Category: Sociology of Law


The Role of Intermediaries in Conspiracy Theories

Ilya Somin, at tVC, argues that belief in conspiracy theories are based in part on a failure of incentives and a tragedy of the commons:

“[P]eople tend to be “rationally ignorant” about politics, and to do a poor job of evaluating the information they do learn. They don’t consciously embrace beliefs they know to be false. But they also don’t make much of an effort to critically evaluate the ideas they come across. If a conspiracy theory is emotionally satisfying and reinforces their preexisting prejudices, they are more than happy to run with it. This is perfectly rational and understandable behavior for individual voters. Unfortunately, it can lead to unfortunate collective outcomes in so far as such beliefs influence election results and the content of public policy.”

This claim depends on Ilya’s assertion that “very few people actually blame personal and professional failures on shadowy conspiracies.” I think Ilya is just wrong here.  People do attribute personal and professional failures to conspiracies – constantly.  Those shadowy conspiracies are simply  less grand (and thus less likely to be generally known).  My boss is out to get me at work; my friends deliberately set me up to look bad; etc.   Moreover, I think Ilya’s claim of rational conspiracy theories makes the process seem more inevitable than it might otherwise be, and doesn’t explain which theories get traction (Grassy Knoll, Long-Form Birth Certificate) and which don’t (Moon Landing).

Ilya’s collective-action-delusion theory also absolves public figures (e.g., well-known libertarian bloggers) from any responsibility to use their moral authority to persuade the public that conspiracy theories are bunk.  There is tons of evidence that people tend to listen carefully to thought-leaders who represent and embody their values, especially when those representatives are speaking about complex topics that the listener has no easy way to investigate herself.  Conservative leaders’ relative silence, and occasional outright defense,  of birtherism has probably contributed to the theory’s spread.  Or to put it another way, the tragedy of the commons doesn’t explain every social evil!


A Grim (and Fantastic) View of Law

In a series of posts several years back, I interviewed fantasy authors about their work, including the role that law plays in the “hard fantasy” genre.  My favorite interview was with Pat Rothfuss, then the author of the best-selling “The Name of the Wind“.  Here’s what he said about the relationship between law and fantasy:

[DH] You’ve talked in interviews about the need to build a world in exhaustive and thoughtful detail, but leaving most of that information on the cutting room floor in the final draft. When you built Kvothe’s world, did you think (at all) about the background rules of tort, contract, obligation, and property that enabled the relatively sophisticated economy that you envisioned?

[PR] Yes and no. I thought of the legal system, but not in those terms. Mostly because I don’t know what a lot of those terms mean. It’s the same way that a person can be a good cook without necessarily knowing how to calculate how many joules go into melting butter using delta T.

The big reason you don’t see much of that in the book is that it isn’t relevant to the story being told, or the experience of the main character. He’s a street urchin for most of the book. If a sailor catches him with his hand in his pocket, he’s not going to press charges. What’s the percentage in that. He’s going to fetch the boy a sharp smack alongside his head, and get on with his day…

Now if Kvothe got brought up on legal charges somewhere, that would be different. Then the reader would see the horrible, corrupt wheels of justice creaking ponderously along. We get a glimpse of that in book two, as a matter of fact.

[DH] If you have imagined a common law system, what sources did you draw on to flesh out what it looks like in the “book behind the book.”

