Sunday, February 21, 2010

Anti-Intellectualism Is Not An Answer (By Itself)

I've been around the political world long enough to watch the possession of a degree from an elite university go from being a nice thing to have when you're running for the presidency to a "credential weapon" to beat your opponents over the head with. This is an unhealthy development which has produced an anti-intellectual backlash which is equally unhealthy.

Right at the moment, I'm in "a plague on both their houses" mode. Waving one's lack of education around (or the alternative of a degree from a lesser school) is no better than waving around an Ivy League degree which is supported by no accomplishment and no paper-trail (Obama, anyone?). If you're lacking in the "fancy education" department, prove your worth with intelligent words and deeds. If you're waving around the degree from Harvard or Columbia (or UC Berkeley, LOL), prove that your smarts and acts match your lofty degree.

I've expressed my low opinion of what passes today for "higher education" in past posts, as well as my admiration for people with common sense and good instincts. But I have also made it clear that if you can put common sense and good instincts together with a couple of hard-earned degrees in serious academic disciplines, you might just have the recipe for the perfect candidate.

The latest round of anti-intellectualism and pride in lesser education clearly revolves, in large part, around Sarah Palin and Barack Obama. The moment Palin became the Republican candidate for vice-president, Obama and Biden trotted out their educations (questionable as both are). At first, Palin replied with excellent and funny counter-attacks. Today, I have begun to sense that the battle has hardened into something much more sinister--on both sides.

The Democratic elites are determined to paint Palin as a country rube with little formal education. Palin has rightly struck back by pointing out her accomplishments so far (which I'm not here to dispute). But "so far" is the key expression here. She has yet to show the political acumen, stick-to-itiveness or intellectual rigor that I tend to favor in a presidential candidate. But she might yet do so if she doesn't fall into the elitist trap of pooh-poohing everyone with a degree from the Ivy League or other elite universities.

Since there is no question that I would be more than willing to vote for a high school graduate with the proper temperament and intelligence against an over-degreed intellectual snob, it falls to me to point out why I am defending intellectuals in general while at the same time pointing out the problem with the intellectual elite of the past two or three decades. Part of my higher education was learning to separate an intellectual from a pseudo-intellectual, particularly in the political arena.

This preoccupation with college degrees serves some purpose. It can be a measure of determination or intelligence. But basic education has been so dumbed-down and politicized that smart kids who didn't have the means to get a college education are frequently simply eliminated from the "good jobs" pool by rigid employer rules requiring the possession of a college degree. I would have been one of them had it not been for the California State Scholarships and NDEA loans that made it possible for me to wend my way to Berkeley. As much as you may all have read about radicalism at Berkeley, the simple fact is that all the elite schools I referenced still maintained the old academic standards, remained politically-neutral, or nearly so, in classes, and expected nothing less than high academic performance, or bye-bye. This was all before grade inflation and social promotion.

Today, academic achievement and just plain "smarts" at the lower levels of education no longer are the main criteria used to choose the freshman class at the elites and the Ivies. Much of that derives from the "social experiments" with education over the past two or three (or even four) decades. The public schools today are in dreadful shape, and for a very long time have been the producers of most of the future college professors and college students. The public schools have been the cauldron in which all the crazy ideas of progressive education and social experimentation have been boiling since at least as far back as the late 60s.

The old concept of the rigorous grammar school or Latin school for public school students is dead, dead, dead. Smart parents who want their children to get a good education are left only with good parochial schools and even better private schools, both of which are often far outside the ability of the parents to pay for. Many have resorted to home-schooling, and though that has proven to be highly successful for those who have the brains, time and the means to do it, it is a limited option. Why else would you think that the elites love public schools, but send their kids to expensive private schools and oppose voucher programs?

Only in the private and parochial elementary and high schools is the "old education" preserved. That old education includes moral guidance, largely derived from religion and the ancient philosophers rather than from radical "educators." And it included what is often referred to as the basic "three R's." The even more rigorous "classical education" produced scholars who could do mathematical calculations without a calculator, quote Cicero in Latin, and write passable classical Greek. And that was only the "elementary" schools. Modern philosophers were rarely included at the lower-levels until the students had already studied the classics.

