Lawyers and scientists

Note: This post is poorly written and need heavy editing.  Read at your own risk.


Which profession garners more respect: Lawyer or Scientist?

I think most people would choose Scientist.  In fact, most polls put Scientist in the top 3 but Lawyers somewhere in the mid-low range.  But why?  Both professions require extensive education and qualifications; both do a lot of research, and use reasoning as part of their daily jobs.  What makes one so much more respectable than the other?

How much of the perception is influenced by the second hand Hollywood stereotype of the slick talking, self-serving, win-at-all-cost image vs. the smart, honest, socially-awkward nerd, and how much of that sterotyping is real?

This is what I think.  Regardless of stereotypes, the professions use similar tools but serve very different purposes.  The job of a lawyer is to protect the client’s interest; the job of a scientist is to pursue knowledge scientifically, wherever that may lead.  Given the same information, a competent lawyer will cherry-pick the evidence beneficial to his client to build his case and arguments, and formulate defending arguments against the detremental evidence against his client (that was conveniently ignored).  The lawyer is paid to win, to protect his client’s interest, not to pursue the truth.  A competent scientist will look at everything and base his opinion on the quality of the available evidence.

If both are merely doing their jobs, why are lawyers so looked down upon?

Let’s say a top-notch tax lawyer is able to exploit all the loopholes in the system and save a billionaire obscene amounts of money.  Many would find that disgusting.  However, assuming that no law is broken, is it really the lawyer’s fault for being excellent at his job (protecting the client’s interest)?  How about a criminal defense lawyer who is able to get a serial child molester/murderer off the hook?  Is it morally reprehensible to be good at what is legally required of the profession?

The only thing that remains is the conscious choice of this particular profession, which one can hardly criticize.

Let’s take an air force pilot as another example.  Say he is ordered to drop a few MOABs on some villages suspected to harbor high-value terrorists, and is exceptionally accurate and inadvertently wipes out a few orphanages, hospitals, endangered species (a.k.a. collateral damage), along with suspected high-value terrorists.  We do not generally make moral judgements on the pilot for following orders.

The difference between lawyers and pilots would be mainly, one is doing his job and killing for our country, and one is doing his job and making a killing for himself.  The reasoning in professional respect typically goes like this: each dime that shyster helps that rich guy save (cheat) on taxes is a dime stolen from Uncle Sam, which is like stealing from the people, which is stealing from me, those thieves.  Those cratered former zip codes are far away, in a country I can’t spell, and rampant with terrorist-ridden towelheads anyway.  We pay the armed forces = working for me.  Saving on taxes = stealing from me.  And it goes without saying, can’t respect a thief.  Cognitive dissonance wins.

What would it take?


What a loaded word.

Apparently has very different meanings to different people.

According to the Merriam-Webster, the definition is “receptive to arguments or ideas”.  To me, it means the willingness to change my mind (receptive) based on carefully examining valid, well-formed, clear, logical statements based on best available evidence (arguments), and the willingness to examine hypotheses that have at least some level of plausibility (ideas).  This does not include argument from logical fallacies, personal anecdotes or opinions, ideological, theological or teleological statements (which despite ending in -logical, none are), or unsupported assertions.

To some, openmindedness means to listen to and accept what others have to say without question, or at least “respect” their viewpoint.

To many, openmindedness simply means you have to agree with them.

To me, openmindedness applies to factual issues, such as the effectiveness of coffee enemas; moral issues are usually personal opinions or preference, which in my opinion, “receptiveness” does not apply.  There are plenty of arguments that are politically incorrect, but regardless of how well executed they are, are irrelevant because they do not serve to change our collective behavior, and are destined to simply be factoids.

In my opinion, a good indicator of openmindedness would be to simply ask the question: “What would it take to change your mind?”

A truly openminded person is willing to examine everything, no matter how deep the conviction.  Ask the Pope what it would take to change his faith and it would likely be “nothing”.  Ask an evolutionary biologist what it would take to change his belief in evolution, and it would likely be a very specific statement such as “a pre-Cambrian rabbit fossil”.  Ask most people what it would take to change their mind about some deep conviction they have, and the answer is more often than not, “I don’t know”.

Richard Muller, professor of Physics at UC Berkeley, and until recently a very promient global warming skeptic, changed his mind about global warming after carefully examining the evidence.  When was the last time you saw your favorite politician change his/her mind based on the evidence?  Unfortunately that is called flip-flopping and for some reason unknown to me, it is considered a flaw rather than a virtue.  Personally I would like my representative to change his or her mind as soon as evidence becomes available, as often as needed.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  What constitutes good evidence is the subject of another long blog post for another day.  But next time you are asked to be openminded, ask yourself, “What would it take to change your mind?”.  If you don’t know in very specific terms, it might be time to reexamine that belief.

Politically incorrect

This post is very much politically incorrect, read at your own risk.  You were warned.

Four time gold medalist Michael Johnson is not afraid to speak his mind, with him being one of the few in the unique position to do so.  He is the self-proclaimed, unintended beneficiary of a past wrong.

He makes a hypothesis about slavery inadvertently creating better atheletes through selective pressure, which is a politically sensitive and polarizing statement to say the least.  There is some level of plausibility and evidence for the argument, such as:

  • Disproportionate ratio of African-American/Caribbean descendants at the top level of the game
  • Initial selective pressure prior to transportation
  • Ongoing selective pressure during enslavement
  • Alleged eugenics

There is also plenty of confounding factors and arguments against it (politically incorrect translation in parentheses):

  • Better overall training environment (Nikes on indoor, air conditioned PU track easier on the feet than running barefoot over egg sized gravel hot enough to fry  lizards)
  • Better participation and awareness (Going for the gold on an obstacle course actually means dodging bullets to steal gold from Kony)
  • Initial selective pressure not significant (Well they chose the better ones from the batch, but the really fast ones got away)
  • Ongoing selective pressure not significant nor long enough (Couple of hundred years is nothing)
  • Unusual specificity (What makes Caribbean/North American slaves better than Brazilian slaves?)

Just to list a few.

I predict that no one will touch this subject with a 10 foot pole.  Even if someone did spend the effort to seriously research this out of intellectual curiosity (which often is good enough), what would it accomplish?  If his views are found correct, it is not like we can start enslaving people of any race or subgroup again.  Either way it goes, there is little you can say to not offend.  “No pain, no gain” is an equally bad conclusion as “No harm done”.

Ilana Yurkiewicz has an eloquent blog post in a somewhat similar situation, regarding a controversial social study by Mark Regnerus.

Sometimes, it’s best to keep your mouth shut.  Just like in marriage.