[PR] In the commonwealth, their legal system is based loosely on England in the 1500-1700’s. In short, it’s a huge, tangled, unfair clusterfuck of a system. There are courts that enforce church law, and courts that enforce the Iron Law of Atur. Each court operates under its own authority, and of course their spheres of influence overlap… It’s a real mess, but it’s the only system that they have…”

“Book Two” was released earlier this month, titled “A Wise Man’s Fear.”  Pardon the pun, but it is a fantastic read.  Well worth your time.   And, lo and behold, on pages 328-329, there’s an actual trial. In fantasyland!   But rather than get into it, glorying in how the rules of procedure and magic might interrelate, or examining how a system of logic and nuance (law?) would interact with one of fantasy and whim, Pat does this:  “What started as a terrifying experience quickly became a tedious process filled with pomp and ritual. More than forty letters of testimony were read aloud … There were days filled with nothing but long speeches.  Quotations from the iron law.  Points of procedure.  Formal modes of address.  Old man reading out of old books.”  And later, when a character voices an objection to this cursory treatment (and who I dream to be a stand-in for me), the main character replies that a full account of the law “Would be tedious … Endless formal speeches and readings from the Book of the Path. It was tedious to live through, and it would be tedious to repeat.”

Tedious? Has he never heard of Erie?  Of Jacobs & Young? Of Pennoyer, for lord’s sakes?  The law isn’t tedious – it’s the stuff of drama!


UCLA Law Review Vol. 58, Issue 3 (February 2011)

Volume 58, Issue 3 (February 2011)


Good Faith and Law Evasion Samuel W. Buell 611
Making Sovereigns Indispensable: Pimentel and the Evolution of Rule 19 Katherine Florey 667
The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences Jennifer L. Mnookin et al. 725
Commentary on The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences Joseph P. Bono 781
Commentary on The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences Judge Nancy Gertner 789
Commentary on The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences Pierre Margot 795


What’s Your Position? Amending the Bankruptcy Disclosure Rules to Keep Pace With Financial Innovation Samuel M. Kidder 803
Defendant Class Actions and Patent Infringement Litigation Matthew K. K. Sumida 843

Protean Rankings in the Economy of Prestige

Paul Caron brings news of the ranking system from Thomas M. Cooley School of Law, which pegs itself at #2, between Harvard and Georgetown. Caron calls it “the most extreme example of the phenomenon we observed [in 2004]: in every alternative ranking of law schools, the ranker’s school ranks higher than it does under U.S. News.” I just wanted to note a few other problems with such systems, apart from what I’ve discussed in earlier blog posts and articles on search engine rankings.

Legendary computer scientist Brian W. Kernighan (co-author of the classic textbook on the C programming language) wrote a delightful editorial on rankings last fall:

In the 1980s, statisticians at Bell Laboratories studied the data from the 1985 “Places Rated Almanac,” which ranked 329 American cities on how desirable they were as places to live. (This book is still published every couple of years.) My colleagues at Bell Labs tried to assess the data objectively. To summarize a lot of first-rate statistical analysis and exposition in a few sentences, what they showed was that if one combines flaky data with arbitrary weights, it’s possible to come up with pretty much any order you like. They were able, by juggling the weights on the nine attributes of the original data, to move any one of 134 cities to first position, and (separately) to move any one of 150 cities to the bottom. Depending on the weights, 59 cities could rank either first or last! [emphasis added]

To illustrate the problem in a local setting, suppose that US News rated universities only on alumni giving rate, which today is just one of their criteria. Princeton is miles ahead on this measure and would always rank first. If instead the single criterion were SAT score, we’d be down in the list, well behind MIT and California Institute of Technology. . . . I often ask students in COS 109: Computers in Our World to explore the malleability of rankings. With factors and weights loosely based on US News data that ranks Princeton first, their task is to adjust the weights to push Princeton down as far as possible, while simultaneously raising Harvard up as much as they can.

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Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction

The partisanship and bad faith of judges who disagree with us has never been more obvious, or more pernicious. For many, the most irritating personality flaw of judicial politicos (and their fellowtravelers) isn’t the bottom-line results of the opinions themselves, it is that judges refuse to acknowledge their own biases, though it’s evident that they aren’t neutral umpires, but rather players in the game.  Indeed, almost every decision you read about these days comes accompanied by a reference  to the political party of the appointing President – as if you needed the help!  As Orin Kerr has brilliantly pointed out, “people who disagree with me are just arguing in bad faith.”