I have seen what National Review's Michael Knox Beran calls "degree fetish" advance from "you must have a bachelor's degree," to "you must have a master's degree," to "you must have a PhD (or its equivalent)." Today's PhD's have no more intellectual ability than the holders of bachelor's degrees that I knew in my youth. And today's PhD holders have exhibited a very old European attitude toward degrees--a PhD holder simply doesn't associate with a mere baccalaureate nor will he take anything the lesser-educated man or woman says seriously. This is the doctrine of unintended consequences writ large. The progressive education public schools were the progressives' way of "giving everyone the same educational advantages." Instead, they created a system in which the old high school diploma was at least equal to the new bachelor's degree. It led to the European-style elitism that we see today throughout academia, and which has been fully foisted on the American people.

So Palin has a degree from Nowhere U, and Obama has a degree from Columbia and a law degree from Harvard, and that put her at a disadvantage that required the educated elite, along with too much of the public, to snort at a level of education considered insurmountable. Obama's subsequent failure at almost everything since being elected, however, is not an excuse for anti-intellectualism. It is merely proof that a degree can mean a great deal, or absolutely nothing. What are they saying? What have they done? What are their plans for the future, and how do they intend to implement them while correcting mistakes made along the line? Those are the question that should be asked, not solely "what degrees do they have?"

Progressive education and the public schools have fortunately produced one excellent by-product. And that is smart people who instinctively knew they had been robbed of a real education, and found ways to get them on their own--with or without a degree. The cultural elitism and socialization that have replaced basic education have also left the average Joe with a foul taste in his mouth. As a result, there is a Tea Party movement, fully exhibiting the popular dissatisfaction with "in-groupness," herd thinking, and surrender to one's degreed "betters."

Today's higher-education, combined with all the preparation for it in the progressive social programs fostered in the lower-education levels, have led to a complete disconnect between phony intellectual elites and the realities of the American mind and soul. That doesn't disqualify highly-intellectual and well-degreed Americans from the right from participating fully in the American political process. If you think it does, consider the following: William F. Buckley, Jr. Whatever else she may think or ultimately say and do, Sarah Palin has gotten the underlying issue right. She espouses "American values" and contrasts those with the aspirations of "elite education." She points out the arrogance of the intellectual elite currently in power with the thoughts, dreams and aspirations of the common American. If she can stop there and not turn it into an "us versus them" know-nothing anti-intellectualism, she will do herself a very large favor.

I'm not sure where Palin derives her views on intellectualism, or even what they actually are. But she has gotten the concept of "show me, then I'll believe you" right. Lionel Trilling and Gertrude Himmelfarb (a disciple of Burke) said that knowledge and education, divorced from the moral imagination, are dangerous things. I would add that I believe that rigid application of standardized liberal academic concepts along with "pure science" when dealing with the real world of human beings are likewise very dangerous. They destroy the soul, the intellectual elite become the "higher power," and consensus quickly replaces debate and sound reasoning. And as a final thought, I remind everyone that the great intellectual, that selfsame William F. Buckley, said that he would trust the wisdom of any ten names randomly chosen from the phone book over that of the entire Harvard faculty.


AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I have to disagree with you on virtually all of this.

First, on a technical point, the idea that smart poor kids can’t afford good colleges is simply not correct. Colleges all use virtually the identical financial aid formula, and they set their tuitions on the basis of the amount of federal loans available. That means that once you get past the cheapest state school (with the in-state rates) most colleges will cost you about the same out of pocket these days. Now it’s true that you may saddle yourself with an unbearable loan cost, as I discussed in my article some time ago, but college kids aren’t smart enough to think about that.

If anyone can’t afford college these days, it’s the people toward the upper end of the middle class range, who start to lose their qualification for subsidized loans. But if you’re truly smart -- and “smarts” are the primary trait used by admissions offices (particularly at private schools) to decide who gets admitted -- then schools will make up the difference with private loans and grants. I worked in a financial aid office during college, I know this for a fact.

Secondly, I disagree with the idea that current colleges aren’t high quality. The problems you’re talking about are limited to the political-type degrees (like gender studies) and the liberal arts and related programs. Those have become a cesspool of political correctness and group think. But once you get into the more rigorous programs, like engineering, science, math, business, economics, etc. today’s schools are vastly better than colleges used to be in the supposed golden age that some people like to talk about.

