The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: tips

Logical fallacies

Logic is very important to law. Depending on who you ask it’s all there is to law. A problem that lawyers have is that they have somewhat given up the advantage of surprise the moment they say they’re a lawyer – I don’t know how effective emotive pleas are if they come from someone you know is being paid to say it regardless of their personal feelings. I think it takes the shine off it slightly. That leaves you with logical argument to persuade people with.

There are a lot of other areas where logic is also extremely important. Causation in science is probably the biggest example in normal life. Homoeopathy is getting a lot of attention lately as the low-hanging fruit of implausible alternative therapies and a lot is being made of the niggling issue that bruises which go away may not go away because of the infinitesimally small amount of water in which arsenic was dissolved but then diluted away you drank. The sceptic community is very vocal about people who use this sort of thing as proof that homoeopathy can cure everything.

“I feel it worked for me, therefore it works for everyone” is not good logic, it’s technically called “inductive logic” which is generally fine as long as you question your presumptions (eg, that it actually did work for you) and don’t rely on it too much. Of course, if your entire argument is extrapolating a major premise from a minor premise, stop and get a new argument. It probably won’t stand up very well. You can get away with it if no one challenges it but the problem with legal disputes is that someone generally does.

Theskepticguide.org have compiled a list of 20 of the most common logical fallacies that they experience. It’s really worth using them as cautionary tales so that you don’t end up getting stuck with an argument that cannot withstand scrutiny.

Ad hominem

An ad hominem argument is any that attempts to counter anothers claims or conclusions by attacking the person, rather than addressing the argument itself. True believers will often commit this fallacy by countering the arguments of skeptics by stating that skeptics are closed minded. Skeptics, on the other hand, may fall into the trap of dismissing the claims of UFO believers, for example, by stating that people who believe in UFO’s are crazy or stupid.

This is very common in normal life and I’ve fallen for this one myself – it’s very tempting to spend your time as a respondent proving that a claimant is a bad person who deserved what happens to them when actually what you need to do is look at what you’re required to prove under applicable law.

Slippery Slope

This logical fallacy is the argument that a position is not consistent or tenable because accepting the position means that the extreme of the position must also be accepted. But moderate positions do not necessarily lead down the slippery slope to the extreme.

Although this is a logical fallacy it is a perfectly acceptable policy argument. It is often within a court’s discretion to consider policy arguments, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable actually relying on it to any great extent just because it’s so vulnerable to questions like “yeah, but what if we don’t immediately go out and kill all the children?”. There’s a lot you can say in an essay that a court might do that a court might never actually do.

Tautology

tautology is an argument that utilizes circular reasoning, which means that the conclusion is also its own premise. The structure of such arguments is A=B therefore A=B, although the premise and conclusion might be formulated differently so it is not immediately apparent as such. For example, saying that therapeutic touch works because it manipulates the life force is a tautology because the definition of therapeutic touch is the alleged manipulation (without touching) of the life force.

I actually really disagree with this one, I think what they mean to say here is just “circular argument”. If you really can base your argument on a tautology you’re actually on excellent logical ground. A tautology is something that is necessarily true. A circular argument is terrible, unhelpful to you and should always be avoided but if you rely on something that logically has to be true (or the universe doesn’t work) you’re not going to be wrong about it. For example “an armed robber is a robber who has a weapon” is a tautology, which means that if you can prove (to the standard of proof) the two points of 1) he was a robber and 2) he had a weapon he must be an armed robber, if you’re prosecuting him for armed robbery this is exactly what you’re there to prove. I find it really helps me to work out what legal issues are at question if I actively try, as much as possible, to reduce all logical questions to tautologies.

Tu quoque

Literally, you too. This is an attempt to justify wrong action because someone else also does it. “My evidence may be invalid, but so is yours.”

As far as I’m concerned as a bright eyed, idealistic LLB student who sees the world in strictly black and white this is the worst thing ever. It turns out, surprisingly, that bad things can happen to bad people. There’s simply no good reason why someone who did something wrong shouldn’t be able to get legal remedy for wrongs done to them.

This is why, for example, Napier v Scottish Ministers was right to grant Article 3 relief to a prisoner who was held in inhuman conditions even though he was in jail (if I recall correctly he was even awaiting trial at that point – merely accused). There’s no good reason to breach the human rights of people held in jail. It doesn’t work to say “well, they’re bad so you can be bad to them.” That just doesn’t follow – it’s a tu quoque fallacy.