For the Cultural Cognition Project, the way that we talk about legal decisions – and decisionmakers – is a subject of study and concern.  We decided to take a careful look at this topic — which we’ve previously touched on in work like Whose Eyes Are You Going To Believe. Our motivation was to investigate how constitutional norms requiring neutrality in fact finding interact with individuals’ tendencies to perceive facts and risks in ways congenial to their group identities.  Building on Hastorf/Cantril’s social psychology classic, They Saw a Game: A Case Study, we’ve written a new piece about how motivated cognition can de-stabilize constitutional doctrine, render legal fact-finders blind to their own biases, and inflame the culture wars. Our resulting paper, “They Saw a Protest”: Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction, results from my collaboration with Dan Kahan, Don Braman, Danieli Evans, and Jeff Rachlinski.  The paper is just up on SSRN, and I figured to jump-start the conversation by using this post to talk about our experimental approach and findings.  (I think that Kahan is blogging on Balkinization later in the week about the normative upshot of Protest.)

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Compensation and Equality

The Conglomerate ran a symposium last week on executive compensation, sparked by Say on Pay.  My contribution, which talks about the effect of unionism on pay, is here.  My post there is a bit of a elliptical response to Frank’s recent comments on income inequality, which assert that:

“When the top 5% account for 35% of consumption in the US, there is no way to improve “the economy” (as measured by stock prices and GDP) without intensifying the very inequalities that gave rise to the crisis in the first place.  A weak labor market can’t bargain for the gains from productivity—they are going to the very top. Since the midterms, the President has shown little inclination to fight to tax those gains; rather, he cemented them into place with his recent tax deal. The inequality-intensifying dynamic is now self-reinforcing: those who bankrolled the fight against Obama’s modest efforts to tame inequality are more powerful thanks to their political victory in November.”

While I understand Frank’s point – and I think that the statistics he provides about relative income growth are sobering – I think that blaming law makers for failures to rein in inequality seems to me to put the cart before the horse.  We should really be asking whether the relatively more egalitarian consensus about social wealth distribution that held from 1940 through 1970 was (as Frank’s post suggests) an ordinary one in American history, and, if not, what caused it rise and to fall.  I suspect that law – including tax law – would play a pretty small role in that causal story.


Wikipedia’s First Lawyer

In Wikitruth Through Wikiorder, Salil Mehra and I detailed the history of Wikipedia’s dispute resolution process.  We highlighted the role of Alex Roshuk, a Brooklyn lawyer and site volunteer who played a key early role in the process by suggesting that the site’s dispute resolution process should look like a “very simplified version[s] of the commercial or international arbitration programs of the American Arbitration Association.” When writing the article, I confess I found it ironic that a lawyer proposed such a formal process, and believed that it was evidence that legalism is an inescapable (and dominant) part of American society.   I just found Roshuk’s response to our article online.   He offers a stinging indictment of the Wikimedia foundation, and what’s come of the dispute resolution system.  As he argues:

While I originally suggested in the fall of 2003 that Wikipedia have a structured dispute resolution process, instead of making this process simple and straightforward, ADR atWikipedia has become a complex system that has all kinds of hard to understand rules.  Perhaps it is the management of this dispute resolution process (or lack thereof) is what has caused or contributed to a lot of Wikipedia users leaving the project and the ripple effect this system has on the general behavior of editors and administrators whose behavior is mediated by this process . . . After seeing the discussion develop at Wikipedia in the fall of 2003 I saw that there were a lot of people who misunderstood the idea of arbitration, They wanted to make it something formal, like a Wikipedia court system, the ArbCom, as it was called became a place where someone could obtain status in the Wikipedia community, originally by being appointed by Mr. James “Jimbo” Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia, and later by election. When I suggested this kind of system my intention was to get people to talk, mostly through mediation by a neutral third party, to come to a mutual understanding that editors were all contributing knowledge, not fighting against each other to be “right” or “wrong”.