Third, there is a huge difference between degree snobbery and anti-intellectualism. Degree snobbery is an annoyance, but that’s it. It tells us more about the closed mind of the person who thinks that only people holding degrees from elite schools are intelligent. BUT, anti-intellectualism is a danger, not an merely an annoyance.

People who spout the idea that education is bad or that somehow you can’t be “a real American” if you are educated are not merely being snobs, but they are promoting an idea that is dangerous to anyone who chooses to believe it. Every study done of education shows that there is a direct link between lifetime income and education. The same link exists between education and employment rates, as uneducated people are more like to end up losing their jobs in recessions or when new technological changes are implemented -- and these trends are getting worse. To advocate to anyone the idea that somehow there is anything wrong with education is as asinine as telling kids to go drop acid because it will make you cool. It will most likely doom those kids to a lifetime of struggling and misery.

Finally, the idea that goes hand in hand with this “I know many high schoolers who are so much smarter than so many college grads” is false reasoning. First, it’s anecdotal and doesn’t stand up to statistical rigor. Secondly, it’s comparing apples and oranges, because there are different kinds of intelligence. Sure there are street smart high schoolers. But, I don’t want one of them as my doctor or my lawyer. I don’t want one designing my car or the bridge I cross, or doing a half dozen other things. So while they may be capable, their capabilities are at best limited. Moreover, given the statistical disparity in income, it is again negligent to suggest to people that having a high school degree is somehow sufficient. That’s why people who promote anti-intellectualism are dangerous. . . degree snobs are just annoying.

Writer X said...

Generally, I'm less interested in where a politician attended college than I am in his actions and common sense. Anyone who brags about his credentials (or belittles someone else's) usually isn't very smart at all.

LL said...

I don't know that it's different now than it's been in the past. A solid education backed up by real world experience and "wisdom" is still the stuff of success.

Part of the problem with Washington DC and both the legislative and executive branches of government rests in the pseudointellectual laurels and lack of real hands-on experience at something other than "baby kissing".

I've met some very smart people - arguably some of the smartest on the planet. I've also met a lot of "regular people", unlettered but wise, self made and successful. In neither case have I seen the sense of entitled pomposity that oozes from Washington and Sacramento.

Political correctness is a construct for fools who fear speaking their minds and whether it's the "really smart people" or the wise self-made people I mentioned above, neither seem to be very politically correct. They simply see the world as it is and ignore the fools, the degree snobs, etc.

An education is important and the "Lincoln educated himself in a log cabin-and-so-can-I crowd" is a fiction perpetuated by the phony smart.

StanH said...

Ronald Reagan, Eureka College, perhaps the wisest, and best president of the last century, with zero pedigree.

There is a place in society for both disciplines, and your point is well taken.

In a president I want wisdom/ life experiance, and how that person acquires that wisdom can take many forms, but you know it when you see it.

Unknown said...

Andrew: Sorry, your criticism sounds good, but it ain't necessarily so. I was discussing elite schools. They have limited enrollments, and despite all their public statements, academics are only in the middle of the pile for scholarships, and there aren't enough spaces to handle even those who qualify. There are hundreds of good, but "non-elite" schools in the country that they can go to, but we are talking about the elitism of the current state of mind. Hillsdale College, for instance, is a truly fine school. Remember how much fun they made of Reagan for attending Eureka College? Nixon graduated from Whittier College and got his law degree from Duke, but John Kennedy went to (swoon) Harvard.

I don't think anecdotal evidence is entirely wasted, but I fear that our experience may not be exactly typical, particularly of today's students. I made a point of saying that anyone who genuinely wants a good education can get it, often without the trappings of a degree. In fact, that was the largest part of my main point about elite degrees specifically (and college degrees in general). You worked in the financial office at your school, I worked in the admissions office at Berkeley. Interesting, but so what? We were dedicated, had a goal (which obviously included getting those college degrees), and wanted that education. Far too many students in college today are there solely to get the degree because without it, they are put at a distinct disadvantage, job-wise. The education it could offer them is secondary or tertiary. That is why there are so many useless majors, or majors that used to exist only in "technical schools" and "vocational schools."

