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Conflicts of interest.

To the Editor: In "Bioethics, Conflicts of Interest, the Limits of Transparency," Lynn Jansen and Daniel Sulmasy mischaracterize bioethics expert testimony before juries. They describe it as an activity in which the "only way to estimate the value of what is claimed is to consider the reliability of the source." Adversarial courtroom contexts are structured to prevent juries from accepting arguments or evidence uncritically. Fostering critical thinking about the substance of testimony is as much the purpose of cross-examination as is creating skepticism about the source by asking about conflicts of interest. The commitment to fostering juries' critical thinking is also the reason experts are permitted to testify on both sides of cases, and the reason one must question Jansen and Sulmasy's assertion that "the claims of the bioethicist typically are taken as authoritative." Your readers should understand that juries that are presented with expert bioethics testimony are expected to assess both the value of the claims being advanced and the trustworthiness of the source, and that they are aided in these tasks by the rules and structure of the legal system.

The "no past crimes evidence" rule to which Jansen and Sulmasy refer in support of their argument that "more information is not always better" is a rule that constrains the state in criminal proceedings. Any analogy to information about bioethicists' conflicts of interest is, I hope, inapt.

Bethany Spielman

Southern Illinois University

Jansen and Sulmasy reply:

Bethany Spielman's letter is puzzling. She contests neither the conclusion nor any of the arguments in our paper. Instead, she asserts that we "mischaracterize" bioethics expert testimony before juries. We claimed while it is possible that some members of a jury may be able to assess the claims of a bioethicist critically, it is likely that many members of a jury will not have the analytical skill or the motivation to reflect carefully on the rational value of the claims being presented. For this reason, we conceded, there is a need for members of a jury to be informed of any relationships, financial or otherwise, that might substantially compromise the judgment of the bioethicist. We stand by this characterization. It is, of course, fully compatible with Spielman's claim that juries should be encouraged to assess the rational value of the claims presented to them. Indeed, to the extent that we have good reason to have confidence in the ability of juries to do so, then the case for disclosing conflicts of interest in this context collapses.

Spielman asserts that the "no past crimes" rule is "inapt" as an analogy to bioethicists' conflict of interest. What we said was that "certain kinds of information about the background of defendants should be withheld from juries. This information, while accurate, can distort a jury's judgment." These claims are plainly true, and they illustrate the general point that having more information does not always improve our ability to make good judgments. The failure to appreciate this important point helps account for the current uncritical enthusiasm for extending disclosure requirements to all contexts in bioethics.
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Title Annotation:letters
Author:Spielman, Bethany
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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