SHELBY SHARES: Local program teaches nation's scientists how to talk to the rest of us

Scientists are realizing that they need to better communicate the complex details of their work to ordinary people, including policy setters and lawmakers who make vitally important decisions based on their research and data. A program at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul is teaching scientists an unfamiliar language – plain English.

Scientists are brilliant when they talk to other scientists. Their brilliance is often dimmed when they try to talk to ordinary people. Scientists are beginning to understand the problem that if people don’t understand the science that experts present, public policy can end up misguided and wrong.

To that end, the William Mitchell College of Law is holding its second seminar for expert witnesses. The goal is simple. Communicate.

The program is the brainchild of Professor John Sonsteng, who says the goal of the weeklong seminar is to get experts to do a better job of making topics that are hard to understand easier to swallow.

Sonsteng, and his colleagues Linda Thorstad, Eileen Scallen and Jim Hilbert, designed a hypothetical case. A class action lawsuit arises from the claim that a company hired by the fictitious Falls County seeded clouds with silver iodide. Coincident to that, a large thunderstorm developed naturally, and the result was a flood and many deaths. What caused the flood? Human interference with Mother Nature, or Mother Nature herself?

The experts, some of the foremost climate experts in the country, are put in the position of arguing a side of the case they may normally oppose. Playing the role of expert witness for the cloud-seeding company, then in the role of its lawyer, was Dr. John Abraham. In real life, he leads a group of climate scientists who argue human interference is causing extreme weather events. I asked him how it felt to argue passionately that humans didn’t play a role in the weather in Falls County.

Abraham said, “It was uncomfortable, initially. But, we learned important strategies to argue complex cases. The organizers did a great job teaching us skills that we would have no way of learning on our own.”

Whether it was a coincidence, or planned, one of the world’s foremost experts on clouds and their role in weather, Dr. Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences was one of the seminar participants. Dr. Dessler told me, “In the future, I don’t think scientists will be able to avoid being dragged into court. Not just on cases of climate change or air pollution, either. I’ve already done expert testimony on coal-fired power plant sitings.”

Dr. Andrew Dessler

Dessler's opinion four days into the seminar? “It is apparent, now,” he said, “I didn’t know what I was doing. We are learning to be better communicators.”

One of the judges of how effective the experts are at communicating their science was aptly chosen. Judge Edward Toussaint, former senior judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals and faculty member at William Mitchell, sat as judge at the mock trials, and then critiqued each performance. Each of the judges spent one-on-one time with the experts, telling them when they were effective and when they failed.

Judge Toussaint said, “Professor Sonsteng saw a gap between what experts know and what they were able to communicate at trial and at depositions. These experts, simply, have to learn to talk to people. Legislators are people. Legislators have to communicate those ideas to the people. They’ve got to use ordinary terms people will understand.”

Judge Toussaint sums up the dilemma faced by these experts, not just in court, but in the court of public opinion. "Sometimes the experts fail to recognize there can be a difference between what the expert knows and what the members of the jury, the people, know. Those who don’t recognize the different and don’t make the effort to communicate on that level – fail. Those who understand and use their communications skills to make their science understandable are the successes."

Sarah Moffit gets it. She is an oceanographer studying the effects of climate on coral, among other things. She came to William Mitchell from the Bodega Marin Laboratory at the University of California at Davis. The Ph.D candidate told me, "As a scientist, I need to communicate with people. I need to communicate to my neighbors, my students, my colleagues. My job is to meet them where they are and use real language – rather than proclaim from atop the ivory tower.”

The William Mitchell program operates under a grant from the National Science Foundation. It requires that the seminar not be about teaching one side of, say, the global warming question. It is about finding a way to make science more easily understood by people who have never studied science. One goal of the William Mitchell program is to get experts, who are used to talking to each other, to find a way to talk to the rest of us.

Don Shelby is a veteran Twin Cities journalist and a radio newscaster for BringMeTheNews. He worked for 32 years as anchor, investigative reporter and environmental correspondent for WCCO-TV, and for 10 years as a radio personality for WCCO-AM. He has won numerous professional awards, including two George Foster Peabody awards.

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