Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The hypothesis factory

J.B. Ruhl's latest post on the value of empirical studies plants a seed of inspiration in my mind. Resolved: The theory of comparative advantage should inform how legal academics divide their time between doctrinal, theoretical, and empirical methodologies.

Comparative advantage is one of those ideas so utterly correct and productive that politicians have never stopped fighting against it. David Ricardo was right: do what is cheapest for you (at least relative to other competitors) and let markets value your output. That way lies the wealth of nations, and governments that disavow Ricardo's advice put their citizens on the road to serfdom.

So how does all this apply to law? Consider the final paragraph in J.B.'s post:
law ought to value more than it traditionally has is greater emphasis on developing testable legal theories as well as actually doing the testing. While we may never get to the point of regularly producing and working with "mathematically rigorous proofs and large-scale statistical evidence," would it hurt us so much to move farther away from relying as much as we do on "rhetoric and anecdotes"?
No, it won't hurt. Not even a little bit. I agree wholeheartedly with J.B. that most legal academics are simply not capable of "regularly producing and working with 'mathematically rigorous proofs and large-scale statistical evidence.'" But we do enjoy a comparative advantage in generating hypotheses. The historic proliferation of abstract theories in legal scholarship suggests as much. In an age with deeper data sets and sharper statistical tools for sifting that data, redirecting our powers of conjecture toward testable, falsifiable hypotheses represents one way we legal academics can better engage our scientific colleagues in the exchange of ideas.


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