Tag: Argument

The Difference Between Truth and Honesty: What Law School Teaches us About Insight, Logic, and Thinking

“We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.”
— Anaïs Nin

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Matthew Frederick‘s series of 101 things I learned in {Business School, Law School, Architecture School, Engineering School} attempts to distill the key learnings from these disciplines and offer them in a bite-sized package.

In 101 Things I Learned in Law School he teams up with California-based attorney Vibeke Norgaard Martin. Together they deliver a noteworthy book for the armchair lawyer in all of us. Despite the title, readers will find the selection of insights below connect to a lot of the ideas on this site.

Consider this bit on the difference between truth and honesty.

Lawyers must be honest, but they don’t have to be truthful. Honesty and truthfulness are not the same thing. Being honest means not telling lies. Being truthful means actively making known all the full truth of a matter. Lawyers must be honest, but they do not have to be truthful. A criminal defence lawyer, for example, in zealously defending a client, has no obligation to actively present the truth. Counsel may not deliberately mislead the court, but has no obligation to tell the defendant’s whole story.

Insight doesn’t arrive head on — echoing William Deresiewicz they write:

Be suspicious of the person who sizes up a new situation very quickly, claims understanding, and stakes out an ironclad position. Insight usually requires long periods of discussion, research, analysis, rationalization, and counter-argument, and it rarely arrives while attacking a matter directly or on a first pass. If one occasionally is able to quickly understand a complex matter, he or she is far more likely to misunderstand it.

Thinking means ragging at problems long enough to understand them — something less and less common in our fast-paced world. Most people won’t or can’t do the work to understand the problem. Our first thoughts are most often the thoughts of someone else and represent conventional wisdom.

Writing is thinking on the page.

A well-constructed argument rarely, if ever, resembles what one started with. Writing effectively isn’t recording the argument one wishes to make; it is a process of discovering what one’s argument needs to be. Through writing, thinking, researching, rewriting, rethinking, and rewriting again, an argument is discovered and clarified.

You don’t have to be right. You just have to be better than the alternative.

It is always possible to make at least some arguments for or against a legal position. An argument requires logic, but legal argument is not a purely logical form of argument that promises a universal, absolute conclusion. Rather, it is a practical form of argument that aims to establish one claim as more probable or reasonable than another.

Make a logical argument. There are two types of logic: deductive and inductive.

Deductive logic: usually works from broadly accepted truths toward demonstrating a truth in a specific situation, although more properly it is any argument in which the premises guarantee that their logical outcome is a truth.

Inductive logic: tends to work from specific examples of truth toward demonstration of a larger truth, but can be any argument whose conclusion, while not guaranteed, is a likely or higher probability outcome of the premises. Successful inductive reasoning requires a convincingly large sample size.

Large sample sizes are not only important in inductive reasoning but they also offer a guide for how to spend our time reading and learning. Peter Kaufman offers some insight on the three largest sample sizes.

Every statistician knows that a large, relevant sample size is their best friend. What are the three largest, most relevant sample sizes for identifying universal principles? Bucket number one is inorganic systems, which are 13.7 billion years in size. It’s all the laws of math and physics, the entire physical universe. Bucket number two is organic systems, 3.5 billion years of biology on Earth. And bucket number three is human history, you can pick your own number, I picked 20,000 years of recorded human behavior. Those are the three largest sample sizes we can access and the most relevant.

Arguments, however, are about more than rationality and sample sizes. We are human after all. Passion comes into play.

Rationality is cool; passion is warm. Rationality provides logical justification for a position, while passion provides a human connection to it. Both are needed to advance an argument; an abundance of one will not compensate for a dearth of the other. An argument may be extraordinarily rational, but its correctness alone is unlikely to compel others to care enough to right the wrongs behind. it. An extremely passionate argument may initially attract sympathy, but unmitigated displays of emotion at the expense of rationality will wear thin and eventually prompt others to tune out your message. Rationality makes an argument worthy. Passion makes it worthwhile.

Show me a company governed by rules and I will show you a dying company — the extent to which rules govern culture offers an indication of how fast. Despite our attempts to reduce everything to an efficient systems of rules there are always exceptions. The wise know the exceptions to the rules. One could argue that you don’t know the rule until you know its exceptions.

A presumption of all court testimony is that the opposing side may cross-examine its source. If a witness quotes someone who is not available for cross examination, the statement, if objected to by the opposing attorney,  might be ruled hearsay and be forbidden. The rule against hearsay testimony has about thirty exceptions. In order to get a statement made outside court into court when its originator is unavailable to testify, one has to determine how to fit it into at least one of the exceptions. In practice, the exceptions to the rule are the rule.

