What follows will be a bit out of the ordinary—OK, a lot out of the ordinary—for regular readers of Adam Smith, Esq., but there’s a cold, hard, important, gem of truth in it for lawyers, our firms, and our bedrock assumptions about the way things ought to work (which is precisely the same way they’ve always worked).
Adam Gopnik, a gifted, prolific, and curious writer (The New Yorker, among other places) chooses from a broad and catholic selection of topics, but in A Point of View: Science, magic, and madness (BBC News Magazine), he wrote a few weeks ago about the large epistemological question of how people know what they think they know. Reeling us right in, he began:
When you write for a living, over time you learn that certain subjects will get set responses. You’re resigned to getting the responses before you write the story.
If you write something about Shakespeare, you will get many letters and emails from what we call the cracked (and I think you call the barking), explaining that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays that everyone who was alive when he was, said he had.
If you write something about the scandal of American prisons, you will be sent letters, many heartbreaking, from those wrongly imprisoned – and you will also get many letters from those who you’re pretty sure couldn’t possibly be more rightfully imprisoned. Sorting out what to say to each kind is a big job. (My wife has a simple rule – be nice to the ones who are going to be getting out).
The oddest response, though, is if you write making an obvious point about an historical period or historical figure, you will get lots of letters and emails insisting that the obvious thing about the guy or his time is completely wrong.
If you write about Botticelli as a painter of the Italian Renaissance, you’ll be told sapiently that there was never really a renaissance in Italy for him to paint in. If you write about Abraham Lincoln and emancipation, you’ll be bombarded, on a Fort Sumter scale, with people telling you that the American Civil War wasn’t really fought over slavery. The Spanish Inquisition was a benevolent, fact-checking organisation, Edmund Burke was no conservative… On and on it goes.
Now these letters and emails come more often from the half-bright, some of them professional academics, than from the fully bonkers or barking.
You can tell the half-bright from the barking because the barking don’t know how little they know, while the half-bright know enough to think that they know a lot, but don’t know enough to know what part of what they know is actually worth knowing.
Thus we are brought to Galileo, who was by no means always right about the universe (he was often wrong, notes Gopnik), but Galileo believed in trying to verify his beliefs in the real world by finding out what would happen if he were wrong.
Galileo’s greatest book, perhaps one of the greatest ever addressing the scientific method, was his 1632 Dialogue On Two World Systems, where he invented a dumb character named Simplicio and two smart ones to argue with him, including one “who’s read a lot but just repeats whatever Aristotle says. He’s erudite and ignorant, [or, as Gopnik says a bit later], “he could be very subtle and very silly all at the same time.” (Beginning to sound familiar?)
His other alter ego, Salviati, actually gets it, and here, as Gopnik says, is one of the nicest capsule summaries of the scientific method on record:
“Therefore Simplicio, come either with arguments and demonstrations and bring us no more Texts and authorities, for our disputes are about the Sensible World, and not one of Paper.”
The scientific method elevates debate over dogma, experience over authority.
Famously, Aristotle had written that small and large objects would fall under the force of gravity at different speeds. Galileo took small and large cannonballs to the top of the Tower of Pisa to check it out. Sorry, Aristotle.
Now, when it comes to how we run our firms—how we compensate people, the contribution of “non-lawyers,” the types of career paths our firms can and should house, indeed how we recruit talent to begin with (our lifeblood, need I point out?), we could take a lesson from Artemus Ward, the pseudonym of Charles Brown [1834—1867], a popular humorist andcontemporary of Mark Twain:
“It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we do know that just ain’t so.”
Modern science has of course progressed so incomprehensibly far from Galileo’s day that now only a very few of us can understand its particular theories in all their subtlety and power. But all of us can understand its peculiar approach.
If you have a theory about how the world works (“our firm exclusively hires the top law students from the top law schools—no other information about these individuals really matters,” “non-lawyers can’t [really, truly] do anything as well as lawyers”), you might give it a brief go and actually try a small experiment or two. (a) What have you got to lose?; and (b) Who knows what you might find out?
There’s supposed to be a sign up on the Tower Of Pisa: “Please don’t throw things from this tower”. That sign is the best memorial that Galileo could ever have.
Of course, I’m not sure that it’s actually there. I’ll have to go and look.