Sunday, July 20, 2008

Wisdom vs. Knowledge vs. Information

Many people can said that we are in an "information age." We now have access to more facts than we ever have had in the past. Yet we are surrounded by spectacularly unwise people. This is because information is nothing until it is used. It is like potential energy; a piece of firewood. Raw facts need to be first known, and then applied, in order to be useful - this is wisdom.

Let's start with some definitions:

Wisdom is the "quality of being wise; knowledge, and the capacity to make due use of it; knowledge of the best ends and the best means; discernment and judgment; discretion; sagacity; skill; dexterity."

Knowledge can be defined as the "act or state of knowing; clear perception of fact, truth, or duty; certain apprehension; familiar cognizance; cognition."

simply is "any fact or set of facts, knowledge, news, or advice."

Paul Graham has written a very interesting essay on the differences between wisdom and intelligence. There is a good discussion of his argument over at the Volokh Conspiracy blog. Essentially, Graham argues that "a wise person knows what to do in most situations, while a smart person knows what to do in situations where few others could." He explains:
"Wise" and "smart" are both ways of saying someone knows what to do. The difference is that "wise" means one has a high average outcome across all situations, and "smart" means one does spectacularly well in a few. . . . As knowledge gets more specialized . . . intelligence and wisdom drift apart, [and] we may have to decide which we prefer. We may not be able to optimize for both simultaneously.
I would distinguish his argument somewhat, since I believe information and knowledge are prerequisites to wisdom, while intelligence is something qualitatively different. Intelligence, in my opinion, is best defined as the "capacity to know or understand; readiness of comprehension; the intellect, as a gift or an endowment." In other words, intelligence is an ability, and it is nothing until it is exercised. Many, if not most of us, know very intelligent people who make very bad decisions. Wisdom, on the other hand, is defined by its application - it is kinetic - since it is the application of known information. Intelligence goes hand-in-hand with this process, as intelligence is a measure of capacity to know or understand. Wisdom is the process.

Information is great. Knowing lots of information can be helpful. But we need wisdom to sort it all out. Some level of intelligence is necessary but not sufficient in order to be wise. And, the Information Age, with its ease of access to information, makes it too easy to set aside knowledge, as we don't need to remember things anymore, we can just look them up any time on our Blackberrys or iPhones. Let's just be intelligent about it, and not forget about wisdom.

Uncomfortably Numb

I watched the movie Garden State for the first time recently. I felt rather depressed while watching it. Afterwards, I tried to figure out why I felt this way. If you haven't watched it, I have two pieces of advice: don't watch it unless you are feeling rather invulnerable, and, don't the rest of this post until you read the plot synopsis.

For one thing, the protagonist, Andrew Largeman, is numb to life for a number of reasons. The relevant ones for me were, first, his guilt about his mother - a less significant reason, I'd argue; second, his medication - lithium; and third, his lack of direction in life - arguably a result of the first two factors.

Andrew's numbness eventually ends, partly because he stops taking lithium, but mostly, he is thawed by the warmth of life when he meets an eccentric girl (not the best description, but oh well) and falls for her. The redeeming power of love is grand.

Andrew's situation, however, seems to be shared, to some extent or another, by many people today. The one example I have in mind is medication, specifically, anti-depressants. I think medications that interfere with the mind's chemistry are far more potent than our doctors want to admit, especially when taken for long periods of time. In Andrew's case, he took lithium for 16 years, beginning when he was 10 years old.

I do not believe that anti-depressants and other similar substances are useless per se. I believe they can help some people very much. I do believe, however, that too many people take them while ignoring the underlying causes of their depression. Doctors are partly to blame for this; there is a trend today to prescribe drugs to treat a symptom without seeking out the underlying bad habits that cause the illness. Just look at the plethora of prescription advertisements in today's media.

Moreover, many college students struggle with depression while simultaneously maintaining drinking habits that can only be described as alcoholism. Consumption of alcohol to the extent many of us did in college alters the brain's chemistry. This often makes people prone to, if it does not outright cause, depression. Oftentimes, doctors prescribe anti-depressants without simultaneously recommending reducing alcohol consumption. Even if doctors do make such a recommendation, once someone begins taking anti-depressants, they rarely stop. They may switch medications, but because the withdrawal process is often very difficult, and depression inducing in and of itself, they usually remain on medication for a long if not indefinite period of time.

I've struggled with depression in the past, although it was never too serious. I think that much of it was caused by messing with my brain's chemistry with alcohol, bad diet, and the general roller coaster of emotion that defines college for many of us. Speaking of roller coasters, I think that depression, to some extent, is to be expected in life, especially in college. Many of us had life pretty easy up to that point, and the crushed expectations, confusing situations, and academic stress often lead to depression. If depression is natural, perhaps we should try first to control it naturally before bringing out the big guns of medication.

Anti-depressants, I would argue, function as an override switch on the brain. Therefore, they should only be used when someone is irretrievably depressed. Furthermore, because anti-depressants are often used for a long time, and their long term effects are not well known, there is a significant risk to prescribing them for what is often a short-term problem.

