Scientists in court?

Fri Nov 14 09:55:59 CST 1997

I do not normally log onto a list and promptly send out a major missive, =
but I make an exception here, since I researched the list and the question =
is somewhat urgent.

Who I am:  I am an analyst at the Congressional Research Service of the =
Library of Congress.  My agency serves the research and information needs =
of all 535 congressional offices.  I once taught animal behavior, ecology, =
and invertebrate zoology and can still walk through a neotropical rain =
forest and recognize old friends.

My Question:  In a recent presentation at a conference, I remarked that =
there was often a real mis-match between the way scientists think and the =
way lawyers think.  The differences  are reminiscent of the book Men Are =
>From Mars, Women Are From Venus.  For example:

Guilty vs. Not guilty
At fault vs. Blameless
Plaintiff vs. Defendant
Statute of Limitations

scatter diagrams
standard deviations
correlation coefficients
evolutionary change
Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

The effect, I noted in passing, is that the 2 groups misunderstand each =
other profoundly--and consequentially.  In congressional hearings, I have =
seen Members  ask something like this:  *But Dr. Jones, are absolutely =
*sure* that current extinction rates are as high as your models suggest?*  =
Well, a candid scientist is always open to a new hypothesis and things are =
only certain until a still better explanation comes along, so Dr. Jones =
honestly responds *Well, Mr. Chairman, not entirely* when what she might =
have said  was *I am as certain of that as I am that the national debt =
will be greater than zero at this time next year.* =20

In the absence of a reply with certainty, some Members become concerned, =
and argue  that taxpayer dollars should not be spent, jobs lost, etc., on =
a mere *guess.*  Dr. Jones goes home angry and irritated, and the =
committee congratulates itself on avoiding harming people*s lives on the =
basis of =22mere speculation.=22

I paint an extreme picture, but this mis-communication is too common.  =
Matters related to systematics and taxonomy have appeared in courts at =
least in the U.S.: the status of the northern spotted owl as a subspecies, =
the distinction, if any, in the Rocky Mountain population of northern =
goshawks, Alexander Archipelago wolves, and other species (primarily =
vertebrates).  The blurring of species, subspecies, and populations is =
obvious, expected, and natural to a biologist who sees and thinks in terms =
of evolution, but the law (in this case the Endangered Species Act, but =
the issue arises in other laws as well) wants certainly, not confidence =

In a few days, I am going to meet with U.S. lawyers who have themselves =
become concerned about the mis-communication between science and law.  =
They are involved in many lawsuits over natural resources problems under a =
veritable alphabet soup of U.S. laws:  NFMA, ESA, FLPMA, MBTA, etc. To =
prepare, I would like to ask those WHO HAVE TESTIFIED IN COURT (OR =
1.  How did you prepare for your testimony?
2.  Did lawyers help you understand what was going to happen?
3.  Did you feel that the lawyers understood what you were trying to say? =
Did the judge?  The jury (if any)?
4.  Did you feel that the questions left you feeling trapped?  If so, how =
did you handle that?
5.  What would you do differently if you were going to testify again?
6.  Can you suggest anything from your own experience that would help =
other scientists make themselves clear in a courtroom?

Some of you may wish to reply to the list, and others may wish to reply =
directly to me; either way is fine, and I am grateful for your help.

You who live outside of the U.S. may have had to appear as experts in =
courts and I would be interested in your experiences as well as those of =
U.S. citizens.

Thank you for your comments.

Dr. Lynne Corn
Congressional Research Service
Library of Congress
Washington, DC

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