3 min read

Argue like a lawyer or argue like a scientist?

Any argument in any context can involve miscommunication, frustration, intractability, emotional attachment, and pettiness. But there are important differences between different forms of argument.

Performative arguments.

Many actions that people might call arguments are about mimicking the forms of argument rather than actually having an argument.

The five-paragraph essay, for instance, is practically enshrined as holy writ. Got an opinion? Got three reasons for your opinion? You’re good to go. In my experience, students mimic the form so much that they come to believe that the five-paragraph essay IS arguing. Kind of like mistaking a play for the real event.

Another way that students experience arguments is through formal competitions. Several friends of mine were in a program called “Future Problem Solving,” which involved competing over who can generate the most ideas for solving some future problem like plastics in the ocean or homelessness – or, really, any of our very much "current" problems. Under the rules of the game, volume beat dissection. The practicality and intellectual merit of the ideas would require domain-specific knowledge to evaluate – something which neither the students nor, I suspect, the evaluators had much of – so instead it was “more ideas more better”.

The same basic criticism applies to other debate competitions. Create a consistent metric (like "number of unanswered arguments") and the actions taken by the competitors resemble a high-jump more than a substantive argument. The problem is that any consistent, "objective" metric transforms the argument into a game.

Arguments to persuade third-parties.

The law provides another model for what an argument is. Two legal teams argue opposing positions to a neutral third-party. The goal isn't to meet an arbitrary metric; it's to persuade the one person (or group of people) making the ultimate decision.

Of course, there are metrics involved. Each party has to meet certain burdens of proof and multi-factor legal "tests" are legion. Judges and juries are – in principle – bound to work within the law's boundaries. But the legal parties are ultimately beholden to the whims of that third-party. Lawyers can (and do) craft arguments to persuade that particular person (or people).

After the verdict, the lawyers don't walk away thinking any differently about the issue at hand. If you went into the case thinking your client was innocent, the prosecutor's argument probably didn't convince you otherwise. You already anticipated their arguments and tried to counter them. And, if you went into the case thinking your client was guilty, the arguments between you, the prosecutor, and the judge will almost certainly not change your mind.

The same is true from the prosecutor's perspective. It's astonishing how long some prosecutors will continue to believe that they convicted a guilty person, even in the face of exculpatory DNA evidence.

The lawyers' beliefs, however, are ultimately beside the point. They are vessels for the best arguments in support of each position.

Arguments to persuade the opposing side.

Scientific arguments are a bit different. In scientific arguments, scientists are both the arguers and the judges. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that the arguing scientists are on equal epistemological footing. The primary goal is not to convince someone, it's to figure something out. Arguing scientists share a common goal (at least in principle): they all want to know how things actually "work" or how things actually "are".

Yes, there's some personal pride and value in "winning" a scientific argument. But the new, generally accepted understanding will be superceded by later work anyhow. The hard-earned knowledge is ultimately more important than any one person's work.

A particularly powerful part of the scientific model is that arguments continue. Scientists who disagree about a claim can come together and agree on a way to test their disagreement. Imagine the state and a defense team agreeing a priori that if such-and-such evidence is found, that would be sufficient evidence to find the defendant guilty. That occurs with some regularity in science – though less often that it should.

Are scientists easily persuaded? No. There's the old canard that "new theories only become generally accepted when the older generation dies out." But the door is open to persuasion.

It's not that legal argument or scientific argument is somehow inferior to the other. Each suits its purpose. But in many everyday situations – in our personal lives, in business and politics – I think it's helpful to adopt the scientific model.