This view of the pathologies of the Arbitration system isn’t, of course, unique to Roshuk, nor is it really in tension with the story Salil and I set out in Wikitruth.  But it is notable that Roshuk has such a dim view of the site’s excessive legalization, and that he attributes the dominance of law to a desire for status and hierarchy, instead of the formal structure of the process itself.

(Image source: Wikilove.)


The Esperanto of Citation Formats

Why Hasn't ALWD Succeeded?

Prompted by students, I’ve been thinking recently about the ALWD Citation Manual.  In doing so, I’m aware that I’m deeply in the weeds of legal-academic esoterica. Indeed, even thinking about writing about citation probably would be #2 or #3 on the list of things that distinguish airy and irrelevant law professors from grounded and practical lawyers.  Regardless, the topic seemed a good fit for a blog post, so here goes.

As you probably don’t care to know, the ALWD offers a non-bluebook approach to legal citation, designed to be authoritative (being created by legal writing professors, not students), coherent, and easy-to-use.  At various times, it’s been adopted by a large number of law school’s legal writing programs.  The biggest problem with the ALWD is that it isn’t The Bluebook.  Differences between the ALWD and the Bluebook aren’t always trivial in a world where minor differences in citation format can change a student’s first-year legal writing grade and determine membership on a law review.  When graduating from law school, ALWD followers may thus experience the same frustration that confronts users of obviously superior Dvorak keyboard.  Or, since the ALWD is  pushed by a tightly-knit, organized, guild of legal writing professors, perhaps the better analogy is to Esperanto.  If we all spoke the constructed language of peace and understanding, and cited our speeches using ALWD, we would better understand each other and be less aggravated by missing the commas between see and e.g. Alas, neither ALWD and Esperanto has gotten the market reception that their backers hoped for.  Why not?

To inquire a little bit into this topic, I asked one of my LRW colleagues to circulate to the LRW-professor list a question about their experiences with teaching citation. I got a ton of responses, for which I’m quite grateful.  They follow, shorn of attribution, after the jump.

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Baron on Leiter on Empirical Legal Studies

A few weeks ago I was on the train home, reading an old piece of scholarship from one of my favorite colleagues at Temple, Jane Baron.  Jane is well-known for her work on law and literature, the rhetoric of property/T&E, and interdisciplinary studies more generally.  The particular piece that I read on the train was “Interdisciplinary Scholarship as Guilty Pleasure: The Case of Law and Literature” (Law & Literature, 1999).   Jane’s observations about law and literature were strikingly relevant to the blog debate this summer which Brian Leiter instigated in his post “So-Called ‘Empirical Legal Studies.”  That debate was fierce, but no one made the precise point that Jane appears to have anticipated over a decade ago.  So I asked her to comment for us on Leiter & ELS. Here’s what she had to say.

“I arrived late to the debate Brian Leiter stirred up in his summer post on “So-Called ‘Empirical Legal Studies,’” whose incendiary title alone probably irritated self-identified ELS scholars. Of course, I’m not an ELS scholar, and frankly I have my own share of axes to grind about ELS. All those annoying numbers, data points, p’s and n’s—no one writes prose well enough to make those methods sections interesting to read. And I have already had my fill of faculty candidates with inchoate and incoherent ideas for adding an unspecified “empirical” component to their research—meaning they would count something if they could think of something to count.

But even given my own frustrations with ELS, two things particularly struck me about Leiter’s post. One was his assertion that the skill level of ELS scholars was “low, or at least lower than the typical . . . law & philosophy interdisciplinary scholar of yesteryear.” Considering Leiter’s 1992 characterization of then-extant law and philosophy scholarship as “intellectual voyeurism,” the insult to contemporary ELS is perhaps even stronger than many current ELS scholars might have realized.

