The Honest Expert Witness - A Manifesto


Have you ever met an expert witness that prided themselves on their dishonesty?

I haven't either.

And yet, we've all encountered an expert that we believed was dishonest.

Many (most, perhaps all) expert witnesses pride themselves on their honesty.

And why not? Honesty is a good thing, of course. Experts should be honest. The problem, though, is that there is difference between the intention to be honest and the actual work of being honest.

Many (most, perhaps all) think the expert on the other side is dishonest.

And why not? It's easier to demonize someone else than to face our own humanity and limits.

Intending to be honest is easy. Being honest is hard work.   

I love this passage from the book The Civilized Engineer by Samuel Florman: "The greatest threats to moral engineering are carelessness, sloppiness, laziness, and lack of concentration. An engineer may start out honest and high-minded but become immoral by falling prey to one or more of these sins. On the other hand, an engineer who starts out by being conscientious must end up by being honest, since competent engineering, excellent engineering, is in its very nature the pursuit of truth. A conscientious engineer, by definition, cannot falsify test reports or intentionally overlook questionable data, cannot in any way evade the facts…society’s great need is for competent engineers rather than self-righteous ones."

I think that's like saying: the legal world's need is not for experts that believe they're honest, but for experts that do the work of honesty. And what is the work of being honest?

It's self-awareness. It's knowing the boundaries of my own expertise. It's knowing what I don't know. And it's work. The work of learning, of reading, of studying, of doing research, of keeping up on the literature in my area of expertise, of becoming a better, more effective, more precise communicator. It's putting my weapons down and learning from the expert on the other side. It's coming as a learner, and not as an expert. 

Intending to be honest is easy. Actually being honest is vulnerable.

All right, my friends, repeat after me (you'll have to trust that I'm saying these with you!):

I am human.

I don't know everything.

I need the insights that others bring to the table.

I can only keep track of so many details.

My expertise has limits.

At a bare minimum, honesty involves acknowledging these simple truths.

How about these:

I sometimes miss key pieces of evidence.

I struggle to remember and keep track of all of that testimony.

I know I read that somewhere, but I can't remember where.

Painful for me, too, my friends.

So, let's do this work together. Let's push each other to deeper levels of expertise, and by extension, deeper levels of honesty. Let's collaborate and learn from each other.

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