Source of article The Jury Room - Keene Trial Consulting.

Not long ago we wrote a post questioning whether Americans really distrust scientists as much as the media says we distrust them. The short answer was “probably not” and we offered some strategies for enhancing trust. So today, we have two separate reports on things that result in decreased trust in scientists, science news, or science experts. Hint: You will want to pay attention to these issues in preparing your expert witnesses. 

Poor sound quality makes us react negatively

Researchers from the US and Australia recently published an article on how sound quality influences our evaluations of believability and credibility. Essentially, they say, when you make it harder for people to process information, the credibility of the information itself suffers in the opinion of the listener. The researchers (Norbert Schwarz and Eryn Newman) say that “mental stumbles” create distrust in the listener. The researchers cite studies that show people are more suspicious of eBay sellers with “difficult to pronounce” names, and a rating of exercise manual plans as “easier to do” when the font is in Arial rather than a more unusual and difficult to read font like Brush or Mistral. 

Takeaway: Make sure the sound quality of any video is excellent. Watch your visual evidence graphics for ease of reading and understanding. Don’t leave a “hard to hear or read but really important” fact in for jurors to stumble over. They won’t like it. 

Sticks and stones may break credibility of science researchers 

Another report focuses on the importance of your science expert (and the researchers whose work they present) having pretty impeccable character). We may all agree that questioning how evidence is interpreted is a legitimate way to challenge the credibility of your opposition’s expert witness. We may have less agreement on whether it is okay to allege weakness of character or competence on the opposition expert. New research tells us that some types of “mud throwing” are more effective than others. 

What some of us call “slinging mud”, others call “ad hominem attacks” (aka attacks on the person that may or may not be relevant to salient case facts). Researchers examined whether ad hominem attacks were effective (and unfortunately, they were) and then compared different styles of ad hominem attacks to see what would be most effective. 

Here’s what they found: 

Calling the researcher or his or her peers “sloppy” was not effective. That is, it was “as effective” as when the research findings were simply presented without criticism. 

However, allegations (i.e., unproven fact) of “vested interest or past misconduct” were just as harmful as hearing the researcher had been investigated and charged with “falsifying the research about which s/he was testifying”. 

In other words, being “sloppy” was presumably okay but rousing observer suspicion (even without proof) about motives and integrity was problematic. 

Takeaway: Ad hominem attacks can be effective. Make sure you know if your expert witness or research they present has been challenged for authenticity. 

Eryn J. Newman, Norbert Schwarz 2018. Good Sound, Good Research: How Audio Quality Influences Perceptions of the Research and Researcher. Science Communication, 40(2). 

Ralph M. Barnes, Heather M. Johnston, Noah MacKenzie, Stephanie J. Tobin, Chelsea M. Taglang. 2018. The effect of ad hominem attacks on the evaluation of claims promoted by scientists. PLOSOne.