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Simple Jury Persuasion: Combatting mistrust in science [Part 1]

Monday, July 10, 2017
posted by Rita Handrich

You’ve likely seen a lot about the high level of mistrust of science in the past few years. Not everyone believes there actually is a science mistrust issue (see this post from Dan Kahan at Cultural Cognition blog) but for a non-problem it certainly gets a lot of coverage! First, here’s a bit of review of a small sampling of the recent “nobody trusts science” literature.

Pew Research published a report in 2015 on which areas science has increasing difficulty being seen as credible. While Pew is objectively reporting survey data, many of the “science mistrust” stories are written by the very people concerned about the issue—scientists and science supporters. The emotionally heated debate has been tweeted about although with the wrong URL for the article which is actually here (perhaps an error due to emotionality?)

This 2014 article from the Nature website tells us why the mistrust of science came about (and what sorts of behavior strengthens mistrust—but the real reason we are including it here is the reference list of multiple articles on the mistrust of science. Even NPR gets into the fray by suggesting that science should own past errors and improve their processes and procedures to gain the trust of the public. And finally, here’s a recent workshop run by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that gives you current information (2017) on the controversy around science and how scientists can best respond.

So—with all these scientists writing about how no one trusts them—do any of them offer ideas on what to do? Actually, yes they do but you will have to judge for yourself how on-target they are with their suggestions.

Make your science “different” 

This post from Psychology Today discusses the general distrust of “Big Science” [the entire amorphous universe of science findings] but also uses an article we blogged about here to help you figure out how to explain things differently to your jurors. (Other bloggers have written about this article as well.) Here’s part of what Psychology Today has to say:

People differ in their beliefs about the precision and certainty of different sciences in general. These general beliefs affect at least some people’s judgments about whether that science is worthwhile and whether it should be funded by the public. However, group differences [snip] disappear when people start to focus on specific research rather than the science in general.

This pattern of results suggests that researchers may want to start by describing particular studies to people in order to help them understand the research that gets done in science. Then, they should relate the specific findings back to the area of science that it comes from to help people change their general beliefs about the quality of work done in those sciences. In this way, the scientific community can help the broader public to see the benefit and value of the research that gets done.

We see these statements as the province of your expert witness. Use someone who “looks like” a scientist and has some social skills. Make your “science” different from science “in general”. In addition, see our post on the same article for more litigation-specific recommendations (e.g., comfort, curiosity, and counter-intuitive surprises).

Use a “gateway belief” to combat mistrust in science

Scientific American published an article written by a researcher who thinks a gateway belief (in this case,  education on scientific consensus) is a terrific way to combat mistrust in science. They made a statement in the article about how to describe just what scientific consensus means that also carries incredible visual imagery:

“Imagine reading a road sign that informs you that 97% of engineers have concluded the bridge in front of you is unsafe to cross.”

As it happens, we also blogged about this article soon after it was published. Our takeaway from the original research was this: “back up your assertion with facts, people will be persuaded despite pre-existing beliefs and despite their political affiliation”. And, as mentioned earlier, Dan Kahan over at Cultural Cognition blog vigorously disagrees with the original research.

This same research group wrote again in 2017 on their ideas about gateway beliefs (and mentioned Kahan’s disagreement briefly but did not give it much attention). This time they described their work as a “psychological inoculation” against “climate change misinformation”. We also blogged about that article here:

The strategy that is recommended for use against ‘science deniers’ has proven successful to support science deniers in well-documented cases. The researchers comment that tobacco and fossil fuel companies have used these sorts of psychological inoculation strategies in the past to sow seeds of doubt and undermine scientific consensus in the minds of the public. They think this research tells us that the impact of disinformation can be at least “partially reduced” with this approach.

From time to time, every litigator is confronted with a situation in which it is crucial to educate jurors on the disinformation that may be used (as well as giving them information on typical strategies used to undermine accurate information). Then, when they hear the common strategies presented by opposing counsel, they can spot it quickly, and rest assured they have not been fooled.

“You do not have a special corner on truth”

And finally, Popular Mechanics (of all places) puts in a plug for this amazing commencement address from June 2016.

“On June 10th, the New Yorker Staff Writer, surgeon, and medical researcher Atul Gawande delivered a commencement address to the graduating class at the California Institute of Technology on the importance of scientific thinking. Gawande discussed the rise in anti-science sentiment and how to combat the resistance to facts and evidence we’ve seen around issues like vaccines and climate change.”

You can read the full text of this commencement address at the New Yorker or you can watch the 17.5 minute video on YouTube.

Earlier, we mentioned the workshop run by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. One of their recommendations was to make the science relevant to a practical problem. This article from the Atlantic (published June 24, 2017) on why the extreme heat in Phoenix, Arizona was grounding planes, is a perfect example of showing how science can help us understand the world around us. From a litigation advocacy perspective, you can see that mistrust of science is strongly connected to fear (which we blogged about last week).

Use a friendly, credible and trustworthy expert witness (see if Bill Nye is available…), teaching jurors what opposing counsel’s expert will say and why that doesn’t make sense, as well as showing how “your science” is different from “Big [scary] Science”. It may help your jurors embrace the sound science you are employing, even while remaining unsure about the realm of “Big Science” that they have been taught to fear.


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