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03 March 2007


Tracy Lightcap

I've always wondered how people in law schools handle this conundrum. Because that is what I think it is. The basic problem is that the law wants exact results and all that statistics can give - and that only with heroic assumptions and the right circumstances - is levels of precision. I've been consulted by attorneys many times on statistical questions and the problem is always the same: they want to know if there is a "statistically significant result". What they mean by that is a result that reaches the sacred "p<.05" level or "better". When I inform them of what is necessary to make even such a relatively useless finding believable their reaction is always impatience with my "pussyfooting". When I go further and explain what statistical significance actually connotes they get downright feisty about it. "But that's the standard the courts have recognized! It's in the precedents! That's all I need to worry about!"

And they're right. I suspect that the use of more sophisticated techniques and of a truely scientific approach to legal questions is considered MEGO material in law schools, unless, as Bill says, it is tied to research about the profession itself.

I wouldn't worry about this if there wasn't clear evidence by now that the courts are falling WAY behind the curve in the use of statistical evidence to reach decisions on important matters. There are, in fact, a good number of questions that more developed technique and a more analytic view of statistics could usefully address. I see very little evidence that the courts are moving towards using either. The disconnect this could lead to between empirically oriented law school faculty and a still groping bench isn't healthy either.

But I don't teach in law school. Maybe I'm just seeing monsters in the closet.

William Henderson

Hi Carolyn, thanks for an interesting week of guest blogging.

Re innumeracy among law students, I think it is important to emphasize to students that a lawyer will prosper if he or she is willing to learn and master new subject matter; in some cases, this will involve numbers. I worry about my students who cannot figure out how many directors seats are needed to control a seven member corporate board (four!). They clearly have the analytical ability to accomplish this task; perhaps many have opted out of any serious math since the 12th grade, so even basic applied arithmetic becomes a challenge.

Re empirical methods in the classroom, I have found that students are more than willing to learn about correlation coefficients and t-tests when the subject matter is lawyers and law firms--of course, the answers to the hypothesis tests have direct bearing on their future careers. My colleague at a Top 5 law school has reported the same observation.

Thanks for your contributions this past week. bh.

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