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Because I Said So...Credentials vs Credibility

Originally published in The Arboricultural Consultant, American Society of Consulting Arborists, January 2011

By: Russell E. Carlson RCA, BCMA
Tel: (302) 832-1911
Email Mr. Carlson

Remember when you were a kid? Remember when Mom or Dad told you to eat the asparagus? You asked why you had to eat it, and the response was "because I said so." That strategy worked for Mom and Dad, when there was no question about their authority. It won't work for you as an expert or a consultant. You must prove your expertise to your client and perhaps to a court of law. Proving your expertise is not just listing your credentials or adding your resume to a report. It is about building the foundations of your opinions and establishing your credibility as an expert.

Credentials are a necessary part of consulting work. People may want to believe your account of experience and expertise, but the credentials from accredited sources (such as ASCA Registered Consulting Arborist , ISA Certified Arborist and Board Certified Master Arborist, academic degrees, and others) mean far more than just your word on it. Without relevant credentials the consultant may be overlooked by those seeking qualified experts to assist them. Without documented expertise the consultant may not be accepted as an expert in court. But the credentials alone aren't enough, especially if you start to believe they are all you need to succeed.

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. The result was a change in the rules for admitting experts and their testimony in federal courts and in some state courts. Under the so-called Daubert rules, the presiding judge must decide whether the expert is qualified and the testimony to be offered is both relevant and reliable. The following are some of the general tests that must be met for admissibility under the Daubert ruling.

  • Has the scientific theory or technique been empirically tested?
  • Has the scientific theory or technique been subjected to peer review and publication?
  • What is the known or potential error rate?
  • What are the expert's qualifications and stature in the scientific community? (Is the expert reliably believable?)
  • Can the technique and its results be explained with sufficient clarity and simplicity so that the court and the jury can understand its plain meaning?

The last two points are crucial to the success of the case. They define credibility for the expert. Clarity, as used here, means ease of understanding. Simplicity means without the use of highly technical jargon or explanations.

One of the ways we communicate our credentials and credibility is through the oral and written reports we provide to our clients. How we document our research and present and substantiate our opinions establishes our effectiveness as an expert. As a consultant and an instructor at the ASCA Academy, I have read numerous reports written by my colleagues, both members and non-members of ASCA. The quality ranges from very good reports providing detailed documentation to really poor reports offering little help to the reader in understanding the issues or even the opinions of the author.

What I have seen all too often in reports and in testimony is an expert with appropriate credentials who proceeds to undermine the case by failing to document the issues or to substantiate her findings and opinions with actual research. Such experts write a report or testify in deposition or court on the basis of the argument "because I said so." They expect to be believed just on the weight of their resume and are probably surprised when that is not enough. A statement of your credentials may be sufficient for general discussions with customers for tree service projects, but not for a project where a more formal and detailed report is needed. The expert has failed to establish her credibility. Simply saying "the tree will probably die" is not sufficient. She has to explain how she arrived at that opinion, what are the indications, and why that conclusion is believable and supportable. The reasons must be explained. Those Consulting Academy students among you will recognize this as logical analysis, covered in the Forensics section. And it speaks directly to the final bullet point in the list above: Can the results be explained with sufficient clarity and simplicity?

Does that mean every report has to have a long bibliography of resources cited, or that you must quote a dozen books on every topic covered? Not at all. The level of detail should fit the assignment. It does mean that the consultant has to document the proof of his assertions. A single reliable source may be sufficient in some cases. Other times, many books, papers, and journals will be required. If you testify in a case in a federal court, you will be required to provide a list of those sources you relied on (refer to the Federal Rules of Evidence; The consultant must go beyond simply stating an opinion and treating it as fact. He must demonstrate the logic that results in those conclusions. And while the Daubert rules apply to federal courts, those same concepts should be applied to all of your projects.

A failure to thoroughly communicate the logic used and the methodology applied in forming opinions risks more than just prevailing in the case. It may encourage people to pursue litigation when it may not be in their best interest, or to try to defend a situation that would better be settled. Perhaps the worst result of all is that your reputation as a consultant and expert may be trampled in the process.

Without providing the necessary background, without doing the research and explaining it thoroughly, a report is only a statement of opinion. It doesn't meet the criteria needed to adequately substantiate the positions and the opinions that are proffered. It probably won't serve the needs of the client very well, especially in the litigious cases. In short, it comes down to just "because I said so." Credentials, years of experience, and a handful of newsletter articles may look good on a resume, but don't rely on that to prove your credibility.

Russell E. Carlson RCA, BCMA, is an internationally known Registered Consulting Arborist with more than 32 years experience. He provides expert consultation and testimony in forensic arboriculture cases, tree risk assessments, and tree appraisals, and has taught arboriculture and forensic methodology to other consultants and experts.

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