Ellad Tadmor believes that strengthening our democracy isn’t rocket science. After observing a precipitous decline in civility over the past decade, the professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics at the University of Minnesota developed an antidote. He created “Science Court,” a U Honor’s course in which students pick a hot-button societal issue to study. They then spend a semester deep-diving into facts pro and con before presenting their conclusions to volunteer jurors in a mock trial. Tadmor shares why the court model can bring out the best in people, the key role emotion plays in all of this, and why youth are likely our best hope to pull us out of a culture swimming, he said, in “polarized waters.”
Q: Court can be divisive and scary, with winners and losers. Why did you pick this route to civility?
A: Research shows that, by and large, jury trials are highly effective. Citizens rise to the occasion and invest a great deal of time and effort to understand complex information to make a fair determination.
Q: Interestingly, your impetus for Science Court wasn’t the judicial system. It was GMOs.
A: About 15 years ago, I heard a radio story about an aid agency that put genetically modified organisms on trial in front of juries of farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin American. It struck me that, if done objectively, a mock trial held in front of an impartial jury could be an effective way to debate controversial issues.
Q: What was your tipping point for creating your court?
A: When polarization became an attack on truth and facts. Scientists are all about uncovering the truth. As a scientist, I couldn’t take it anymore.
Q: Your court is multifaceted. Tell us about that.
A: After the students choose their issue, they divide into three teams. The science team, led by U Ph.D. student Lauren Clatch, determines the facts based on sound scientific research. The legal team, led by Collin Tierney, an assistant public defender in the office of the Hennepin County Public Defender, prepares pro and con arguments based on the science team’s findings. The media team, led by documentary filmmaker Melody Gilbert, engages and informs the public.
Q: Why are young people a good fit for this experiment?
A: They’re not jaded. They’re optimistic because everyone is optimistic when they’re 18. And they’re concerned about the future. I see my girls (ages 13 and 11) growing up in this world. I want them to grow up in a world where democracy is a given.
Q: Your approach reminds me of debate, where those engaging must be ready to compellingly defend both sides of a controversial issue.
A: We have debating students in our class, and we use aspects of debate. But debate often boils down to technicalities and its objective is to resolve disputes between parties with winners and losers. Our method champions a process that maximizes collaboration.
Q: Can’t even facts be debated and dismissed? That seems to be the world we’re living in now.
A: We talk with the students about how to evaluate the scientific literature. Are the statistics valid? How do you know? How do you evaluate a website? At the pretrial hearing, there’s an opportunity for the legal team to challenge facts they don’t like. They have to make a case about why those facts should not be admissible, such as something that is in contradiction to the majority of research in the field. Both the pro and con sides then work from the same set of facts, weighting those facts in their arguments.
Q: Finding the facts is just the first step in making a decision.
A: Yes. One’s ethics, philosophy and worldview are what really help you make a decision.
Q: So, emotion rules? This seems surprising coming from a scientist.
A: In a complex issue, some facts point in the pro direction and some in the con direction. Making a decision involves weighting these facts, which is based on our emotional human side. So emotion comes into all decisions. People have more at stake when making decisions than just accuracy. A decision that is based on facts but undermines one’s identity or one’s sense of self can be damaging. Human reasoning is therefore a complex mixture of facts and emotions.
Q: How do you pick your issue?
A: The students pick it. It should be controversial and lead to an impassioned discussion. There should be widespread interest in the topic. Scientifically sound research and reliable data must be available on both sides. Candidates for our first Science Court included private prisons, sanctuary cities and technology in the classroom. The latter was selected.
Q: Who serves on your jury?
A: Volunteers from the public. We want a mix of views, ages, genders, sex. Heterogeneous juries debate better. Homogeneous juries tend to become more extreme.
Q: What kind of feedback did you get from the first group of students?
A: They took away optimism that we can solve problems in a civil way. I’m not deluding myself that we’re going to change the world. But even a small difference makes you feel better. And it’s fun, too.
The public is invited to a brainstorming event on June 15 to help select the next Science Court case. Go to scicourt.umn.edu.