I'm not in the business of making mountains out of molehills. However, there are times when I read something that exemplifies many larger trends, and this is one of them. Not a day goes by when someone (usually in a position of authority) laments that people don't trust experts (people like them) like they used to. The problem in their eyes is that there is so much disinformation online. I would counter that people don't trust experts as much as they used to because many experts prove themselves to be untrustworthy.
For example, while researching another article, I read Comparative Analysis of Fatal Crashes in Texas vs. California and Implications for Traffic Safety in Texas, compiled by three esteemed academics. Here's the part that will sound petty. On page 20, I came across one of the most egregious mistakes I've seen in government/academic writing in some time.
In the interest of fairness, the mistake occurs within a 99-page report, and normally, I wouldn't make a big deal about one little thing in the context of a much longer work. However, this one thing is a flat-out lie; the kind of lie that would warrant serious sanctions if a teacher discovered it in a high school paper.
What False Information Does Comparative Analysis of Fatal Crashes in Texas vs. California and Implications for Traffic Safety in Texas Contain?
Pages 20 of the report contains the following section:
Transportation experts and public officials have attributed the rise in large truck related fatalities in Texas to a number of factors, including the following (Burwell Nebout Trial Lawyers 2014; Marynell Maloney Law Firm 2014):
-Increased truck traffic on Texas highways as a result of the current energy industry boom conditions
-Failure to maintain these large trucks properly
-Poorly trained or unqualified drivers
-Driver fatigue or errorComparative Analysis of Fatal Crashes in Texas vs. California and Implications for Traffic Safety in Texas (2014). Troy d. Walden, Ph.D.; Myunghoon Ko, Ph.D., P.E.; Lingtao Wu, M.S.
First, while the factors listed in the report do contribute to truck accidents, they don't account for the majority of crashes. It's doubtful they even account for most of Texas' increase in trucking fatalities. Most truck accidents occur because a passenger car either fails to yield the right of way to a commercial truck or fails to control its speed and collides with a truck.
Secondly, it's disingenuous to speak of transportation experts and public officials, then cite truck accident attorneys as those experts. That's akin to asking your neighbor to estimate the average age of people in a town, then citing them as a demographics expert. I'll get into the specifics of why truck accident injury attorneys aren't a good source later, but I think it's fair to wonder why are researchers, working for TXDOT (the organization that has access to all of the crash reports in Texas), citing attorneys as experts, when those attorneys don't have access to nearly as much information as the researchers do?
The average person will read this section of the report and come away with the impression that reducing fatalities, involving commercial trucks, requires greater regulation of the trucking industry. While there may be sensible regulations that are not yet in place, the fact remains that you could eliminate every commercial driver-caused truck accident and not come close to solving half of the problem.
Why Are Trained Researchers Passing Off Truck Accident Attorneys as Transportation Experts?
To understand how the researchers flubbed this section so badly, putting out false information in their report, it's important to look at their choice of experts. Both of the law firms cited sue trucking companies that cause serious injuries or deaths in accidents. Their relevant expertise is not in truck accidents themselves, but in litigating them.
I work at a truck accident injury firm. The attorneys at my firm have a working understanding of truck accidents. They need enough expertise to properly evaluate a fact pattern, but when it comes time to demonstrate to a jury the technical aspects of a crash, they don't possess the expertise that a court recognizes. This is why attornies bring in accident reconstructionists and safety experts to speak on those matters at trial. At the end of the day, no one hires a lawyer for their opinion about why a crash occurred, they hire an attorney for what they can do in the courtroom.
It's not surprising that having done a poor job evaluating their chosen experts (going so far as to attribute to them expertise that they don't actually possess) the researchers botched common causes of commercial truck accidents. Most attorneys don't venture outside their practice area. Even firms that exclusively litigate truck accident cases only see a small slice of the total number of accidents that occur. This means they're biased by their experience. Certainly, the researchers present common causes of truck accidents where the truck driver is at fault, the problem is that the trucker isn't at fault for most accidents.
Lazy Research Leads to False Information
Again, I'm not trying to pick on these researchers for making a small mistake. They put out demonstrably false information when they didn't have to. What's more, they did so while doing work for TXDOT, which has access to every accident report in Texas. These reports contain the cause of each crash and distinguish commercial vehicles from passenger cars. Certainly, compiling accurate data might have been a little more labor intensive than it is today, but researchers could have generated a better sample than any truck accident injury attorney is capable of providing.
While I certainly don't pretend to know why the researchers dubiously cited the particular firms or passed them off as traffic safety experts, the most likely explanation is that it was easier than pouring through piles of police reports to come up with their own statistically meaningful sample. In essence, these researchers committed a research fallacy akin to citing Wikipedia. Most people know that students often make this research mistake because it's a lot easier to look on Wikipedia than to do actual research. Certainly, it would not have taken more than a Google search for "truck accident causes" to come up with the articles for these firms than listed those causes, which are undoubtedly advertisements for legal services. In this instance, good advertising leads to lousy research and incorrect information.
Perhaps what's most disturbing is that the researchers took the time to cite two unreliable sources, in an attempt to lend further credibility to their argument. Sadly, when doing research, two bad sources never add up to one good source.
Who Cares If Researchers Put Out False Information?
Is it petty to point out a single mistake in a 100-page document? If I were writing about an obvious typo, then the answer would certainly be, "yes." However, this isn't a typo, but an easily avoided falsehood. The public and policymakers rely on TXDOT research to come up with solutions to problems. Putting out bad information thwarts those efforts, by failing to convey the proper cause of a problem.
The larger issue is that many people no longer trust experts. This is a shame because expertise plays an invaluable role in a complex society like ours. I do not doubt that the authors of this study put in more time and effort into understanding this problem than I will. However, their inclusion of an obvious falsehood undermines my trust in their judgment. While they may be knowledgeable enough to pull together the data that makes up the bulk of the study, their knowledge of the topic has a substantial gap if they couldn't recognize that truck accident attorneys aren't credible sources for their purposes. Further, while it's true from a truck accident attorney's perspective that poor training, bad decisions, and faulty equipment cause most truck accidents, it's because those are the only crashes relevant to the attorney's work.
In an ideal world, experts command respect from the public, because of their knowledge, judgment, and honesty. Combine those three qualities and an expert gains credibility. However, like with a table, compromise any one of those three legs and the whole structure falls. While it may be comforting for experts to believe that bad information undermines the public's trust in their work, the truth is that far too much of that disinformation comes from experts themselves. We are all worse off for that.