The second thing that struck me was Leiter’s assertion that the ELS “mutual-admiration society” might be “disconnected from the central normative and conceptual questions of legal scholarship and legal education.” I think the challenge here was intended to provoke ELS scholars to show that their work does connect to those questions. Josh Wright has written thoughtfully on this question and probably lots of other folks have as well.

But I think it’s worth asking some different questions: why are we to assume that there are “central normative and conceptual questions of legal scholarship and legal education”? And should we be sure, as Leiter seems to be, that “smarts on your feet, the ability to draw conceptual distinctions, [and] construct and deconstruct arguments . . . are the . . . intellectual skills . . . needed in law”?

As I explored in earlier work, the compare-and-contrast analysis of interdisciplinary work constructs the very fields being dissected. In the realm of law and literature, for example, the tendency is to contrast the (allegedly) rich, textured, emotional realm of the literary with the (allegedly) dry, abstract, logical realm of the legal. This formulation effectively defines law as a pure domain of rules—a domain in which Langdell himself would have been happy to dwell.

But of course not all literature is morally rich (pick your favorite noire novel). And not all law is dry or abstract (pick your favorite opinion). We can depict literature as a form of plenitude and law as a form emptiness, but do we really want to?

In his ELS post, Leiter employs the inside/outside trope, to similar effect. He puts the ability to react fast, analyze arguments, and address ‘normative and conceptual questions’ inside law, and the ability to crunch numbers and analyze data outside law. But we can all think of some number crunching that is clearly inside law (B=P x L anybody?) and surely someone as intellectually accomplished as Leiter can’t mean to assert that there are no normative or conceptual questions outside law.

I am not just quibbling over words here. The question whether (all or some of) ELS work is good legal scholarship implicates the important question of what counts as “legal.” We can define law as a realm composed entirely (or centrally) of conceptual and normative questions. But we don’t have to. Indeed, at least some ELS work is designed to demonstrate that the normative questions that are ostensibly central in legal analysis are not in practice determinative, so that the “law” we thought we knew is not the “law” with which judges and practitioners work. Maybe that work is persuasive, and maybe it’s not. But at least that work is sensitive to the problem of defining law’s realm, a problem Leiter’s post assumes away.”

Thanks, Jane!

Rakesh Khurana’s “From Higher Aims to Hired Hands”

Rakesh Khurana’s book From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession is a profound contribution to sociology and institutional analysis. It is also a persuasive critique of some of the most disturbing trends in the American economy. While B-schools may seem of marginal relevance to the actual conduct of CEOs, Khurana observes in the book that they “occupy the commanding heights of higher education . . . and the kinds of knowledge and skill they purvey [are] now seemingly more essential to the tasks of university—and indeed societal—leadership than anything taught elsewhere on campus” (367). Khurana describes how leading B-Schools gained a world of power, prestige, and influence in the 20th Century, but lost their soul along the way.

The Biblical echo here is intentional: like Weber, Khurana traces the religious origins of the concepts of vocation and higher education. His focus on values—as well as his harsh indictments of business education past and present—could easily lead Khurana to jeremiads or charismatic prophecy, but he skillfully resists both of these temptations. He offers a sober vision for hope in the future of business education. Khurana’s work should inspire legal academics as well as business school professors (as it already has in a conference at the University of St. Thomas Law School (pdf) last year).

Khurana’s book has several points of interest for legal scholars. He focuses on the role of community and norms as sources of values distinct from markets and governmental hierarchies. As post-crisis interventions in the health care, finance, energy, and transport have demonstrated, the old debates over “market vs. government” solutions, or “private vs. public” spending, are of fading relevance for serious social theory in the US (however potent they may be on the campaign trail). Flaws in the “government” are all too often rooted in flaws in the “market,” which are in turn rooted in past flaws in policy, ad infinitum. Recent liberalization of campaign finance rules will only accelerate that dynamic of capture. Institutions that generate values are some of the few entities capable of short-circuiting this pernicious circularity.
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