Jurors sometimes need to grapple with science, and given the constraints of the trial process and the often-complex nature of the testimony, “grapple” is probably the right word. Whether it involves working through detailed DNA testimony in a criminal case, or evaluating epidemiological studies in a civil products liability cases, jurors face the difficult task of evaluating conflicting testimony that often requires a base-level of scientific literacy in order to understand and apply. Jurors’ ability to work with the science will vary based on the knowledge and attitudes they bring into the courtroom with them.
Recent studies show some of that variety. Based on a survey from Pew Research, Americans’ views on science vary widely based on several factors including race, age, education, and gender. Summarized in a ScienceDaily release, the research centered on a quiz of 4,464 Americans looking at knowledge of the physical sciences. Distilling the list down to 11 questions, the Pew researchers found that Americans got an average of 7 of them correct, but with a fairly wide spread based on demographic groups. You can take the quiz here to see how you stack up against the rest of the population. This post will summarize some of the main results with implications toward your jury’s understanding of scientific testimony.
Demographically, white Americans do better on scientific knowledge than Hispanic and black Americans, and men do better than women. However, these differences were relatively modest and varied across questions. The factors that would tend to matter the most in litigation are identified below.
Education Matters a Lot
One would think that higher levels of education would lead to better understanding of science, so I suppose it is reassuring that this ends up being the case. Highly-educated Americans do much better than on the science quiz than average Americans, and the more educated they are, the better they do. Those with a post-graduate education get an average of 9.1 correct while those with a high-school degree or less get an average of just 5 correct.
Ideology Matters a Little
Based mostly on the climate change issue, we might expect liberals to be more pro-science and conservatives to be more anti-science, but the ideological difference when one looks at how informed they are is quite a bit subtler. Republicans end up having a slight edge. More interesting, however, is the finding that those at the extreme ends of the political spectrum — liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans — score higher than those in the middle, with the average correct score for liberal Democrats being 7.8 correct answers while the score for conservative Republicans is comparable at 7.4.
Specific Attitudes Will Probably Matter the Most
Several of the findings will be most interesting to litigators wondering how well jurors will evaluate scientific expert testimony. For example, six in ten Americans understand the advantage of having a control group in a scientific study, which means the other four don’t. Only about half understand what a hypothesis is (as distinct from an experiment, observation, or conclusion). Two-thirds understand that science is evolving by nature and “produces findings that are meant to be continually tested and updated over time.” This question, not included in the public quiz, distinguished those with a dynamic view of science with the remaining third who believe science produces unchanging core principles and truths, or who are not sure.
As one additional illustration of a specific attitude about science that can play a role in litigation, Persuasion Strategies’ own 2018 national survey of juror attitudes assessed whether respondents have a higher or lower trust in science. We might think science support would tend to help defendants, who often feel that they have the weight of established science on their side. In a medical device context, however, we found that high supporters of science were actually more likely to support the patient/plaintiff in a civil lawsuit.
This could be a reflection of the fact that, for plaintiffs, some trust in science is necessary to disturb the wishful belief that things that are generally available are generally safe. It could also be that those higher in trust for science are more likely to be liberal, and liberals are more likely to support a plaintiff generally.
Ultimately, the knowledge that is needed and the attitudes that will matter are going to vary for each case. So that is a reason to test in advance and to assess in voir dire.