Unstated Major Premise

This fallacy occurs when one makes an argument which assumes a premise which is not explicitly stated. For example, arguing that we should label food products with their cholesterol content because Americans have high cholesterol assumes that: 1) cholesterol in food causes high serum cholesterol; 2) labeling will reduce consumption of cholesterol; and 3) that having a high serum cholesterol is unhealthy. This fallacy is also sometimes called begging the question.

This is an important one – it’s so important to challenge your own presumptions when you’re looking at any legal problem. I think the best example I ever had was a time I was (too) casually reading a hypothetical scenario and I assumed the guy did it and actually he hadn’t. As you might guess this had an effect on what my answer ended up being. Law school essays get around this, through IRAC, by very much encouraging you to spell everything out.

They have a much longer list at the above link that’s worth checking out.

But, on a personal note, the big one that annoys me more for reading comprehension reasons than any logical issues is:

Begging the question

(So annoying I’ve mentioned it twice)

This does not mean you need to immediately state the question that you think needs asked. When it says “beg” it doesn’t actually ask for the question, it just means someone is assuming a principle. It means that the other person hasn’t asked a question they should have asked, not that you need to suggest one.

“That begs the question – what colour is my bike?” is a pet peeve of mine. It just means that someone assumes your bike is yellow when they should investigate their foundational principles. It doesn’t mean you should tell them they should ask you what colour your bike is. Just say either “you’re begging the question there” or “you need to ask [x]” but avoid saying both.

H/T to Crispian Jago.

You might also want to check out the gripping blog of Diane Levin who every month, like clockwork, debunks a logical fallacy. I’ve covered it on the blog before and it’s excellent.

4dd6465fc78a86d0987870f88dffcb9c

Advertisements

Sky news explores the IT repair trade

IT repair

It is not uncommon for people who repair computers to do things which are relatively harmless but still pretty unethical – stealing your music, for example, is quite commonly done. While that is not particularly horrible it does sort of show the attitude in some repair shops to the customer’s data.

I take the view that computer repair is in no way a more privileged job than washing machine or TV repair people. Perhaps, given the much greater range of wrong doing with computer repair it is actually a less privileged job. You can do just about anything to a washing machine that you’re repairing but if you wander through a customer’s files you end up on thin ice.

The industry has the slightly uncomfortable set of affairs where the job is little understood but relatively easy. A lot of the job of IT repairs is taking prefabricated parts out of clearly marked slots and replacing them with nearly identical replacements. The design and manufacture of those parts are extremely difficult, make no mistake, but the installation gets easier nearly every year. That does not mean that it make any more sense to someone when their computer stops working but it means that nearly anyone could be an IT repair guy and there’s absolutely no vetting.

Computers are unique for their ability to take a really significant chunk of your innermost life and make it both quickly accessible and very copyable. Without the Sky News investigation the worst I thought would happen is that my MP3s and videos would get copied into some monolithic tower of hard drives in the heart of the secretive repair lab. It turns out that rather worse things could happen.

The investigation

Sky News apparently asked PC Pro (a Dennis publishing computing enthusiast magazine) readers for horror stories of “rogue traders” and then they set up a honeypot laptop – they loaded it with folders marked “Private” and filled with bank details, pictures etc. They then filled it to the gunwales with spyware that would record what the technicians did, what they clicked or typed, what files they accessed and would take periodic pictures with the integrated webcam.

To create a simple, painless and easily remedied error they loosened a memory chip on the motherboard so that it would incompletely boot and give an error message. To fix this you would open the bottom panel, take the stick of RAM out, blow on the connectors (it really works!) and put it back in. At that point the computer would work again.

The problem, as I hope I have shown, was not rocket science and for people doing this day in, day out it should not have posed a great challenge.

Sky News discovered that the shops investigated were not keeping up the professional end of the deal. One of the shops presumably tried to turn it on, read the messages, fixed the problem and handed the computer back to the stunned Sky News researchers within minutes – that is to their great credit. While they didn’t charge this is up to the people involved. I would see no problem with charging for the work done, it’s not a lot of work but it’s still someone doing their job.

