“Allergic to the Practical”: Law Schools Imitating Academia

Thorstein Veblen might have gloated that this 2011 article — about the uselessness of law schools and legal scholarship — so thoroughly supports what he wrote in a book published in 1899 (see the last chapter of The Theory of the Leisure Class). Why are law schools useless? Because law professors feel compelled to imitate the rest of academia, which glorifies uselessness:

“Law school has a kind of intellectual inferiority complex, and it’s built into the idea of law school itself,” says W. Bradley Wendel of the Cornell University Law School, a professor who has written about landing a law school teaching job. “People who teach at law school are part of a profession and part of a university. So we’re always worried that other parts of the academy are going to look down on us and say: ‘You’re just a trade school, like those schools that advertise on late-night TV. You don’t write dissertations. You don’t write articles that nobody reads.’ And the response of law school professors is to say: ‘That’s not true. We do all of that. We’re scholars [i.e., useless], just like you.’ ”

Yeah. As I’ve said, there’s a reason for the term ivory tower. And seemingly useless research has value. Glorifying useless research has the useful result of diversifying research, causing a wider range of research directions to be explored. Many of my highly-useful self-experimental findings started or received a big boost from apparently useless research.

The pendulum can swing too far, however, and it has. A large fraction of health researchers, especially medical school researchers, have spent their entire careers refusing to admit, at least in public, the uselessness of what they do. Biology professors have some justification for useless research; medical school professors have none, especially given all the public money they get. Like law professors, they prefer prestige and conformity. The rest of us pay an enormous price for their self-satisfaction (“I’m scientific!” they tell themselves) and peace of mind. The price we pay is stagnation in the understanding of health. Like clockwork, every year the Nobel Prize in Medicine is given to research that has done nothing or very close to nothing to improve our health. And every year, like clockwork, science journalists (all of them!) fail to notice this. If someone can write the article I just quoted about law schools, why can’t even one science journalist write the same thing about medical schools — where it matters far more? What’s their excuse?

14 Replies to ““Allergic to the Practical”: Law Schools Imitating Academia”

  1. I observed that most lawyers are worse than useless.

    They cite the law with zero practical acumen.

    What one needs is knowing the procedure. How the judges think, etc.
    In a way, judges even smirk at naive lawyers that cite with full earnest the texts with no clue about what is actually going on.

    The surprise of the many totally clueless lawyers around, lies partly in that these lawyers studies for years how to be stupid. That is to be covered head to toe in textual thinking, while it simply does not work like this.

  2. See also this article about the useless research conducted at business schools:

    Is Research in the Ivory Tower ‘Fuzzy, Irrelevant, Pretentious’?

    The article is actually from 1990, but I doubt that things have changed much since then. Here’s a short sample from the article:

    [Dean Richard R. ] West, a well-published academic himself, was shocked. Six years later, he’s still amazed by what he considers the overemphasis placed on scholarly research at most business schools. After spending some time over the weekend with a recent issue of the Journal of Strategic Management, West found only one article, on corporate entrepreneurship, of any interest. “It’s often crap,” he says of academic writing in learned journals. “They say nothing in these articles, and they say it in a pretentious way. If I wasn’t the dean of this school [NYU], I’d be writing a book on the bankruptcy of American management education.”

  3. If someone can write the article I just quoted about law schools, why can’t even one science journalist write the same thing about medical schools — where it matters far more? What’s their excuse?

    Probably because the science journalists suffer from the same phenomenon. (Although science journalists are, if anything, more pathetic, as they are only groupies of the useless.)

    Gary Taubes is one of the few who hasn’t fallen into this trap. By focusing on things that are actually useful (such as “Why do people who eat as they ‘should’ get fat?), he both earned huge amounts of opprobrium and turned the science world upside down.

    This is about rock music, but it encapsulates the phenomenon:


    1. Probably because the science journalists suffer from the same phenomenon.

      Well, part of the problem, as everyone acknowledges, is that science journalists are often liberal-arts majors who have difficulty with science. Whereas Taubes majored in physics. Another problem is that if you write critically about scientists you may have trouble getting them to talk to you. And science journalism requires access. This is a well-known problem throughout journalism.

