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This expert-witness thing June 18, 2009

Posted by fetzthechemist in Uncategorized.

 OK, I have been going through an extended period of working on several litigations as an expert witness. Although I might not feel comfortable in claiming I am a paragon of virtue, I can say that as a scientist that I do believe in professional ethics. These include giving credit to collaborators when it is due, forming opinions on scientific aspects of an issue on the science first and foremost and then assessing business needs and other issues that are outside of the science, being consistent and not having flexible views based on circumstances, not making assumptions that fit the end goal.

My observation of the various experts I have seen, both on plaintiff’s and defendant’s side, on the side I represent and on the opposing side, that this world view is scarce. Expert witness are not supposed to be advocates, i.e. under the law, they are not supposed to only view positive results and ignor negatives. They may weigh both with different values based on arguments that they must give the court as to why they vary in importance.

Experts are only supposed to testify on areas that they can proof to the acceptance of the court (that is, the presiding judge). I do not try to testify on a lot of areas because my background is not all encompassing. I have learned that I need to establish expertise explicitly in any area I might have to have an opinion on, as I can be limited by not having proven expert status in some area, in spite of examples being in my CV or background. It has to be proven. Cagey lawyers on the other side use that exclusion to limit rebuttal. Unwary lawyers end up allowing unqualified experts to give opinions into testimony that are not based on expert-level expertise.

But the biggest observation is that through the driving forces of the large amounts of money in this business, each expert can easily charge thousands of dollars per day which includes all time travelling, all expenses, and even an up-front retainer fee of a minmum of one day;s fee or a lump sum.

To get these jobs, people seem to sell themselves even much more liberally than in the regular job market. There, everyone has experience in everything and much of it at the “expert” level. In the legal world, everyone is a recognized expert. My ego blushes generally at these claims, but my CV is obscenely long and wide-ranging. I have the chops, as they say. Others blatantly claim to when they do not. Simply having a PhD really means little. Even experience may not. Running lots of routine analyses makes you expert in that analysis as far as running it, but not necessarily in how it works and why, let alone the broader field that analysis may fall in (HPLC or IR, for examples). In the expert-witness world, that is not the case. People claim to know it all in order to get the dollars. Judges only need to be convinced and judges are not scientists who can easily tell the differences.

So, I am increasingly feeling like an idealist in a non-ideal world.



1. organikchemist - June 19, 2009

I get the inpression that you have run across a lot of folks who say “I have a PhD, I am an expert!”. This is just silly. I have a PhD in organic synthesis. Am I am expert in all things synthetic? Nope. Am I an expert in what I did for my postdoc for three years? I think so. But that area is a narrow band in the field. Anything outside that and my knowledge drops off quickly.

2. fetzthechemist - June 19, 2009

I could not agree with you more as far as using it as a scientist. In the area of job searching, nobody seems to have that view. Someone just out of grad school or a postdoc is an expert in a dozen wide-ranging areas. A similar tone is the one in the legal area. There the scientists and attorneys who hire them gear questions in testimony to establish expert status from pretty flimsy credentials from the perspective of a scientist who can tell.

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