Journalists are drawn to experts. We use them to add context to stories or to provide perspective in controversies. As a generalist in print and broadcasting, I have for years cited as sources people with great expertise in various sciences, all manner of medicine, criminology, the law, foreign policy, literature, immigration, climate change. They have been guests on the radio shows I hosted on WBAL and WYPR and I’ve many times quoted in my column experts and the studies they produced. Experts are great. They are devoted to their work — know more about it than anyone but their peers — and the journalist gets to pass their knowledge along to the public. I have always enjoyed — actually loved — interviewing doctors, lawyers, academics of all kinds, authors and other journalists with particular expertise in politics, the law or health. 

Dr. David Fowler, Maryland’s former chief medical examiner — and the subject of my column in The Sun today — was considered an expert in the field of forensic pathology. He had a long tenure in the ME’s office in Maryland, made dozens of presentations and was the author of many reports on all facets of forensic pathology. (His research on infant deaths supported Maryland’s ban on the sale of crib bumpers for babies in 2012, the first state to do so.)

I say “was considered an expert” because, in one very-high-profile case (the murder trial of former cop Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis), Fowler probably squandered all the credibility he established over a long career. 

That might sound extreme or crass, but that’s how it looks because what Fowler said during the Chauvin trial seemed so outrageous to anyone equipped with eyesight and common sense. And that included the jury.

But it was his choice to go down that path. You could look at Fowler in two ways: He found for a fee a medical-based narrative to give the Chauvin defense what it needed to raise reasonable doubt (such expert witnesses have done that in thousands of criminal cases), or he truly believes that police aren’t responsible if the person they arrest with force has underlying health conditions.

If I were looking for an expert opinion now from someone in Fowler’s field, would I turn to him? Probably not. Because the introduction would require too many words and undercut the whole reason for seeking his opinion. Now I would have to qualify his appearance in a column or on a radio show with facts that sound like disclaimer: “Dr. Fowler famously testified that Derek Chauvin did not cause George Floyd’s death . . . .”

As I state in the column: It’s hard to imagine this was the retirement Dr. David Fowler had in mind after a long and respected career in a field in which he thrived.

One thought on “Does one bad opinion erase an expert?

  1. I agree. From my perspective Dr. Fowler’s opinion was uproariously ridiculous. To suggest that Officer Chauvin’s knee pressure on the neck of Mr. Floyd was not a “substantial factor” in causing his death really strains credulity.

    How can two pathologists look at the same video, the same autopsy report, the same lab work, and come up with opinions that are 180 degrees different? Surely, it must be the corruption of the money an expert is paid.

    But………consider this…… You’re watching a baseball game on television. There is a close play at 2nd base. Was the runner out? Was the tag applied before he reached the base or did his foot hit the base before the tag? Multiple cameras film the event. Replays are played. From some of the replays the runner looks out and in some he looks safe. How can this be? The cameras just videotape what they “see.” There is no prejudice or bias on the part of the camera? And yet, what one sees from one camera angle just looks different from another.
    So, just consider that two physicians can look at the same set of data and draw different opinions. Does not the expression “get a second opinion” come from the medical profession?

    Liked by 1 person

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