Letter to the Editor


A Reply, by The Masked Avenger, to Prof. Christine Joll’s Reply to An Open Letter to Christine Jolls, by The Masked Avenger.

Dear Prof. Jolls,

My thanks for your kind reply to my open letter. I commend you for your commitment to labor, and to accuracy. I agree less wholeheartedly when you suggest that a 3L clerkship survey should be forgiven for an unusable “couple of […] questions,” since the slapdash survey itself will never be published. What you point out is that the basis of your article will never be subject to scrutiny by your colleagues. This is an unfortunate state of affairs. It is much to be desired that future articles based on surveys will include the surveys in an appendix, in print or online. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

You also suggest that, for four professors preparing one four-page survey, avoiding facially invalid questions entails so much work that the authors will “have to go down to brushing [their] teeth only every other day.” I appreciate this image, as well as its smell, but I remember a time not so long ago when no surveys had SNAFU questions like these. Back then, trained statisticians were discarding bad data too. Yet the layman survey subject did not feel his gorge rise at patently unclear question drafting. “Enter here,” the clerkship survey might as well ask, “the number of clerkship interviews you had, multiplied by your sister’s height in centimeters.” You didn’t used to see survey questions like that. It seems professors a generation ago had bad teeth, and I respectfully suggest that the authors of the clerkship study let theirs deteriorate a little.

Speaking of those authors, let me emphasize, Professor, that your reply shows a scrupulousness and a commitment to good values that cannot be questioned. I wrote you because your name only was on the cover letter, but I do not blame you for others’ incompetence. In the note you sent me personally, you alluded to “stress with coauthors who do not take” your laudable approach to accuracy and careful work. We may infer, then, that the stinker questions came not from you, but from Alvin Roth, Christopher Avery, Richard Posner, or one of those men’s many law-and-economics grad student rent-seekers. Offhand one guesses Judge Posner and his circle. That great man’s career began with immense investigations of hundreds and thousands of cases in pathbreaking articles like “A Theory of Negligence.” More recently, he has begun churning out books and publications like one of the great industrial dairies of Wisconsin. It is a productivity little seen since Justice Douglas published to sustain his ex-wives, and I must say I rather prefer Douglas’ Wilderness Bill of Rights to Posner’s Remaking Domestic Intelligence. Remake it, I say, by employing domestic intellects to write valid survey questions! Let it not be said that Judge Posner’s mind, in its public glory, stands like one of those masterworks of Western architecture prized for high flow and volume, like the sewers of Rome. Let us not think that, if we were to price the time put in by all the third-year law students of Harvard Law Students in answering questions of zero utility, we would find a loss to public welfare of tens of thousands of dollars.

I write all this out of esteem for the work of scholars. I ask for forgiveness if this compels me to be, in your phrase, “somewhat vicious.” We celebrate people who publish, and we shun persons who point out that too many words, put into print too fast, are pernicious. Yet bad data erodes understanding; bad writing corrupts thought. No less an institution than the University of Chicago stands for the proposition that there can be no good work without punishment of the bad. I ask only for an understanding that some salutary nastiness is needed to keep professors honest. If that means less tooth brushing, so be it. For if no one speaks truth to sloth, then, in the words of Joseph de Maistre, “in an instant order yields to chaos: thrones fall, society disappears.”

I remain