Friday, December 03, 2004

Like a lawyer not a scientist

As democrats we need to consider different argument styles, I'm thinking of scientists and lawyers as templates. I believe that we are simply using the wrong one.

If I'm trying to argue a position at as a scientist there are three standards that I have to keep to if I'm going to keep my reputation.

1. I can't make statements that I know are false, that's a bare minimum that is required in all contexts.

2. I also need to go to considerable effort to make sure that statements I make are true. I can't just hear something from somewhere, or casually read a paper and then present my understanding of it as fact without first checking to make sure that what I'm saying is correct. Unintentionally presenting falsehoods is a big no-no. In a variety of contexts many people don't feel this error is too serious. I believe that the likes of Bush and Limbaugh are engaged in this sort of thing more than actually lying, but that's another discussion. In any case attorneys at court also must adhere to this standard.

3. As a scientist I'm also expected to honestly present, as best I can, the weaknesses of my case. I need to actually tell my audience if there is anything about the evidence I'm presenting that they should know will make my case weaker than it appears. To scientists it is not up to the audience or to other scientists to find this out. I am supposed to tell people about these weaknesses. Now an attorney does not follow this rule. It is most certainly up to opposing counsel to find out problems in my case if I'm a lawyer. I might present weaknesses as a strategic move, but leaving them out is considered perfectly ok.

Let me suggest that as Democrats we have too often been arguing like scientists following my rule 3 above, and not like lawyers and leaving it to Republicans to make the case against our positions. Our other problem is that the electorate is following politics more like a jury at a trial than like scientists. The result is that 50% of our effort helps the Republicans in this and 100% of their efforts help the Republicans and we are outnumbered 3 to 1.

I think this willingness to concede points to our opponent adds to the perception that we flip-flop and that we are weak. We need to get into the mind set of a lawyer at trial, our position is correct and we will not willingly concede anything.

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