Echoing the Kantian Fairness Tendency, the integrity of a system is more important than the fairness in one case.

A trial’s search for truth is invariably imperfect because it cannot be conducted in a way that introduces unfairness into the legal system. If a piece of evidence was improperly acquired or mishandled by the prosecution, it may be excluded from trial even if it provides an incontrovertible link between the defendant and the crime, because evidence in future cases could be similarly abused. If this allows a guilty person to go free, it is not because the court is not interested in the truth of the case; it is because it accepts that the truth must take some small lumps in the short run so the court gets better at finding the truth in the long run.

101 Things I Learned in Law School goes on to discuss how to explain your argument, language, why an hour can have 116 minutes and more.

The Art of Winning An Argument

We spend a lot of our lives trying to convince or persuade others to our point of view. This is one of the reasons that Daniel Pink says that we’re all in sales:

Some of you, no doubt, are selling in the literal sense— convincing existing customers and fresh prospects to buy casualty insurance or consulting services or homemade pies at a farmers’ market. But all of you are likely spending more time than you realize selling in a broader sense—pitching colleagues, persuading funders, cajoling kids. Like it or not, we’re all in sales now.

Persuade or Convince?

But … how are we to change minds? What’s the best way to win an argument? Should we try to convince people or should we try to persuade them?

In the difference between persuading and convincing, Seth Godin writes:

Marketers don’t convince. Engineers convince. Marketers persuade. Persuasion appeals to the emotions and to fear and to the imagination. Convincing requires a spreadsheet or some other rational device.

It’s much easier to persuade someone if they’re already convinced, if they already know the facts. But it’s impossible to change someone’s mind merely by convincing them of your point.

Sometimes people just disagree. And it’s here where we things start to get interesting.

“What a Man wishes, he will also believe”

— Demosthenes

At first, when people disagree with us we assume they are ignorant … that they lack information. So we try to convince them with information. If we show them that information and they still don’t change their mind we just think their idiots.

In her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz explains:

… The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is that we just assume they are ignorant. You know, they don’t have access to the same information we do and when we generously share that information with them, they are going to see the light and come on over to our team.

When that doesn’t work. When it turns out those people have all the same information and they still don’t agree with us we move onto a second assumption. They’re idiots …

This approach of trying to convince people that we’re right and they’re right is flawed and rarely works. and it’s not because people are idiots, most of them are not.

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

In many cases, we are overconfident about what we think because we’re familiar with the material. We think we know more than we actually do because it’s available to us. In short, we convince ourselves that we understand how something works when we don’t.

In a study about a decade ago, Yale professors Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil, asked students to explain how simple things work, like a flushing toilet, a sewing machine, piano keys, a zipper, and a cylinder lock. It turns out, we’re not nearly as smart as we think.

When knowledge is put to the test, our familiarity with things leads to an (unwarranted) overconfidence about how they work.

Discovering that we don’t know as much as we think isn’t as easy as it may seem. Testing our own knowledge sounds like a lot of work. And most of the time others won’t test it either however when they do our knowledge doesn’t often match our confidence. And this is the beginning of how we start to show others or even ourselves that our view of the world might need updating.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

— Richard Feynman

The Era of Fake Knowledge

It’s never been easier to fake what you know: to both yourself and to others.

It’s the conservation of energy. Why put in the effort to learn something if we can get by most of the time without learning it? Why read the entire document when you can just skim the executive summary and get away with it?

Our intellectual laziness, however, comes with a cost. The more we coast the harder it gets to discern the difference between what we think we know and what we actually know. We end up fooling ourselves.

(There are two quick ways you can test your own understanding of something. The first is called the Feynman Technique and the second is by doing the work required to hold an opinion.)

How to Win an Argument

Research published last year shows how the illusion of knowledge might help you convince people they are wrong.

When asked to give reasons for their view, people remind as confident of their positions as they were before giving reasons. This is how we often argue with others. A tennis match of reasons served out and returned from one side to the other. Only no one is listening to the other or even considering they might be wrong. The way to really change minds and soften stances is to ask people to explain why they held views.

(Interestingly this very similar to the technique used by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss to soften people’s stances. He simply asks them how am I supposed to do that?)

We often can’t explain why we think what we do. And when asked to explain it we realize that we’re not as knowledgeable as we thought. That’s when we revise our confidence level down and become more open to the views of others.

If you want to win an argument, simply ask the person trying to convince you of something to explain how it would work.

Odds are they have not done the work required to hold an opinion. If they can explain why they are correct and how things would work, you’ll learn something. If they can’t you’ll soften their views, perhaps nudging them ever so softly toward your views.

It is worth bearing in mind, however, that someone might do the same to you so make sure you can explain why you think what you do.