As for the colleges being "better today" than they were in my apparently-imagined good old golden days-- hooey. You have picked those limited areas in which the dedicated intelligentsia have soldiered on (the sciences, particularly), and the dedicated students (who got their information in spite of their lower-education teachers, not because of them). I'll give you that one. But scientists are not destined to be the future leaders of America. Today's colleges are largely admitting and training students who wouldn't have survived the first semester forty years ago. English majors get degrees, and cannot speak passable English. History majors graduate not knowing the first thing about history (or at least a major part of it). Most colleges have eliminated the core curriculum of "western civilization," and it shows at every level.

Unknown said...

Andrew (continued): By the way, I was a liberal arts major. That used to mean something far different from what you describe as being comparable to gender studies. And it's a major part of what I've said in my article.

Indeed, "there is a huge difference between degree snobbery and anti-intellectualism." OK, they're different, and I'm pretty sure I said so. But if not, then let's try this: Anti-intellectualism and degree-snobbery are two issues which are being casually and dangerously thrown about in today's political arena, which was, again, a major theme of the article.

"Every study done of education shows that there is a direct link between lifetime income and education." And your point? Concurrence is not causation. So let's look at the cause (as I did in the article). If you want a better job, you had better have a degree, however worthless it might be. The high-achieving, bright, and genuinely educated high school grad is at an automatic disadvantage on a job application in relation to the dullard college grad who spent four years partying, majoring in "urban studies," learning about the evils of America, and getting a worthless sheepskin. The dullard had ten-to-one odds of getting the job. Job--higher pay--higher economic status. As for whether that degree genuinely represents "education," I simply don't agree with you.

"Finally, the idea that goes hand in hand with this “I know many high schoolers who are so much smarter than so many college grads” is false reasoning." No, it's not. It's a fact, but the point you made which follows that statement is the "apples and oranges" argument. The fact that a high schooler might be better educated and/or smarter than a college grad does not alter the fact that high school grads can't go on to medical school or law school. The two facts have very little to do with each other. Still, I would take Abe Lincoln as my lawyer over about 90% of what passes for lawyers today. He didn't go to college or law school, but they have degrees.

Back to the entire point of the article (most of which I think you actually agree with). Anti-intellectualism is a by-product of today's degree snobbery, but they are, as you said, not the same thing. Anti-intellectualism is comparable to the know-nothing philosophy of the nineteenth century. A degree from Harvard, Yale or the University of California at Berkeley may or may not have more meaning than one from Hillsdale College, if the degree is in physics or chemistry, but not if the degree is in English, history or those "worthless liberal arts." But given the temperament of the pseudo-intellectual elite today (the Obamas and their ilk, for example), that Harvard degree is all-important even though in Obama's case, it proves exactly the opposite. As I said somewhere in the article, "I can distinguish easily between an intellectual and a pseudo-intellectual." So can most smart high school grads.

One last shot--if higher education were limited solely to those with classical high school educations and the intelligence to go on with their studies, we'd all be a lot better off. Instead, we have largely been handed the necessity of getting a college degree for no reason other than to get a job. Education for education's sake is a rare thing today.

Unknown said...

WriterX: I totally agree. Obama's Harvard degree means next-to-nothing to me (much like his Columbia degree). First of all, I'm not convinced he even earned them. Second, he has exhibited nothing that would indicate he was anything more than a fairly decent speech major.

Unknown said...

LL: I have very little to add to that. Well said.

Unknown said...

StanH: Well, while I was busy writing a response to my friend Andrew, you got there ahead of me. I did mention Ronald Reagan's education in support of my thesis.

My point overall is smart=good. Smart plus a college degree="maybe" better. Smart plus a genuinely-meaningful education and the real ability to use it=very good.

Unknown said...

Andrew: On at least one point, I couldn't agree with what you said any more than if I had said it myself: "Now it’s true that you may saddle yourself with an unbearable loan cost, as I discussed in my article some time ago, but college kids aren’t smart enough to think about that." Back in those "golden days," we had to think about that long and hard, and well in-advance. Our grammar school and high school educations prepared us for that thinking very nicely.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I have a great many statistics on my side, you have your anecdotal evidence based on your experience in the college system 40 years ago. I'll take the statistics because those mean something. . . anecdotal evidence is virtually meaningless.

Unknown said...

