Words! Words! Words!

…as exclaimed by counsel – a “wordsmith”, in referring to the practice of law.  We were on site where I was taking a briefing on a problem as experienced by the property owner.

To which I might have added in referring to the practice of engineering, “Numbers! Numbers! Numbers!

The exchange reminded me of a paper I read a few years ago entitled, “The Fundamental Differences Between Science and Law”.  It was written by Robert A. Bohrer, both a professor and a practitioner of law.

The paper appeared in the book, “Expert Witnessing: Explaining and Understanding Science” (Ref. 1).  It’s a very good read, one of the better texts on forensic work that I’ve seen.  You’re certain to find it interesting

The book was written for “…scientists, engineers, physicians, judges, litigators and those who work in contact with the courts”.  It was in response to the “…notorious communication problems between science and the courts” as recognized by both. The book contains papers from 14 noted authors from all walks of life in science, applied science, and law.

In his paper, Professor Bohrer attempts to describe the difficulty of incorporating science into legal decision making.  He does this by describing the three basic differences between the world of science and the world of law:

  • Science is digital, replicable/general, and objective/universal;
  • Law is analogical, unpredictable/particular, and normative/contingent.

I won’t attempt to précis the paper but “digital” resonates with me – like in “numbers”.   Engineers measure and quantify things with numbers and use numerical methods to analyse the cause of failures and accidents.

If you can measure it you can manage it. (Ref. 2)  And you can measure most things in some way or another.  Including cost control in civil litigation. (Ref. 3)

At its most basic an engineer might simply “take the measure” of something with an experienced eye – and a tape measure would be nowhere in sight.  But not often because we like to measure and test things.

The importance of measurement in science and engineering is echoed in a number of papers in the book.  One on epidemiology recognizes that, “The concepts of measurement and uncertainty, of error and of chance are fundamental to science”.

“Objective” in the differences above also jumps out at me, as required of experts by Nova Scotia civil procedure Rule 55.  The word does conjure up the idea of measuring and testing (Ref. 4) but also more abstract concepts best described by words and wordsmiths.  As such, it’s perhaps a tiny bridge over the communication problems between science and the courts.


  1. Meyer, Carl, ed, Expert Witnessing: Explaining and Understanding Science, CRC Press LLC 1999
  2. Personal communication, Osmond, Jack, Affinity Contracting, Halifax
  3. A bundle of blogs: A civil litigation resource list on how to use forensic engineering experts.  Posted November 20, 2013 http://www.ericjorden.com/blog/2013/11/20/a-bundle-of-blogs-a-civil-litigation-resource-list-on-how-to-use-forensic-engineering-experts/
  4. Using SOAP notes in forensic engineering investigation.  Posted February 6, 2014

Using SOAP notes in forensic engineering investigation

I see making SOAP notes (Subjective Objective Assessment Plan) as a way for all of us, regardless of our field of practice, including law, to organize our notes on an investigation.  We would record our notes in the following format at each stage of an investigation.  I believe we would carry out more thorough, objective, and reliable investigations as a result, and communicate more effectively with others:

  • Gather, sort, and categorize subjective(S) and objective(O) information and data on an issue.
  • Next, analyse, assess(A), and interpret the evidence implicit in the data and relevant to the issue.
  • Then develop a plan(P) based on the assessment to address the issue.
  • Finally, document what you did in the manner you did it – the SOAP outline, for reliable communication to others.  Including yourself at a later stage in an investigation.

In the health care fields, where it first developed in the ’70s, this style of documentation is used to standardize entries made in clinical records.  This format is followed to facilitate improved communication among all those involved in caring for a patient or client and to display the data, assessment, problems, and plans in an organized way.

The process is followed in medicine – both human and veterinary, pharmacy, nursing, counselling, therapy, athletic training, etc.  In fact, it’s written into the standard of practice for pharmacists.  And I’m sure in other fields as well.  The SOAP process is sufficiently widely adopted that templates can now be purchased.

It can be applied in all fields of applied science, including forensic engineering.  I`m certain it can be applied in the practice of law.

I thought of this process – rather excitedly, I must admit, and it’s relevance to forensic engineering investigation when a vet friend for whom I was doing some engineering work mentioned it as we discussed his problem.  That triggered a memory of one of my daughters mentioning it years ago when she was first introduced to the process in vet school in the late `80s..

I quickly realized I do this in engineering investigation, make and document this kind of assessment, but it doesn’t carry a label like this – SOAP.  I guess we in engineering just get on with doing it and don’t bother with too many labels and acronyms.  Gather data, sort it as to subjective and objective, assess the data, formulate a hypothesis (a diagnosis in medicine), then plan an investigation to test the hypothesis (a treatment to – in a sense, test the diagnosis).

An important element is that SOAP notes are made during each stage of a person’s treatment.  The standardized process improves communication and reduces  misunderstanding between the different specialties involved at the different stages.

Also, as treatment progresses the data becomes more objective, more quantitative, and more in the nature of test results.  There is less focus on the Subjective part of a note.

Applied to forensic engineering SOAP notes might develop like this:

1. Gather subjective data together and write the Subjective Part (S)

This is information that counsel and the client report directly to the expert in a briefing.  It is largely narrative and qualitative in nature, and not necessarily factual in an engineering sense.  It should include the history of the problem or failure – set out in a comprehensive timeline, and details about the damage experienced by the property owner or accident victim.  The history is an important part of the subjective part of a SOAP note.

In sorting information for this part of the note you would carefully identify all data that is subjective in nature.  Separate out any that might happen to be objective and include in the next part.   

2. Gather objective data together and write the Objective Part (O)

This part of a SOAP note is more quantitative in nature,  It consists, in the early stages of a forensic investigation, of notes on data gleaned from documents provided by counsel.  Also the forensic engineer’s observations during a visual examination of the failure or accident site.

During later stages of an investigation this part would include notes on field and laboratory test results and what was found during follow-up investigations.

3. Carry out and record the Assessment (A)

All data would be analysed at this point and the likely cause – or revised hypothesis during a later stage of an investigation, is identified and recorded in this part of a note.  How the cause was arrived at would also be noted – the reasoning that led to an identification of the cause.

Other possible causes arising from the assessment could be listed too, from most likely to least likely.

The assessment may also identify additional tests and investigations that should be done.  These would also be recorded in the assessment part of a SOAP note.

4. Write a Plan (P)

In forensic engineering – from the beginning and during each stage, this part would record notes on the investigation(s) that would be carried out to confirm, modify, or refute the most likely hypothesis of the cause of a failure or accident.

In medicine, notes would be made on the treatment plan for the most likely diagnosis of the patient’s condition.

Regardless the field of practice, the plan might be revised several times from the beginning through the various stages of an investigation and notes made about a plan at each stage.  SOAP notes made of the subjective(S) and objective(O) data gathered at each stage, the assessment(A) carried out, and the revised plan(P) noted.


I Googled “SOAP notes” to learn about this style of documentation and then considered based on my experience how the process is inherent in forensic engineering investigation.