I’m always amazed how many people form unmovable opinions based on only a small fraction of relevant information.
Someday if you ever attend law school, you’ll take a course called “Evidence.” This is one of the most important parts of the curriculum for future lawyers. Students are taught that gathering all the facts from as many sources as possible is the difference between winning or losing a case for a trial attorney. Not doing so can leave unprepared counsel twisting in the wind.
It can be expensive and time-consuming to gather all the facts. Yet negligence in this pursuit can lead to false conclusions and misunderstandings.
The legal system is designed to separate fact from fiction. But being a human institution, it’s far from perfection toward this objective. Here are some sources of fact that can be admissible in a court of law:
1. Eye witness testimony (one of the weakest forms of evidence).
2. Physical evidence (the murder weapon, as an example).
3. Expert opinion testimony (usually paid professionals sometimes referred to as “hired guns”).
4. Documentary (can include published media stories).
5. Hearsay under certain circumstances. (Someone’s admission of guilt outside of the courtroom setting could be an example.)
Note that none of these sources by themselves is usually adequate to prove a case in a court of law. Yet isn’t it interesting how we all are guilty of forming unwavering opinions based on just one source of information?
My father was a “hired gun” and testified in a number trials, including one made famous on the TV program “60 Minutes.” His testimony was always allowed by the court as one source of evidence based on his professional background. As a professor and a department chair at the University of California San Francisco, he had published over 200 papers, mostly on the subject of oral cancer.
But did that make him the only source of facts at a trial? Of course not. Opposing forces in the courtroom were not going to take the opinion of one “expert,” pack up their brief-cases and go home. They had their own set of facts to be examined by a jury.
My father was playing in the big leagues. The defendants were usually multi-billion dollar corporations with legal departments that could make some Ivy League law school professors look like amateurs.
These corporations basically had unlimited funds to aid in the defense of their clients.
Dad would give his opinion on the stand and then cross-examination would begin. The defense strategy usually was to dig up every obscure study they could find and try to make my father look not as smart as his credentials might lead a jury to believe.
“So tell me, Dr. Hansen, have you ever read the Bartels and James study on oral cancer published in 1952?”
“No, I can’t say that I have.” Pop would reply.
“What about the Botswana study in 1968?’”
“Well, how about the Vietnamese hospital study in 1969?”
“Well then, Dr. Hansen: With your admitted lack of knowledge, do you still think this court should consider you as an expert on the subject of oncology?”
“I withdraw the last question, Your Honor.” (Doubt has now been planted with the jury.)
Of course, the truth is no matter how knowledgeable one is about an issue, and no matter how well respected he or she is, no one can know it all or have read everything.
So how does this little tale apply to us with everyday knowledge about various issues?
We obviously don’t have the money, time or staff to research all the facts on every topic of interest — especially about political or other controversial points-of-view. We base our conclusions on what we have at our disposal, which is usually sadly lacking in all of the necessary information to make intelligent decisions or give knowledgeable opinions.
But if we thought more like trial attorneys and looked to a variety of factual sources, we just might find our ideas to be less rigid and more open to bigger pictures regarding controversial subjects, which could influence and even modify our present beliefs.
In other words, as Joe Friday might say, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.