Source of article The Jury Room - Keene Trial Consulting.

This blog is about the intersection of social science and litigation advocacy. One of the central dilemmas litigators frequently face is how to deal with complex ideas to those who are uncomfortable with the ‘science-y’ parts of a case. Whether it is about how quickly a car decelerates, the ways in which a drug affects behavior, or the differences between two inventions—the challenge for jurors is to understand what is being asserted. And of course, that is the responsibility of the trial team and their witnesses.

We’ve all read the mass media stories saying that Americans do not trust scientists—but that may actually not be the case. In a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, they report that TV shows focusing on criminal investigations, in hospitals or medical settings, and even science fiction (watched by 81% of those responding) contribute to a more positive view of scientists. 

Majorities of Americans realize these types of science-related entertainment are not entirely accurate in their portrayal of science, the Center’s survey finds. By roughly two-to-one, Americans think medicine-oriented shows and movies prioritize entertainment (66%) over accuracy (32%). Similarly, Americans say crime shows focus more on entertainment than portraying science, technology and medicine in a realistic way by a margin of 62% to 35%.

But, the majority of Americans don’t believe entertainment media undermine their understanding of science, technology and medicine. About half of frequent viewers of crime-focused shows (51%) say these programs have no effect on their own understanding of science-related topics. More say these shows help than hurt their understanding by a margin of 40% to 9%.

We encourage you to read the entire report from Pew. Here we will focus instead on how to talk to real people about science in ways they can understand, grasp, and ultimately support. There are many very recent resources to help us know how to communicate science findings in ways that can be heard. These are useful tips for witness preparation, case narrative construction, and case themes. 

Neal deGrasse Tyson: An astrophysicist who knows how to talk to real people

There is a brief and very readable article in Futurism on science denial, political biases, and personal beliefs and it’s all about my favorite astrophysicist. They start with this paragraph: 

“It’s no secret that Neil deGrasse Tyson has strong feelings when it comes to the intersection of science and belief. Science, he says, is objective. It’s not something that you believe or do not believe; it’s something that you accept or don’t accept. It remains true regardless of your personal beliefs.”

It’s a good reminder, and he goes on to say that we’ve been at this place before and it just takes time for the world to shift perspectives again. He calls it an “adaptation of personal belief systems”. Maybe it’s not a surprise that we recently spotted a bumper sticker in Asheville, NC that read “Neal deGrasse Tyson for President.”

“It is easy to see this throughout our history books. Religion used to say Earth was the center of the universe. Religion used to say that evolution was a myth. Some religious individuals may still cling to these beliefs, but many do not. The solution, it seems, is to simply wait for people to accept the objective reality that is presented to them — to let it speak for itself.”

This is an article worthy of Tyson’s no-nonsense approach and his belief that things will ultimately be okay. But suppose your next trial cannot wait for however long it takes this pendulum to shift and you need to present complicated science? 

Take a look at Scientific American: “Use common vernacular” (why can’t they just say “no big words”)

Scientific American has a heavily linked article full of resources that can help communication of complex ideas to naïve audiences. The author mentions that when you publish in an academic journal only “10 people on average” read your work all the way through. The key (according to the author) is to get your work out there in plain language (i.e., what she calls the “common vernacular”) so that people understand what in the world you are talking about and don’t glaze over and think of lunch or laundry rather than focusing on your presentation. The author in this article gives tips for students and young faculty members on writing opinion pieces for editorial columns but you can also find links for many substantive resources including this one from the National Academy of Sciences—Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda. 

Secrets from the experts: Research-based tips for pushing back

Science Magazine just published the results from a brainstorming session at the “annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)”. More than 60 conference attendees (a mixture of researchers, teachers, students, journalists and science advocates) heard this first from the session leader: 

Session leader Mark Bayer, an Arlington, Virginia-based consultant and former longtime aide to Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), opened up with some cold water for the crowd. “Facts were never enough” to make a convincing case to people, he said, “so let’s just get over that.”

Perhaps the most useful part to review are the tips generated by the attendees. Read the article for the entire content. Here are tips shared by the session leader (a self-proclaimed “persuasion nerd”):

Alternative facts are not facts at all, but socially sanctioned beliefs, said Bayer [snip]. But there are ways to change minds, he said:

Appeal to the 60%. On any given issue, a group of people will contain 20% at each end of the spectrum who are so deeply dug in they’ll never be convinced. Forget them, Bayer said, and appeal to those who are persuadable.

Appeal to shared social values. [snip] In conversations, we can find things to connect about. “Politicians do that all the time,” Bayer said. They might say, “I’m just like you—I take the train.”

Appeal to the “golden child” of a group—the most admired and respected member of the group. “Every family has one,” Bayer said.

Tell stories, and help people relate to them. In 2010 on Capitol Hill, Markey, then a member of the U.S House of Representatives, persuaded his colleagues to pass a bill mandating that iPhones and other consumer electronics be accessible to the handicapped. To convince them, he called in a veteran who was blinded while serving in the Iraq War. The bill passed. “It wasn’t a fair fight,” Bayer said.

Ask for incremental change, rather than wholesale change, then do it again. For example, Bayer asked an audience member for a pad of paper to pass around to collect emails. Then he followed quickly, “Can you get me a glass of water?”

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is a must read series of resources. You will need to spend time thinking about how your own case facts interact with the tips included in this post. That is time well spent though so that some of your jurors “hear” your evidence and can advocate for the facts in actual deliberations.