The Advantage Blog

Overcoming Appeals to Nature and Distrust of Science

June 16, 2015 | By | , ,

I was having lunch on a beautiful spring day with a very smart attorney friend of mine recently. He had a big civil trial coming up that involved having to persuade a jury on some relatively complicated scientific evidence. The conversation went something like this:

EDUCATED FRIEND: “Another study just came out showing that the anti-vaccine crowd is all wrong. The abstract right here says, ‘Despite research showing no link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism spectrum disorders (ASD), beliefs that the vaccine causes autism persist, leading to lower vaccination levels.[1]’”

CHRIS: “How many in the study?”

EDUCATED FRIEND: “95,000.”

CHRIS: “That’s a pretty significant number. Is this a peer-reviewed, published study?”

EDUCATED FRIEND: “It’s in JAMA.”

CHRIS: “Wow, that’s big.”

EDUCATED FRIEND: “Maybe more people will get their kids vaccinated now.”

CHRIS: “Maybe, but I don’t know if it’ll make that much of a difference to the people who already hold strong anti-vaccine attitudes.”

EDUCATED FRIEND: “Well, stupid people won’t change because they’re stupid. Okay, that may be a little harsh. You’re a jury consultant, what do you think?”

CHRIS: “There are several reasons why an anti-vaxxer might not change their opinion in light of new evidence, but the one we’ve run into quite a bit lately is the appeal to nature.”

EDUCATED FRIEND: “At least you didn’t use the Latin.”

CHRIS: “Oh, you mean, Argumentum ad Naturam?[2]

EDUCATED FRIEND [Smiling]: “Yeah, yeah: Natural is good. If it’s not natural, it’s not good. Fluoride in the water is bad because it makes something pure, impure. Never mind the fact that the water is a treated product in the first place, and fluoride can be found on the Periodic Table of Elements.”

CHRIS: “There’s also the issue of the word ‘science’ activating an ‘unnatural’ narrative framework with some people. You say ‘science’ and they think ‘genetic manipulation.’”

EDUCATED FRIEND: “You know, I should be able to put a strong study like this in front of people, and it should be inherently persuasive. They rejected fluoride in the water supply in Portland, Oregon, but they seem like smart people.[3] It’s baffling to me.”

CHRIS: “Living in Portland, my impression was that the successful messaging was not anti-science, it was an appeal to nature. It was essentially, ‘Keep Portland’s pristine water, pristine.’’”

EDUCATED FRIEND: “Oh, come on—pristine?”

CHRIS: “I have to say it tastes darn good. And I don’t get the sense that people cared that fluoride is flavorless, or that it’s a naturally occurring element. The way ‘Clean Water Portland’ was running their campaign, fluoride was made to seem like a contaminant.[4]

EDUCATED FRIEND: “Oh man, I have a bad feeling about this. Am I screwed if I have to rely on scientific evidence in this trial? How do I get through to people?”

CHRIS: “The ones that distrust or do not believe in science are pretty high up on your high-risk juror profile[5]. The people that simply don’t understand it aren’t ideal, but you can educate them. Ask jurors questions in voir dire that reveal adverse attitudes. Do they prefer homeopathy to pharmaceuticals, for example? That data alone gets you started. By the way, what’s your central narrative?”

EDUCATED FRIEND: “I don’t really have one. I have some really great studies. I really think when they learn the science, they will be persuaded. It’s really clear once you get it.”

CHRIS: “I’ll tell you that over the years the jury consultants at Tsongas have tested out the ‘push the big study’ theory in focus groups and mock trials. It hasn’t gone too well in the jury research, so we went to trial leading with individual narratives and factual illustrations that put color to the study. That’s gone well.[6]

EDUCATED FRIEND: “So I have to have a narrative? I thought evidence was the strongest persuader. Why can’t I just put evidence in front of people?”

CHRIS: “Let me just say your chance of a good result will go up if you lead with your narrative and use the study for support. Evidence can be the strongest persuader, but not if it runs contrary to people’s deeply held beliefs. I think you should use the study, just develop a narrative around it to communicate it effectively. Stories are a pretty universal way to get your point across.”

Graphic at http://www.vocativ.com/culture/health-culture/death-and-vaccination-rates/

Graphic at http://www.vocativ.com/culture/health-culture/death-and-vaccination-rates/

EDUCATED FRIEND: “That’s hard with all the complicated science. If you and I were in a case strategy session together and we were working on proving that there wasn’t a link between Autism and the MMR vaccine, and you couldn’t use the study, then what would you do?”

CHRIS: “We would suggest you use the study as support for your narrative. Then we’d develop a couple of key visuals to help really drive our point home in a memorable way. For example, talk about what vaccines do. They save the lives of children and young adults. In countries where vaccinations are scarce, kids die. But the way you do this matters: Tell them the story about Timmy, a high school kid who had a good loving family. They believed in eating only healthy, natural food, and they used homeopathic remedies when they got sick. It had worked for them for years until one day Timmy felt like he ate something bad so he went to sleep. He woke up at 4 am. His chest felt like it was on fire. He was so scared all he could do was yell for help. His parents came in, took one look at him, and headed right to the hospital. Unfortunately, this turned out to be meningitis and they were now just past the 12 hour window.

Graphic at https://media.vocativ.com/photos /2015/03/VaxSuits-03.r4.png

Graphic at https://media.vocativ.com/photos
/2015/03/VaxSuits-03.r4.png

After another few hours of insufferable pain and discomfort, Timmy died and his family was devastated.

The risk of injury or death from taking the vaccine that would have saved Timmy’s life is less than .0001%. That’s one in 10,000. Compare that to something they are familiar with, such as the risk of dying in a motor vehicle incident being 1 in 112, dying of a  fall is 1 in 152, and the odds of unintentional poisoning are 1 in 119.[7]

EDUCATED FRIEND: “Cool, can I get some help on those graphics?”

CHRIS: “We have a conflict.”

EDUCATED FRIEND: “Really?”

CHRIS: “Just kidding.”



[1] http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2275444

[2] http://www.fallacyfiles.org/adnature.html

[3] http://www.menshealth.com/best-life/educated-cities

[4] http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2013/05/portland_fluoride_for_the_four.html

[5] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/big-gap-between-what-scientists-say-and-americans-think-about-climate-change/

[6] http://scienceinthecourtroom.com/index.php/guest-commentary/51-christopher-dominic-a-trial-consultants-thoughts

[7] http://www.nsc.org/NSCDocuments_Corporate/2014-Injury-Facts-Odds-Dying-43.pdf

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