Monday, August 28, 2006

Law and Social Sciences Sittin' in a Tree

Christopher Zorn continues to guest-post good stuff at Empirical Legal Studies. His latest focuses on the very real disjunction between legal scholars and social scientists regarding how they approach argument and evidence. Legal types take the adversarial approach familiar at trial and let the best case-maker, not reality or justice, win, which Zorn notes objectively is not really the way of science (at least in textbooks). Social science types, however (and I are one, huh huh), cling far too much to their aptly-named "scientism," that futile belief that positivism mixed with enough linear regression will produce the only "truth," something legal types just wouldn't understand, in the scientistic mindset. Zorn's solution in order to wring the best from both perspectives is to have academically mixed programs in all the disciplines, to cross-fertilize and open minds (and, unmentioned, open new academic positions for the bridgers).

He gets a lot right here, and it's especially applicable to my experience in sentencing. Commissions are composed predominantly of legal types, and their rules for evidence and argumentation in deciding commission policy . . . rule. Get a corrections or stat guy or an actual academic in social science justifying some recommendation because studies show that, within a 95% or 99% confidence level, the . . . what?! 5% doubt?! Even 1%, not beyond a reasonable doubt!!?? And we're believing this guy? I've also seen debates turn into cross-exams and all the tricks thereof come out in what are supposedly nonpartisan, dispassionate searches for understanding and sound decisions. "Oh, yeah, and where were you at 11:07 the night the study was done? That's not what we heard from the public defender rep over there . . . ." One very good reason why the overwhelming research on more cost-effective means of dealing with offenders has rarely caught on in policymaking is that the policymakers themselves literally do not have the mental frameworks necessary to incorporate it into their thoughts. They're not stupid. They just think as the legal types Zorn describes, not as scientists.

So any efforts to get more research findings into public results has to understand that. I part with Zorn a little bit on how to deal with it academically, but only a little. I don't think cross-listing courses, faculty, etc., is the answer in the long run. I think the effort should go full bore--Schools of Law and Policy with the primary (not secondary or tangential) purpose of linking the two perspectives into more commonly held paradigms. That's a long way off, though, if ever. His more incremental rec's are at least a good first step. Go and give him some hits before his guest days expire.

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