Going back to Garden State, we of course have extreme example: Andrew took lithium for 16 years, beginning when he was 10 years old. His father, a psychiatrist, prescribed it because Andrew was having issues coping with the fact that he accidentally caused his mother to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. Any behavioral problems a 10 year old might have are most likely short term, and should not be controlled with something as potent as lithium. I could argue here against giving ADD/ADHD drugs to young people, but let's save that for another post.

Bottom line is that the medical profession is too prone to solving problems with pills, and that if we rely on doctors to solve all our problems, we risk ending up like Andrew Largeman was before he providentially left his lithium prescription behind in L.A.

Postscript: Another problem I did not discuss is that most doctors are very much like sheep when it comes to proposing cures. This innate medical conservatism will be the subject of a later post.


I saw this scribbling on the wall of the men's toilet stall at a Starbucks in downtown Boston:
"Drinking fancy coffee does not make you more intelligent."

Minimum Legal Proficiency?

Joe Arpaio is the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. He is well-known for being tough on crime, is somewhat controversial. I'm very much in favor of not releasing inmates because of overcrowding, and so forth. Some of his tactics, however, seem a bit unorthodox, but who am I to judge.

Today, however, I read this article, in which Sheriff Joe, while discussing his recent arrest of rapper DMX, shares his opinion on bail and presumptions of innocence.
"He's back in jail again," Arpaio said. "I don't know why judges keep letting this guy out. Every time he goes in there, he gets out on bond.

"I'm hoping this is the one time he's going to pay the penalty for his offense," he added.

Arpaio said the bail had not been set in the recent arrest.

If DMX remains jailed, the sheriff said, he would be isolated from the rest of the inmates for his own safety.

"They may not like his music," he said.
We must remember that our justice system assumes people are innocent until proven guilty. During a suspect's trip through the system, we require increasingly greater degrees of proof at each step on the way to a conviction. First, an arrest simply means that police had probable cause to believe the person committed a crime. Warrants are often not required, and probable cause simply means "a reasonable belief."

Indictments have to be based on legally sufficient evidence that is admissible at trial, and of course, guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The point is that an arrest by no means shows guilt. It simply means that an officer reasonably believed the suspect committed a crime

Where does bail come in? When Sheriff Joe says, "I don't know why judges keep letting this guy out. Every time he goes in there, he gets out on bond," he is displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of how bail law works. The general presumption is that bail must be granted, except for particularly violent crimes, or if the suspect poses a flight risk. In most states, judges have to release someone on bail if they don't fit in either of those categories. As long as DMX doesn't have a history of not showing up for his court dates and so forth, he has a right to bail. Those judges have simply been discharging their constitutional duties.

Furthermore, when Sheriff Joe states, "I'm hoping this is the one time he's going to pay the penalty for his offense," he again does not appear to understand that there is a difference, as far as the presumption of guilt is concerned, between an arrest and a conviction.

I could go on, but I need to go study Wills, Trusts, and NY Civil Procedure today.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Good Joke

When I was home this past weekend, my mom told me a joke she had heard recently, which combined two aspects of my life - the viola and practicing law.
Q. How is a viola like a lawsuit?
A. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief when the case is closed.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Coffee Wars

This article is about a guy who walked into an independent coffee shop in the D.C. area, and ordered an espresso over ice. The barista "scolded him, saying that what he was doing to his espresso was 'not okay' and that the store's policy was to preserve the integrity of the drink."

My visceral reaction is that the barista and the coffee shop acted in a snobby and inappropriate manner. Customers should be able to, within reason, get their drinks to their liking. On the other hand, customers should realize there are limits to what they can request.

This can be illustrated by analogy to certain restaurants that offer only a single menu for dinner each evening - a table d’hôte. Diners understand that when they eat there, they must trust the chef's judgment for the most part. If they don't like that, they can go to another restaurant that offers a choice-based menu - a menu à la carte - trusting the chef's judgment to a lesser extent. In other words, for a table d’hôte, the diner has very little discretion, whereas for a menu à la carte, the diner expects reasonably broad discretion.

The problem is that most consumers, myself included, place coffee shops in the category of choice-based menus, not the single menu group. This leads us to expect that we can order coffee to our liking, subject only to a reasonableness standard. The D.C. coffee shop in the article is too close to the table d’hôte, and coffee, the style of which often considered to be a very personal preference, is inappropriate subject matter for this sort of menu.

The D.C. coffee shop is, in some way that is intuitively, but not rationally apparent to me, the inverse of the situation posed in this cartoon:

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Study Moods

This quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is apt as the bar exam approaches:

He was so weary after a whole month of concentrated wretchedness and gloomy excitement that he longed to rest, if only for a moment, in some other world, whatever it might be, and in spite of the filthiness of the surroundings, he was glad now to stay in the tavern.

Bar Exam

I am currently studying for the New York and Massachusetts bar exams.

Those who share my misery have helpfully sent me some links to some amusing material.

This is a video of a country-style music video entitled "Bar Exam."

This is a rant about the often absurd and ancient subjects tested on the bar exam.

Humor will often preserve sanity. But it is important to remember that "humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process. . ." Leonard v. Pepsico, 88 F.Supp.2d 116 (S.D.N.Y. 1999).