How Do We Measure Up?

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There are things you can’t learn from books. You’ve got to learn them from lawyers.

Strange as this seems, it is supported by Maharal. At least the first part.

Maharal on Avos 2:9 (according to his division of the mishayos, which is not the customary one) writes: “These matters (i.e. the good path that a person should cling to) they did not learn from the Torah. They understood them by examination of their surrounding reality.”

While Maharal does not specifically mention attorneys, a message I received this week got me thinking that there may be room to include them. A few paragraphs in a decidedly non-Torah communication got me thinking about the way we might look at issues, positions and disputes within our community.

The message had nothing to do with Jews or Judaism. It suggested a tool whereby the non-expert could evaluate material introduced by those laying claim to knowledge the rest of us do not have. An attorney I know introduced it in his description of how he deals with expert witnesses on the stand. I found it to be an intriguing suggestion, and I started to wonder about how effectively I had previously critiqued all kinds of notions I heard from people who claimed to occupy the intellectual high road.

I pass them on to you, without comment:

For example, if Expert A asserts a particular scientific or economic position, and Rebuttal Expert B responds solely by calling Expert A names and casting aspersions on his qualifications, I take that as effectively an
admission that Expert A’s science or economics likely are sound — because otherwise, Rebuttal Expert B would have provided an on-the-merits rebuttal of the scientific or economic assertions made by Expert A.

This is what laypersons must do on a whole host of issues that matter
to laypersons. None of us have the time to make ourselves into experts in every field on which we must make judgments. Laypersons must become experts in judging the quality of debates between experts. This method of judgment is valid because Rebuttal Expert B knows that Expert A, and other experts in the field, will be available to critique his rebuttal. Thus if Rebuttal Expert B fails to provide a rebuttal on the merits, that failure is an indication that any such attempted rebuttal would itself be disproven by Expert A or by other experts. So long as we know that there are other experts available
who would be capable of replying to Rebuttal Expert B, we do not need
to make ourselves into such an expert ourselves.

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4 Responses

  1. Adam Steiner says:

    Akiva,

    This would apply whenever you have two parties discussing an area where you lack knowledge. Watching the argument I don’t know that “A” is a quack. I just know they both have PhD’s, both are professors and both have numerous textbooks to their names. I am relying upon the arguments brought forth by them to decide where I stand.

    Divorce the person from the view and it makes more sense. “A” can be a quack, but if “B” can’t refute the arguments, “A”‘s quackiness doesn’t matter. I’m sure most of us can recall a time when we’ve been asked (or asked) a dead-on question in a field unrelated to our expertise. The question would be just as real if the teacher/expert called us the quack. When you attack the expert the messenger is killed, but the message lives. Especially when you deal with those whom others view as intelligent (example, PhDs). I can call the expert a quack but you’ll walk away saying “He doesn’t like the guy but he hasn’t said anything about the man’s points.”

    Also note that the post has “B” responding by solely attacking the qualifications of “A”. Perhaps an attack which targeted both evidence and qualifications might be more effective (and more difficult to pull off), provided the layperson can walk away understanding that you’ve also rebutted the evidence.

  2. Yirmeyahu says:

    Yasher Koach,

    I believe it is important for us to have our opinions be informed, but also realize that we cannot possible experts in every subject which we have opinions on. This is where critical thinking comes into play.

    Regarding real time/online arguments, the situation is not different. An ad hominem attack is an ad hominem attack, not a refutation. If Expert B does not present evidence which addresses the subject of Expert A’s testimony, but makes Expert A the subject, he has not refuted his claim.

    Perhaps if he gives credible evidence, as opposed to simple assertion, of Expert A’s non-expertise then perhaps he has shown that the testimony is essentially an “Appeal to (unqualified) Authority” but this would not refute the testimony per se, merely indicate the opinion isn’t admissible. But if Expert B forgoes his opportunity to present evidence which actually disproves the subject, it seems to me that his proof that Expert A is not an expert is suspect. Insofar as Expert B’s testimony flirts with ad hominem attacks, he has to do a solid job arguing that the testimony is an “Appeal to Authority” before it’s at all credible in absence of actually addressing the issue.

    But then agian, I’m not an expert on such things :)

  3. Akiva says:

    That assumes expert A is REALLY an expert. Quack science is full of “experts” with Ph.Ds.

    If “Expert A” is a quack, why should expert B spend his time answering his position point by point? It’s faster and easier to just invalidate the whole thing by showing that “expert A” isn’t qualified to make his claim.

  4. ja says:

    a better strategy in the courtroom than in real time arguments, whether in person or online. A lot of times an argument can be rebutted, but simply isn’t worth the time. Goodness knows, there are people who will claim that the earth is flat, and won’t believe your claim to the contrary unless you offer a point by point rebuttal complete w/ URLs (if the rebuttal includes non-web-based evidence, it’s not “real” evidence) and when you are all done, all you’ve had done is present “an alternate point of view.”
    Sometimes, it just isn’t worth the time.