Andrew: You're repeating yourself, then using that as an argument. Your statistics? My anecdotal evidence? Huh? Are you seriously saying that except for the sciences (which I conceded), today's college grads are statistically equal to those of forty years ago? If so, you'll have to show me those statistics. I haven't exactly been living in a cocoon since I graduated from law school, and I'll take my personal observations over those of statisticians if that's what those statistics demonstrate. I've seen plenty of recent statistical studies that seem to support my anecdotal contentions.

That includes finding to my horror that today's UC Berkeley seniors by a substantial majority cannot identify even the correct decade of the Civil War, identify more than twenty states on a map of the United States, identify the words "We hold these truths to be self-evident" as coming from the Declaration of Independence rather than from the Constitution, or name the current Secretary of State. Are you saying that by singling out my own alma mater I'm being "anecdotal?" But if I need a physicist, or a theoretical mathematician, or a biochemical advisor, I would still look to Berkeley first.

AndrewPrice said...

Actually Lawhawk, you're the one who is repeating himself. You're repeating anecdotal evidence which is meaningless. "That's not what I've seen" isn't an argument, it an unsupported opinion.

As for your claim of seeing statistical evidence that supports your claim, please feel free to cite it any time. I'll continue to rely on things like the OECD studies, the Dept. of Education studies prepared both here and abroad, the hundreds of studies prepared by economists, social scientists, and educator -- each of which has returned consistent results. . . results that contradict what you are saying.

Moreover, if you want to go with anecdotal evidence, then I will point out that I've been to both elite and non-elite schools in the past decade or so and what you say simply does not fit with what I saw.

Finally, you are still making the mistake of looking at liberal arts degrees and applying that to the entire education system. I will certainly agree that liberal arts degrees have gotten worse, but few of the best or brightest students go into those programs today because they aren't seen as worthwhile. If you compare the entire college experience today to what it was "in the golden age" -- back when college was for rich kids and there was little competition to get in -- then yes, colleges are easily better today

Joel Farnham said...

I have to jump in here. Anecdotal evidence is what most of us go on any way. It is what we base most of our decisions on.

Unknown said...

Andrew: Obviously, we have once again agreed to disagree. As for the anecdotal evidence, I have seen exactly the opposite of what you have seen, and we are drawing different conclusions based on that.

The study on the lack of knowledge of Cal seniors comes directly from the UC Alumni Magazine, and I have seen it quoted elsewhere, including The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Washington Post.

And again, we are never going to agree on the issue of today's schools versus those of mine back in the dark ages. But I have three children, all of whom have graduated from college, so I'm not only looking at my era. My son graduated from UCLA, and it was a decent experience. My older daughter graduated from Cal State University, Northridge, and the entire academic experience was miserable. My younger daughter graduated from California Lutheran University, where she got the core Western Civilization discipline, even though she was going into architecture. She can out-debate the other two on most matters of politics and current events.

You also have my generation in the wrong decade. The "rich kids" getting into college was the generation before mine. Mine was the generation of admissions and scholarships based almost entirely on academic achievement at good schools, high academic and intellectual achievements and potential (1450 or higher on the SATs, and at that time it was the Scholastic Aptitude test, not the Scholastic Achievement test), with a little extracurricular activity thrown in for good measure. Since I was not one of those rich kids, my scholarships to Harvard, Yale, and my father's alma mater the University of Chicago couldn't come close to paying for all the incidentals such as room and board and living that far from home. Thus--UC Berkeley (which had de-emphasized sports the year prior to my admission, and which was not even considered on an application for admission). I make no apologies for my ongoing disdain for Stanford, which didn't consider my academic qualifications worthy of consideration. LOL

As for liberal arts degrees being meaningless today, that is a flaw in the system, not in the discipline as it used to exist.

Unknown said...

Joel: I agree that most people (perhaps too many) rely on anecdotal evidence. But Andrew makes a good point. I was simply trying to point out that I base my opinion on both, and that my opinion is hardly exclusively anecdotal.

