Mitchell helps expert witnesses communicate their expertise

For one week this summer, some of science’s brightest minds will be on the William Mitchell campus, learning how to dial their brilliance down to a level the average person can understand. They’ll be part of Mitchell’s second Expert Witness Training Academy, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Academy instructors will include judges, lawyers, and Mitchell professors.

“We want to help expert witnesses understand how to communicate their science better in a variety of forums” says Professor John Sonsteng, who along with his colleagues developed the academy with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

For the academy, Sonsteng and his colleagues, Linda Thorstad, Eileen Scallen, and Jim Hilbert, designed an exercise modeled on the Rapid City Flood of 1972, creating a scenario in which the fictitious city of Shields Falls, Midstate, has suffered a catastrophic flood after a cloud seeding operation. A few years later, a class action lawsuit is filed on behalf of the victims. Based on that case, the scientists participate both as witnesses and expert witnesses in a media interview, a legislative hearing, depositions, non-binding arbitration, and a jury trial.

“Communicating complex ideas to a non-specialist audience is one of the tools that the current generation of scientists needs in its professional toolbox given the proliferation of easily available information. But information is not the same as knowledge,” said David Verardo, Head, Atmosphere Section, Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, National Science Foundation, which funded the project. “William Mitchell’s emphasis on practical learning and record of educational innovation makes it a natural partner with scientists to help break down barriers of communication between people.”

Throughout the academy, instructors stress the importance of being clear, simple, and impartial. “We’re not trying to promote a particular side,” says Sonsteng. “We want them to be neutral, because they lose credibility when they advocate, and they become vulnerable.”

Nearly two dozen climate scientists from all over the country will be making the trip to Mitchell, from institutions such as the National Climatic Data Center in Boulder, Colo., the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A & M University, and the American Meteorological Society Policy Program in Washington, D.C.

“These folks are just fantastic–fascinating people,” says Sonsteng. “It’s really a who’s who of climatology, with professors and major scientists. And that makes it a tremendous experience for all of us.”