  4. Hey Seth,

    I am longtime reader and lurker of your blog. I have a burning question for you and that is; why are white males in aggregate not attracted to black women?? I am a slim (5’4 120pounds, 21 years old) African woman. People tell me that I am attractive and that I favor Naomi Campbell. I attract all sorts of men but never white males. Even the liberal white males don’t approach me. I tend to wear my hair in a long afro hair style do you think this can be apart of the problem. Do yo suggest that I seek out older white men?? Please let me know. Sorry for all of the questions.

    1. why are white males in aggregate not attracted to black women?

      Someone who doesn’t want his name used once explained this to me by saying that black culture was more masculine than white culture, which was in turn more masculine than Asian culture, and that men prefer somewhat more feminine women and women somewhat more masculine men. So black men and white women fit together better than white men and black women; and white men and Asian women fit together better than white women and Asian men.

  5. As long as the editors and reviewers of academic journals continue to ignore their responsibilities, useless research is the most we can aspire to. I belong to an editorial board and the fight for quality/standards has only gotten crueler over the years.

  6. Re Toyinulye’s question about white males and black females, I wonder what to make of the secret relationship of Tom Jefferson and Sally Hemings. He was the author of the Declaration of Independence and President of the USA, but he also was a slave owner, making him a very bad example by today’s standards. I think that a lot of black women understandably don’t trust white men because of their historically bad treatment by white men. Unfortunately, we white men have had a pretty horrible history with lots of women and non-white males.

  7. I disagree with you strongly on the uselessness of Nobel Prize winners in Medicine. Let us take a look at a few 🙂

    1996 – “the specificity of the cell mediated immune defence” Knowledge of this has given us a new understanding of how to treat viruses and it is also related to the rejection of transplants which, with this new knowledge, has allowed us to reduce the incidence of rejection. I would say this is a significant discovery.

    1997 – “discovery of Prions – a new biological principle of infection” This showed us an entirely new branch of infectious disease. Remember “Mad Cow Disease”? It is a prion infection. With this new knowledge we now can combat another subclass of illnesses that we didn’t even know about before. This is a significant discovery.

    1998 – “for their discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system” – You got me here, I don’t know how this one is significant. If I were to guess I would think it would have applications in treating lung maladies such as emphysema

    1999 – “for the discovery that proteins have intrinsic signals that govern their transport and localization in the cell” With this knew knowledge we can now design gene therapies using these signals to our advantage. Since the signals and the proteins construction are all tied to a specific set of genes. This knowledge brings us a step closer to treating genetic illnesses. I would say it is significant.

    2000 – “for their discoveries concerning signal transduction in the nervous system” This one cannot be understated in it’s importance. It is like discovering an integral part of the human body such as how breathing works. Knowing that the nervous signal works on “signals” is not enough, but knowing the mechanism behind those signals now gives us a more precise knowledge which of course will allow us to be more specific in treatments and diagnosis. This is significant.

    So far every one of these I have listed, except for the NO2 lung one, I can think of several ways for how it has helped improve our health. I think you made too much of a generic statement there. This is not to say that I agree with everything academia does. I do think there is incredible waste in research institutions, but I don’t think all medical researchers are as incompetent as you paint them to be.

    The one thing I hope never disappears is honest research in the medical community, because the more we know about the human body the closer we can get to providing proper treatment to people who deserve to live long healthy lives

    1. Grundle, thank you for your comment. I am not saying that all the prize-winning discoveries are completely useless. I am saying that for a long time none of them have helped us with major health problems (= cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, depression, obesity, etc.). Sure, the 1998 award was for a discovery that reduced male impotence — not usually considered a major health problem.

      1996: I am unaware of an important shown-to-work new treatment for viruses based on this discovery.. Organ transplant rejection is not a major health problem.

      1997: I am unaware of any benefit from the discovery of prions.

      1998: I am unaware of any benefit. “brings us closer” is a statement that it has not yet been useful.

      2000: “will allow us to be more specific”, you write. The useful application to a major health problem, you seem to imply here, hasn’t yet happened. And it’s been 10 years since the prize.

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