Scientist Thinking vs. Lawyer Thinking

Black and white drawing of lawyerConsider the difference between a lawyer in the courtroom and a scientist in the university. The scientist is encouraged to share research with colleagues and ask for advice. Unless the scientist is working on confidential research, openness and camaraderie are essential parts of scientific research.

Contrast that with how the lawyer works. The courtroom is intentionally an adversarial environment. There is no collegial give and take between the opposing sides, no meeting of the minds, no compromise. If I’m paying someone to represent me in court, that lawyer had better present just one side of the case—mine. I want that lawyer to be biased and argue very effectively about just one side of the issue.

But, of course, the opposition is doing the same thing from the opposite viewpoint, and a judge or jury decides the merits of the two cases.

The thinking of the scientist vs. that of the lawyer is brainstorming vs. winner take all.

Forum vs. battleground.

A search for the truth vs. a presupposition of one’s rightness.

There’s nothing wrong with lawyer thinking—in its place. But let’s not confuse it with scientist thinking. The mistake is using one when we imagine we’re using the other.

I was at a debate last night (a rematch of a debate held last spring) in which an atheist and a Lutheran pastor debated “Does God exist?” At one point, the pastor, an old-earth Creationist, turned to the topic of evolution and demanded that we follow the evidence. This sounded bizarre given his rejection of the scientific consensus about evolution, but this was his way of giving himself license to make conclusions himself. He has no doctorate in biology, of course, but he pretends that as an armchair biologist he’s entitled to weigh the evidence and reject the results of 150 years of scientific research and the consensus of tens of thousands of people who actually are practicing biologists.

This is why I’m annoyed by philosopher William Lane Craig prancing around in an imaginary lab coat (more on that here) playing make-believe as a scientist. Or take the Reasons to Believe ministry (mission: “to show that science and faith are, and always will be, allies, not enemies”). They cherry-pick their science to support their preconceptions. This is lawyer thinking, not scientist thinking.

Note that the lawyer’s approach isn’t necessarily unjustifiable outside the courtroom. One might wonder, “If we applied some brilliant minds to the God question, what supporting arguments could they find?” That’s a reasonable question as long as we don’t pretend that it’s a quest for the best explanation.

Lawyer thinking feels natural. Our imperfect brains are saddled with biases—confirmation bias (noticing only the evidence that confirms what we already believe), for example. These biases make lawyer thinking a natural rut for us to fall into, but it begins with the conclusion rather than following the evidence where it leads.

Admit to yourself when you adopt this view; don’t pretend to be thinking like a scientist. Too often, these two positions are conflated or confused.

Hey, we all have biases. None of us enjoys being wrong, and each of us probably needs to rein in our lawyer thinking. That goes for me as well.

Too often I’ll read something with the unstated theme, “Here’s how I interpret the facts to support my presupposition.” More useful would be, “Here’s where the facts lead.”

I respond to a response from a Please Convince Me podcast here.

In science it often happens that scientists say,
“You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,”
and then they actually change their minds

and you never hear that old view from them again.
They really do it.
It doesn’t happen as often as it should,
because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful.
But it happens every day.
I cannot recall the last time something like that
happened in politics or religion.
— Carl Sagan

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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  • MNb

    “Lawyer thinking feels natural.”
    American lawyer thinking actually doesn’t feel so natural to a Dutchman like me.

    • Good to hear. Sounds like you’ve got your biases under better control than most of us.