Today's post, On Expressing Your Concerns was originally published on 27 December 2007. A summary (taken from the LW wiki):


A way of breaking the conformity effect in some cases

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But when two unconfident people form a group, it is polite to say nice and reassuring things, and impolite to question the other person's competence.

That somehow reminded me of a post on the Volokh Conspiracy about issue spotting more. There seems to be a tradition in law school teaching of drilling the pupils in spotting the issues. The law school drill seems to depart somewhat from how a lawyer practices after graduation in that the examination emphasizes identifying all the issues and writing them down to win marks.

Some of the issues are finely balanced. In a real case the judge's decision may hinge on how a particular statute is interpreted, or on a fact, not yet known to the lawyer. The law student is supposed to separate out those issues. Other issues on the exam are to be identified as reasonably clear, one way or the other. Later these judgments will assume their full crucial roll, but in the first year the student is practicing spotting the issues and having a first go at judging their importance. If you practice judging their importance you can get good at it, but if you are not spotting the issues in the first place you are somewhat stuck.

Another feature of the examination situation is that you are kept in the dark about which side your client is on. You don't know which side you are going to have to argue. You have to sketch the arguments for either sides. For full marks you will also need to give an appreciation as to which side has the stronger argument or whether things are balanced, but spotting what to argue over comes first.

The "law school issue spotting exam" strikes me as a distinctive mode, with some potential for combating pluralistic ignorance. The two people who are too polite to question each others competence can never-the-less put on their law-school hats (shark fins?) and do an issue-spot. I don't think that it has to fit into a legal framework, it is enough to imagine having to give a presentation to a third party. Perhaps one will be called to argue before Lord Yudkowsky that the project has a realistic time scale. Alternatively one could be called to argue that the project plan is over optimistic and will be late. The idea is to play the law school exam game, and make sure that one has spotted the issues.

Once issues have been spotted and written down, our two planners are over a social barrier. Will the package already written by programmer A prove to be full of bugs? Will the big, complicated API that programmer B has promised to master in a week turn out to be an incomprehensible mess. The issues have to be spotted or the pair will lose marks on the imaginary examination. But once they are out in the open, the social ice has been broken, and it becomes possible for A to say, "you know, my code could do with more testing", and B can reply: I'm glad you said that because I could do with a month of two to build a toy ap on top of the API, get the hang of the thing.