Thursday, June 2, 2011

Phineas and Ferb, Climate Change and Language Barriers

I recently read an article on climate change that made me laugh. Not because it was particularly funny, but because it was about the language discrepancy between the scientific community and the lay person. In this article they attributed the general population's reluctance to believe in climate change to the lack of concrete language used by the researchers. They urged these experts to use more black and white statements and "regular" language. This is the point where I laughed.

Because here's the thing. We just can't do it! When I went to write this blog post I looked for the original article I read but couldn't find it. I did however find a great article here and I love this portion of it:

"Scientists are often compelled by their education to tell you more about what isn't known than what is known. That intellectual and academic honesty allows critics to use the scientists' own honesty as a brickbat to pummel their work. As an example, for the past 20 years when reporters would call and ask whether this flood, or hurricane or that tornado was due to global warming, the entire scientific community studying the effects of increased CO2 in the atmosphere would say, "No single event can be attributed to global warming." That is the truth, and climate change skeptics will use that honesty to say, "See, there's no detectible change." "

As a scientist myself I understand this dilema. The more you study science the more variables you discover and you start getting in to the, well that depends on what the definition of "is" is! And it's true. Define your terms is a common phrase in the scientific community. What do you mean by "change?" It's a valid question to the scientific community and unfortunately the lay comunity just thinks you're being difficult or avoiding the truth, when another scientist would simply define their terms and move on.

So why am I talking about climate change on a forensic blog? Because this language barrier exists every time you take the stand. Not only do we have the barrier between ourselves and the jury, but then you have to throw in lawyers and hoo boy, now you have a third language!

I'm reminded of an episode of my son's favorite show. In Phineas and Ferb, the spy bosses give Perry the platapus a robot, but then tell him that the manual is only in Dutch. Unfortunately they don't have a Dutch to English dictionary, but they do have a Dutch to French Dictionary and a French to English Dictionary. So Perry has to use both dictionaries to figure out how to control the robot.

That's like being an expert witness. You have to translate the attorneys question from legalese into science speak and then translate your science speak into layman's terms for the jury. Here's the problem. There are no dictionaries. When you gain familiarity to the legal community you get to the point where you know what they mean to ask even if that's not quite where they're asking, and over time you begin to answer what they mean to ask as opposed to what they actually asked.

Now, what do I mean by this? In breath testing for example an attorney may ask you "Is this test accurate?" I have always hated this question. Why? Because all the attorney wants to know is, is this test right or wrong. To me, my science side starts piping up and yelling in the background what do you mean by "accurate?" To what degree? And accurate of what? Of what the instrument saw or the body burden of the individual?

To answer that question I would state what I was relying upon and then answer whether the test result met the accuracy requirments as by Rule for what the instrument saw in the breath chamber. Is that what the attorneys were always asking? No, probably not.

And the reason I say that it is probably not is because I often run into attorneys who don't understand how two different test results could both be "accurate." Well, define your terms. What do you mean by accurate? When a scientist answers that question they're going to answer whether they were within the accuracy limits required (10% in Vermont for breath alcohol testing) for what was in the instrument at the time the sample was analyzed. If that isn't what the attorney wants to know then they need to change the question.

Although scientists are often aware that there is a language barrier I find that attorneys are often baffled by it. I have often sat on the stand arguing what appears to be minutea to the attorney but what matters quite a bit to me. It's furstrating because although I may know what they mean by their question I simply can not answer it if the terms are inaccurate.

And this is why the urge to researchers to change their dialogue when speaking about their research is doomed to fail. They are still scientists and they must first and foremost be repsected in that community. A person who speaks in blacks and whites and absolutes is not a scientist and will not be taken seriously by that community. That's not how research works. The scientific process will always be to form a hypothesis and then try to disprove it. The answers will always be that the evidence thus far indicates or research suports x, y and z. It will never be x causes z. It will never be in absolutes.

In order to be effective in the courtroom, expert witnesses need to be able to bridge the language barriers without compromising their scientific integrity. It's a difficult balance because you often do fall into answering what is meant by the question as opposed to what is asked. That is why it is so important to qualify every answer you give with what you are basing your answer on. The problem remains that there are no dictionaries and far too often attorneys or the public may not realize that there even is a barrier present.

How we can work more effectively together and walk that line is a difficult one and if anyone has ideas that have worked well, let me know. To me the best we can do is help the attorneys we work with understand that words matter. They already understand this concept in the court room they just need to understand that there is another language spoken by scientists.

I love how the article I mentioned above ends:

"So, scientists are changing the message. It is a subtle change, but important. When reporters like me ask the question, "Was the flood, or the drought or the tornadoes caused by global warming?" The scientists now respond, "No single event can be attributed to global warming, but we told you this was going to happen.""

To scientists that's the compromise you'll get and it's the best our integrity will allow.

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