In Expert Mistakes, pathology expert witness Dr. Judy Melinek discusses learning from other experts:
“An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”
When I review others’ reports and find mistakes I always try to learn from them because it is always easier to learn from others’ mistakes than to make and learn from your own.
No one is immune to mistakes. It is what makes us human. The question is how do we, as scientists and experts, deal with our errors? Do we ignore them? Deny them? Or do we delve into the reasons why they occurred and make a change? And can we accept that by making a change in policy or procedure we will be opening ourselves up to future attacks by attorneys who will use the change as a basis to invalidate our previous opinions?
What are some of the worst mistakes? The worst I’ve seen are the result of arrogance. As an expert and legal consultant one needs to be confident and project that confidence when testifying. But knowing the facts of your case and showing proficiency in analyzing and conveying those facts is different from insulting or tearing down an opposing expert, criticizing the person instead of their opinion (ad-hominem attacks). I’ve been on the receiving end of those with opposing counsel making fun of me for having gone to Harvard or for my dress (“fancy”). Generally I know that if they are attacking me personally it is because they don’t know how to attack me based on the facts of the case. I also know that the more obnoxious they get the more they will alienate the decision makers – the jury.
I have seen world-renowned experts, confronted with inconsistencies between their previous and current testimony, or between their testimony and a recently published article get defensive and even aggressive. They respond to legitimate questions with bluster and arrogance. Nothing turns off a jury more. The best way to deal with a direct attack is to address the specific issues at hand and simplify it for the jury. Explain to them why the case the attorney is asking about is different from the current case and how interpretations in science can vary based on these crucial differences. By the time the expert is done explaining, the jury will have either forgotten the attorney’s challenge or gotten so wrapped up in the explanation of the facts of the current case that they will be right back along agreeing with the expert.
But how does an expert learn to keep her ego in check? The best way is to hang around people who know a lot more than you do. By teaching residents and medical students and working alongside staff in a university setting you are constantly barraged with questions that force you to challenge your assumptions and stay up on the scientific advances that drive the peer-reviewed medical literature. Take challenging consult cases: by sparring with attorneys on high-profile cases you are going to be confronted with sharp criticism and you’ll find that you can’t just rely on your experience and training – you need to stay current and sharp. And finally, go to professional meetings. Nothing humbles me more than attending an AAFS or NAME meeting, and sitting in lectures about the cutting-edge research others are conducting, or the challenging cases that others have successfully investigated. I can’t sit for more than 10 minutes before having that “shoulda coulda woulda” feeling about some of my own cases. Yet at the same time, when I leave the conferences, I feel invigorated. Forensic science can be incredibly isolating, especially if you are the only doctor in a small rural Coroner’s office. Lunching and dining with colleagues makes you realize that there is camaraderie and support; that we may not always agree on the best way to interpret an injury, or certify a death, but we can come together, break bread and do what scientists do best: collaborate.
Dr. Melinek is a American Board of Pathology board-certified forensic pathologist practicing forensic medicine in San Francisco, California as well as an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pathology at the UCSF Medical Center.