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February 2013
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April 2013

’Fess up: How many of you are this rigorous all the time?

This quotation caught my eye. It comes courtesy of Bryan Garner’s legal-writing blog:

The order of ideas in a sentence or paragraph should be such that the reader need not rearrange them in his mind. The natural arrangement of ideas in critical argument is: Statement of problem; Marshaling of evidence, first on main points, then on subsidiary ones — the same sequence kept throughout the argument; Credibility of evidence examined; Statement of possible implications of all evidence not wholly rejected; The weighing of conflicting evidence in the scale of probability; and Verdict.

—Robert Graves & Alan Hodge, The Reader Over Your Shoulder 171 (1943).

I wish I were this rigorous all of the time. A quotation worth printing out, clipping, and taping to the bathroom mirror.

Why the new pope does not need a Roman number

Query: Should the new pope be called Francis I, or just Francis? I think the Roman number will be unnecessary. There has been no other Pope Francis. So there is no need for a number to differentiate him from other Pope Francises. To call him Francis I would be like referring to a man as “Sr.” before there is a “Jr.” If there ever is another Pope Francis, we can call that pope Francis II and start calling this one Francis I.

Ever read a brief requiring this warning?

The good folks at Improbable Research call our attention to a document by the Department of Energy. The first page warns, “Portions of this document are illegible.” I have scrolled through it, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s no worse than some briefs or attached exhibits that I have strained to decipher.

The lesson: Presentation is important. If they can’t read it, they won’t. So make sure that your copier produces sharp copies. And make sure that any attached exhibits are readable. This may involve an archeological expedition in search of the most readable version of something that may have run through generations of photocpies and faxes. If you want your readers to actually read the damned thing, give them a version that they can actually read.

Are we afflicted by the Dunning-Kruger problem?

The ABA Journal has an interesting article by Bryan Garner, Why Lawyers Can’t Write. The causes are pervasive and complex. What I found more interesting is Bryan’s identification of a related problem: Why lawyers don’t recognize the deficiencies in their own writing. He describes studies done in 1999 by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. These studies revealed the following tendencies in unskillful or unknowledgeable people:

  1. They often think that they are quite skillful or knowledgeable.
  2. They can't recognize genuine skill in others.
  3. They fail to recognize the extremity of their own inadequacy.
  4. They recognize and acknowledge their own previous unskillfullness only after highly effective training in the skill.
This reminds me of an old saying by my high-school Spanish and Latin teacher, Fr. Josef Gregor: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” It also reminds me of my own past delusions about my athletic skills. I thought I was much better at ping-pong and tennis than I actually was; consistent losing did nothing to shake my delusion.

The truth is that none of us is immune to the Dunning-Kruger problem. The best defense against it is to never cease striving to learn more and to improve our skills.