My anecdotal evidence includes my own son. His mother and I are both UC Alumni, giving him plus points on his application (at any UC, not just Berkeley). His academic and extracurricular activities were nearly off-the-charts. His SAT scores were one point away from perfect. Yet with all those advantages, he was not admitted to UC Berkeley, and instead attended UCLA. That's not exactly suffering, but who was admitted the same year he was rejected based on racial quotas and sports scholarships? Jason Kidd, who wasted Cal's time and the taxpayers' money for two years before quitting and heading for the pro basketball courts. That is indeed, anecdotal. But I strongly suspect that statistical studies would show so many of those anecdotal stories as to comprise statistical fact.

Kidd's first act after leaving college was to get involved in a serious automotive accident in which he was the culpable party. My son's first act after graduating from college was to beat five UC Berkeley professors to a software breakthrough that is now utilized by almost every software producer and manufacturer. He formed his own consulting firm, and became such a threat to MicroSoft and Apple that they had to come to him to get waivers to use his programs. He still has the consulting firm, and is also a senior software engineer with Google. And of all things, his degree was in Middle East Studies. While the UC professors were working full-time on the project, and had six months lead on him, he was working on it at my house during his spare time while starting his master's program (which he eventually abandoned for the business). That's anecdotal as well, but it's not half-bad.

Libertarian Advocate said...

Great Debate Gentlemen!

Sadly, I'd have to say that the apparent all out fraud that the AGW proponent scientists at U. East Anglia and others over here, have quite severely shaken my faith (and I expect that of many others as well) in the value of even a science education today.

As it happens, I have exactly the same degrees as Barack Obama, just from non-elite institutions. I did however grow up in very close proximity to the snobs of one "elite" institution, one of my parents having taught in the one on the banks of the Charles River. I can say that I have never been exposed to so many pompous AZZES in all my life as I was when living in my parents' house meeting all those Ivy educators.

Buckley's comment on the value of the opinion of the Harvard faculty rings true to me. Odd he didn't discuss include Yale's faculty.

Unknown said...

LibertarianAdvocate: Loved it. I followed Buckley so closely that if he had ever suddenly stopped short, I would have found my nose in a very unfortunate place. I'm sure he said "Harvard" rather than "Yale" for the same reason I keep citing Harvard and Yale. I don't want to slap my old school too hard. But I have mentioned my admiration for UC Berkeley Boalt Law Professor John Yoo on more than one occasion. LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Libertarian Advocate, Thanks! LOL! I agree with you about the Climategate thing -- except that I've never really considered climatologists to be scientists. They're more like Voodoo practitioners. Any field of science that can't predict an outcome isn't science, it's guessology.

Joel -- That maybe what most people go on, but it's not a good basis for making policy.

Lawhawk -- Yep, let's agree to disagree. . . add this one to the pile! LOL! So much for group think among right wingers right?

Unknown said...

Andrew: Ja,wohl, mein Fuehrer. Oops, did I just let the cat out of the bag? LOL

Joel Farnham said...


When you face a jury and argue your case, the outcome of that case is based on the testimony and anecdotal evidence present in the jury prior to you talking to them. You rely on that anecdotal evidence. I know, in a pure world, the jury would only listen to you and your opponent, but we are not in a pure world.

AndrewPrice said...

Actually Joel, that's not my experience. Juries tend to be extremely good at looking at only the facts presented and following the law as instructed regardless of their personal backgrounds or beliefs. (I'm assuming you mean -- personal experience when you say anecdotal, because "anecdotal" isn't a legal term.)

Moreover, if you think there is a danger that the jury might get something wrong because their backgrounds or their prejudices, you bring in experts to present a more accurate picture for the jury.

Also, there is a huge difference between jury trials and policy -- different rules, different kinds of evidence, different kinds of considerations.

It's simply not a good idea to rely on anecdotal evidence because anecdotal evidence, by it's nature, is only as reliable as the experience of the observer. If every cat you've ever seen is grey, then you might think that all cats are grey because of the anecdotal evidence available to you. But you would be wrong and any policy or decision you make based on that belief would be wrong.

That's why anecdotal evidence is considered the lowest/worst form of evidence and no reasonable scientist or policymaker would rely on it.

The fact that many people choose to rely on it, doesn't make it a good idea. It just makes their decision process flawed.

Unknown said...

Joel and Andrew: Let me just add something that goes along with what Andrew said. "Testimony" is allowed only if it is relevant to the issues and facts that the case presents. Eyewitness testimony, which all lawyers know is highly-unreliable, is no substitute for evidentiary facts. But if oral testimony is allowed, it must not be purely anecdotal. If it is concurrently anecdotal, then it is allowed only if it is also relevant.

