SciCourt digs into social theories as they begin polarization cases

Friday, February 26, 2021 - 2:30pm

Person sitting on bed surrounded by computer and notebooks.

 

After weeks of preliminary research and discussion, the Spring 2021 cohort of students in Science Court are beginning to prepare the materials they will use in their end-of-semester arguments to the Science Court jury about fighting polarization in American society.

To help students better understand some of the psychological science related to mandatory service, U of M graduate student and Science Court advisor Cory Fleck presented to the group on Tuesday about social contact theory. This field of research suggests that when people are brought together to work on a task they can all contribute to with equal status, prejudice between group members can decline while respect for other members can increase. 

Fleck said he is excited to see how the students are able to utilize contact theory in their case preparation. He said he thinks it will provide a foundation for research on mandatory service and whether there might be limits to what contact can achieve. 

Madeleine Stankiewicz, a student on the legal team, said she sees a lot of potential for contact theory to influence the con argument, which will advocate for an alternative to mandatory service. 

“It’s less about the work and more about the people you’re interacting with that really forms those bonds,” Stankiewicz said. 

Aside from understanding theories relevant to the mandatory service case, students learned about the theories behind citizens’ jury and democracy models that Science Court was derived from. Professor and Science Court founder Ellad Tadmor presented during Thursday’s class about the characteristics, limitations, and applications of citizens’ juries. According to Tadmor, one key criticism of citizens’ juries is that they can be easily manipulated by the organizers who have control over the information presented to the jury. 

But Science Court differs from citizens’ juries in a few key areas, Tadmor showed. First, Science Court has a smaller jury than most citizens’ juries and  is selected to be heterogeneous based on the topic presented, rather than to be representative of the general public. For example, a Science Court jury may include more young people than usual if the issue at hand would affect them more. 

Facilitation in Science Court is also indirect, meaning that the facilitator watches the jury’s deliberation but doesn’t participate unless necessary. And while citizens’ juries feature expert witnesses who can speak to a topic area, the witnesses in Science Court are the students who have  been studying the topics all semester. 

In the following weeks, the science, media and legal teams will each be pursuing separate tasks. The science team will be investigating key questions about mandatory service and its alternatives. Meanwhile, the legal team will be researching broader questions to solidify their pro and con arguments. The media team will document their findings through a biweekly newsletter and podcast, as well as this website. You can also follow Science Court updates on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @scicourt. 

Stay tuned to learn more about the students’ work, including what they learn from interviews with experts in related fields, as they continue to prepare for the end of semester trial on April 24. SciCourt jury recruitment will begin soon as well - check back on this site or watch SciCourt social media for an opportunity to sign up. 

Image at top by Windows on Unsplash

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