strange wilderness of code, formulas, or physics.

Would trials be better if they were more like peer-review panels? Arguably, Markman hearings, rulings on motions in limine, and summary judgment decisions already get pretty close to that situation. We find that leaving the balance of the judging to actual citizen jurors usually has them finding a just verdict.

It’s worth a look at the overview of findings and the entire report itself. The results are sometimes surprising and other times disturbing. It’s information you can use to understand the level of knowledge to expect from your audience at trial.

National Science Board. 2014. Science and Engineering Indicators 2014. Arlington VA: National Science Foundation (NSB 14-01). http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/content/overview/overview.pdf

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