The rules have become sloppy over the years, but still the most damaging anecdotes tend to come from the lawyers themselves. Philanderer John Edwards made millions channeling dead babies to unsophisticated juries in medical malpractice cases. I wouldn't have dared to attempt such a thing in the courts I practiced in, but I'm not sure that's true today. That nonsense comes during arguments, not during testimony, so most witnesses wouldn't be allowed to do it either (unless they were dead babies who came back to life to testify about their personal, anecdotal, experiences).

Andrew is exactly correct on the point. "Personal testimony" must be related to the facts, and "anectodal" is not a legal term, nor would it fit into the rules of court in any logical manner. As Andrew said about gray cats, anecdotal testimony about all cats being gray would not be allowed. The only personal testimony that would be allowed is "was this cat, in this case gray, and is that relevant?

Unknown said...

I should also add that like Andrew, I have often been amazed at how the average citizen on a jury can understand the most complicated facts in even-more complicated cases, sort out the wheat from the chaff, and come up with very sophisticated verdicts (even when they went against my client).

Most of the horror stories the public hears about out-of-control juries and outrageous awards of damages are the exception, not the rule. They are, as it were, anecdotal, and unsupported by the actual facts, even though standing by themselves they are true. I should also add that since I was not a personal injury attorney, I have no dog in that fight.

Joel Farnham said...

LawHawk and Andrew,

Eyewitness accounts are anecdotal in nature. I.E. a personal account of what happened. So, by definition, you use anecdotes in your cases. If you don't then you use people once removed (experts) who use anecdotal evidence to develop theories of what happened.

Anecdotes over the years have been given a bad rep since very few people attempt to keep it close to the truth. This is why cops prefer to get eyewitness evidence down on paper as soon as possible after the episode in question.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, That’s not correct. Anecdotal evidence has a bad reputation because it's unreliable. That's a simple fact. It has nothing to do with being truthful, it has to do with not having a wide enough sample to draw proper conclusions.

I can see a wide receiver make three great catches, but if I don't see the 59 drops he also had, then my anecdotal evidence about his qualities as a wide receiver is misleading and worthless, whether or not I'm being truthful.

That's why no one gives anecdotal evidence any credit. Anyone who relies on it is guessing.

As far as eye witnesses testimony goes, you're confusing the concepts -- they are two unrelated concepts. An eye witness reports specific personal observations about particular events. They cannot speculate, nor are their conclusions used to draw larger conclusions than the occurrence or non-occurrence of that event. In fact, such conclusions are impermissible in court.

But the concept of anecdotal evidence is a question of using personal observations to draw conclusions about larger populations. That has nothing to do with trial work.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Let me put this another way. The concept of anecdotal evidence arises when you take a limited number of observations and try to draw conclusions about larger populations -- it's a statistical concept.

Eye witness testimony involves a population of one -- an event. Either it happened or it didn't. There is no need (nor is it allowable) to extrapolate that evidence to a larger population.

Thus, the concepts are entirely different.

DCAlleyKat said...

"And as a final thought, I remind everyone that the great intellectual, that selfsame William F. Buckley, said that he would trust the wisdom of any ten names randomly chosen from the phone book over that of the entire Harvard faculty."

I tend to side with Mr. Buckley. Thoroughly enjoyed the read LawHawk!

DCAlleyKat said...

WriterX: I totally agree. Obama's Harvard degree means next-to-nothing to me (much like his Columbia degree). First of all, I'm not convinced he even earned them. Second, he has exhibited nothing that would indicate he was anything more than a fairly decent speech major.

Uh, an educated amen!

Joel Farnham said...


Let's have a go at solipsism and exitentialism sometime. It would be fun.

Unknown said...

DCAlleyCat: Thanks. Nothing like a good healthy debate for a Sunday morning (and most of the afternoon). I saw Buckley as both a political-social mentor as well as my model grammarian. During that brief period when I was a low-echelon contributor to National Review, I misused the expression "begs the question." I got sternly reprimanded and told never to do that again. Now that I hear the expression improperly used nearly on a daily basis, I do a lot of cringing and shouting at the TV.

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