Regardless of whether the NFL and the Patriots find a way to resolve the #DeflateGate penalties, questions will linger regarding the 243-page Ted Wells report, which relies on an outside firm known as Exponent for the scientific analysis that supported the conclusion that tampering with air pressure happened prior to the AFC title game.
But with the overall circumstances suggesting that Wells at some point morphed from investigator to prosecutor, the question becomes whether Wells wanted from Exponent an honest, objective assessment of the situation or a scientific opinion that matched his subjective belief that tampering occurred.
The work of scientific consultants is only as good as the directions they receive from the persons who have retained their services. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, look into this and tell us what you find.” It’s quite another to say, “Hey, I need you to come to this specific conclusion. Can you do it?”
Shocking as it may seem to the average person, scientific consultants routinely offer expert opinions based not on what the science actually is but based on what their client wants the science to be. That’s what Exponent and many other firms do from time to time.
As noted in this 2010 article from the Los Angeles Times, Exponent at one time provided scientific support for the notion that second-hand smoke doesn’t cause cancer. That opinion undoubtedly was purchased by one or more tobacco companies in litigation based on the claim that second-hand smoke indeed causes cancer, and it was aimed to balance the expert opinion from another company hired by cancer victims and their families that it does.
So what did Wells ask Exponent to do? And what input did Wells’ team have in the analysis and presentation of the Exponent report? If the NFL aims to be truly transparent in this situation, full transparency would entail allowing an assessment of whether Exponent started with a blank page — or whether Exponent had a pre-selected ending spot with a directive to find a scientific path to that location.
Which leads back to concerns previously outlined regarding the roles of the various parties to the NFL’s in-house system of justice. Wells apparently became at some point an advocate for a position, not a truly independent and objective seeker of the truth. And Exponent quite possibly became not an independent and objective source of scientific information but a tool for allowing Wells to connect the dots the way he believed they should be connected.
Litigation routinely entails dueling expert witnesses, with one expert saying things that support the plaintiff and the other expert saying things that support the defense. In this case, the Patriots could have found plenty of scientific consultants who would have disagreed with Exponent. A truly fair process would have given both experts a voice before a final decision was made.
Alternatively, a truly fair process would have enlisted scientific assistance from an organization that was asked simply for an honest assessment of the evidence. Early in the process, Columbia University was mentioned as a potential source of scientific analysis. A truly transparent process by the league would include full disclosure regarding the reasons for not ultimately utilizing the services of the Columbia physics department.
It’s entirely possible that Columbia couldn’t support the desired conclusion that tampering occurred, which forced Wells to keep looking until he found someone who would.