Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The law is like a chick.

Dan Kahan, speaking last month at Yale Law School's commencement:
Do you know what this is? Yes, it’s a baby chick. But do you know its gender? Of course, not. But you would if you were a professional chick sexer.

In the poultry industry, it is very important to separate out male and female chicks almost immediately after birth: the males are less valuable – they can’t lay eggs and their meat isn’t nearly so tender – and they end up competing with the female chicks for food. So you need to pick the males out and get rid of them. This job falls to the professionally trained chick sexer, who turning the chicks over gently in his or her hand is able to sort out male from female at a rate of 1,000 per hour and at an accuracy rate of 99%.

What makes this feat so astonishing, though, is that there just isn’t any readily discernable, or at least articulable, difference in the anatomy of newborn chicks. All zoologists agree that this is so. If you ask a professionally trained chick sexer what he is looking for, don’t expect a satisfying answer. Either he’ll confabulate, telling you some fantastic and silly story about the inability of the male chick to look him straight in the eye. Or more candidly, he’ll just shrug his shoulders.

But while the nature of the chicksexer’s skill may be inexplicable, how he acquired it isn’t. To become chicksexers, individuals go off for an extended period of study with a chick sexing grandmaster. He doesn’t give lectures or assign texts. Instead he exposes his pupils to slides– “male,” “female,” “male,” “male,” “female,” “female,” “male” – continuing on in this way until the students acquire the same special power to intuitively perceive the gender of a newborn chick, even without being able to cogently explain how.

What in the world does this have to do with law, you are asking yourself of a professor’s lecture, once again. Well, what I want to suggest is that what’s going on in the chick-sexing profession is the very same thing that goes on in the legal profession. The formal doctrines and rules that make up the law – unconscionability, proximate causation, character propensity, unreasonable restraints of trade – are just as fuzzy and indeterminate as the genetalia of day-old chicks. And yet just as the trained chick sexer can accurately distinguish female from male, so the trained lawyer can accurately distinguish good decision from bad, persuasive argument from weak. Ask the lawyer for an explanation, and in his case too you’ll get nothing but confabulation – “plain meaning,” “congressional intent,” “efficiency” – or what have you.

In addition, the lawyer attains her skill – to recognize what she can’t cogently explain – in much the same way that the chick sexer does: through exposure to a professional slideshow, this one conducted by law grandmasters, including law professors but also other socialized lawyers, who authoritatively certify what count as good and bad decisions, sound and unsound arguments, thereby inculcating in students and young practitioners the power of intuitive perception distinctive of the legal craft.
Read the whole thing, as they say. Rather than point out that learning to become a chicken sexer would have been much cheaper than going to Yale Law School, Kahan works his way around to the legal apologies for torture. Via Orin Kerr.

You can't appeal your sex, and your sex is the only right answer. Looks nothing like law to me, except maybe for the sexism.
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