BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do rolodex cards sleep at night? Sometimes not very well, according to one lapsed expert named Steven Moss, Writing in the latest issue of Legal Affairs. He recalls making a lot of money the new-fangled way, as an expert in courtrooms and TV shows, oftentimes espousing positions he didn't care about or even believe. Today Moss is still an expert, though he's paid far less for it. He now testifies on issues he genuinely understands and supports. Steven Moss, welcome to the show.
STEVEN MOSS: Thanks very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So along with the lower pay, was your tell-all in Legal Affairs part of your penance? And did you feel a lot better getting it off your chest?
STEVEN MOSS: Well, truthfully, I did. And--and actually the articles I first wrote was much more of a confession than the article that ultimately came out. But I did want to publicly say that I'm sorry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Now, you began your career in expertry, for lack of a better word, as a maven on freight train safety. Can you explain how that happened?
STEVEN MOSS: What normally happens as an expert witness in analytical cases, legal cases or just public policy is that a group looks for somebody who can become their, let's say, mouthpiece. And in general they want someone who both can talk the talk, but also can do some analysis about what have become very complex issues in public policy. So in the case of rail safety I was hired by a group that was very interested in promoting rail safety, which seems like a good thing. And the way they framed the issue was that there is a problem with rail safety, and Steve, go find out what that problem is. And so I did. And in general when you ask a question there's always an answer to it. And I found the answers that they liked and then they went about promoting that position.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then it began to expand and you became an expert on passenger trains as well.
STEVEN MOSS: Well, after a while when you're an expert in one thing you quickly morph into being an expert on all things like that. So I did research on freight trains
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
STEVEN MOSS: mostly, but there was a pretty big interest in passenger trains. So I quickly became an expert on that as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And your first big media appearance was as an expert on The Today Show. And you wrote in your Legal Affairs piece, "It was over in a matter of minutes, but my discomfort has lasted to this day." How come?
STEVEN MOSS: Well, at that time I had done a lot of research and analysis on a ballot initiative here in California that was oriented toward the environment. Now, the ballot initiative wasn't a well written one, so there were lots of problems with it, but my job was to help kill it. And helping to kill it mostly meant pointing out its economic problems, like how it would devastate the state economically. Now, there was some truth to that. But that kind of discussion doesn't really get you into a discussion about the trade offs between environmental protection and economics, or what the long-run future of California should be. It's not a very rich discussion. And so, I had a hammer, and the nail was the environment. And so I hit it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You noted that the experience, whether or not you were being questioned by attorneys or by reporters, was pretty much the same because they knew the answer that they wanted before they asked the question. Was it your job as an expert to provide that answer, the one they were fishing for? And have you ever--mmm, I won't say lied, misdirected?
STEVEN MOSS: No, my job is not to answer the reporter's questions or the attorney's questions. My job in all cases is to promote the answers my client wants me to promote. So if a reporter asks me a question that's off the bullet points that I was given by the client, then I'm not going to answer it that way unless I have to. And an example of that I think I recounted in the article is that I was asked by a reporter whether or not train safety should be considered one of the highest transportation risks in the country, and after a brief pause I said yes, though the answer is probably more like no--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
STEVEN MOSS: --because the agenda was that train safety is something we need more attention to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, when you first ventured into the halls of expertry you said, "Well, look this isn't so bad because I'll be the expert on one side and they'll have an expert on the other side, and--and it'll balance itself out." Do you think that ultimately it worked fairly for everybody to have the two experts balancing each other out?
STEVEN MOSS: Almost never it does. And for a couple of reasons. One is one expert is almost always better than the other. And so, in our society economic power tends to get that expert. So it's to the highest bidder. Not always, but often.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So big business can buy more experts and better ones.
STEVEN MOSS: Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What is the lesson here? [LAUGHS] When we see an expert on the news, how seriously should we take his or her opinion?
STEVEN MOSS: With a great big dash of salt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, what if they went to Harvard?
STEVEN MOSS: [LAUGHS] It doesn't matter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Well, Steven Moss, thanks very much.
STEVEN MOSS: A pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven Moss is a partner with M Cubed, a consulting firm. His story, Opinion For Sale, appears in the March/April edition of Legal Affairs. [MUSIC]