When I was teaching journalism at a local university, I showed my students two clips of experts on different CNN shows about the environmental effects of the leached radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The Japanese plant had been ravaged by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
The first expert was the director of the Institute for Disaster Management at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health. He has a Ph.D. in toxicology, had more than 20 years training first responders to handle the health risks of weapons of mass destruction, including dirty-bomb radiation, and spent 10 years in research and humanitarian efforts in the radiation-scarred areas around Chernobyl.
The other was Bill Nye the Science Guy.
Thinking I had scored a point about qualification versus celebrity, I asked the students which of these two talking heads did they trust more on this important environmental issue: quite literally the most educated, informed expert possible speaking on his exact area of expertise, or a children’s science entertainer with a catchy theme song.
One by one, these collegiate journalism majors scrunched their faces, cocked their heads and told me they trusted the Science Guy.
Bill Nye is a smart man with a strong science background — as a mechanical engineer. His pre-celebrity career was spent designing airplane parts for Boeing. But because the Science Guy had a presence the students liked but, when I asked them, couldn’t define, a university classroom thought a man who studied airplanes knew radiation.
I was thinking about this while reading reporter Emily Donovan’s story on expert witnesses.
The ability to explain complex concepts to a jury is a skill few possess. It can determine whether an injured person receives justice or an organization is protected from fraudulent claims.
The jury doesn’t have to understand the science to render a verdict. They just have to trust that the expert does. That’s where the problems start.
The fancy term is “argumentum ad verecundiam.” It’s commonly called “argument from authority,” but the Latin can also translate as reverence, bashfulness or shame.
It is reverence we feel, but not the type of reverence where we’re filled with deep admiration for the person’s wisdom. It’s the type of reverence where we feel inferior, tongue-tied and stupid in their presence.
It’s the authority we give the professorial demeanor, the mood and look and avoidance of “um” and “ahhh” that signifies to the listener that this person knows his or her stuff and we should be near-bashful when they speak.
It’s the quality you hand-pick your witnesses for. It’s why we quote Einstein on religion, John Lennon on global politics. It’s why a roomful of college students trusted a kids science show host over the globe’s top expert.
That’s called “argument from false authority.”
There are horror stories, of course. Tales to terrify of experts whose witness-stand confidence and innate impressiveness led to grave injustices.
There was the late forensic psychiatrist James Grigson, who testified in favor of death sentences in 167 capital trials, using his Texas swagger to convince juries that people he had never interviewed would kill and kill again.
The patrician pediatrician Sir Roy Meadow used his knighthood, gravitas and noble air to convince a jury in 1999 that it was a statistical near-impossibility that Sally Clark’s two sons both died of sudden infant death syndrome. An innocent woman was convicted of murdering her own children because a jury trusted that a fancy-looking doctor understood statistics. (He did not.)
Away from the criminal courts, in the realm of litigation, lawyers will go entire careers without even meeting a Meadow or Grigson. But moral issues will arise when justice hinges on getting a jury to trust a stranger in a lab coat.
Lawyers will and, as you’ll read in this issue, have come across experts who flip their testimony between deposition and trial.
Or dealt with “top sheeters” who just read the top sheet summary that is slanted in favor of the side that paid for their testimony.
Or had a needed expert refuse to testify for the plaintiff’s side because of a broad interpretation of the doctors’ credo “first, do no harm.”
You can read starting on page 23 how some of your peers handled these issues of justice, trust and the allure of a long, white coat.