The other shops were much less ethical – they all managed to fix the fault quickly enough, but generally diagnosed a motherboard fault and charged for a replacement part. This is like charging a car owner for a new engine if you’ve tightened some screws. They also returned to the fully functional computer to see what they could get out of the hard drive – the folder marked “Private” becoming a very tempting target. The folder contained photos of the researcher wearing a bikini – which Sky (and Dennis) faithfully reproduced in the final reports – which was faithfully copied to a collection of similar photos on a technician’s USB drive.

The most worrying thing, and the most serious offence, was the repairman who then used some (fabricated) bank details on the laptop to attempt to gain access to a Net West bank account. Since the details were false the man was unable to access the account but that did not stop him trying for several minutes. God alone knows what he would have done if he had gained access but I think we really have to consider that attempted fraud.

Computers may seem like magic, and for a large part that’s what they are, but the IT repair industry should not get any extra leniency when it goes too far than any other repair industry. Now – where are the police investigations into this misconduct?

This sort of wrong doing hurts me more as a (fingers crossed) future professional than as a computer enthusiast. I’ve never used a computer repair shop, I’ve never had to. My parents sent our first Mac off to Applecare (and that held my games and my sister’s university thesis, not personal photos and bank details) and I’ve always just been able to muddle through since. However, not everyone has spent so much of their childhood spurning sunlight and perhaps can’t do their own repairs.

One big reason for why you might send your computer off to be repaired, even if you can fix it yourself, is that you’re too busy. High flying corporate lawyers working 70 hour weeks can hardly come home, get out their mini screwdrivers and fix their laptop after a hard day at work. They might desperately need their computer for work. In that case paying someone to repair it for you would be extremely tempting. If you are a high flying corporate lawyer your laptop might well contain suitably high flying private data and you hardly want your hard drive cloned (copied in full) in a repair shop.

The best ways to get around this are to keep personal data off your computer and on an external drive but this is a Herculean task since personal data is nearly everything you do on a computer. There is always the option of taking the hard drive out – if you can – but the hard drive can often be the fault that needs fixed. You may want to not let it out of your sight, you can get call out tech support that comes to you but this is expensive. The corporate lawyer in my example might be able to get it fixed by inhouse tech support at his firm, but that’s a long shot for most of us.

Beyond that encryption is quite sensible, but this needs to beat a bored, curious IT professional and that’s quite a substantial test. It may also work out that you need to let people look at your computer logged in and working. Encryption does not equal logon password (which is no protection at all), although my disc encryption (on Linux) is tied into that password prompt.

I think the best protection is taking the same measures as Sky News, recording what files are accessed, what’s clicked on, what’s typed etc. I don’t think you can take photos of them without their consent no matter what sort of crime they’re committing – the police actually gave me a warning for this over the summer. Sky News gets away with it because it’s a huge company and it gets to use the “public interest” journalism defence but I don’t know if individuals would, especially since most technicians won’t try to do something blatantly illegal like hacking your bank account. This stinks of closing the door after the horse has bolted but at least this means you can show what happened and that’s quite a useful measure in your defence. After all, you’ve not left your laptop on the train, you’ve brought it to a shop to be fixed.

Unexpectedly obvious Amazon item

Although I should technically be studying my poor, abused eyes off for my upcoming exams I’m clearly not (I’d guess a reader could see that, because I’m typing a blog post, that fact speaks for itself) and instead I’m browsing notebooks on Amazon. Along side the various commercial forms of “blank paper in a book” which is in equal parts confusing as a product (you pay what for blank pages?!) and utterly compelling when you realise how handy they are was a traditional printed book by Dan Price, it’s called “How to make a journal of your life.”

I don’t keep a journal, I should probably admit this in advance, but I think I might know how I would make a journal of my life – I’d get a journal and I’d write about my life in it. I know I got into university and everything but I didn’t even have to try there. I’m being facetious but does this point to a culture that needs HOWTO books about everything?

The book appears to mainly be about why you would write a journal rather than actually how you go about it and that’s a good message. No lesser a being than Socrates said that, “the unreflected life is not worth living” and the journal is a good tool for that.

All this being said – is it £9 (less thanks to Amazon’s sales) worth of good message and tips? I suspect it probably is over a lifetime, really, and no one is forcing anyone to buy against their wi

Eugh

I’ve made a rather major mistake. This is what I write an anonymous blog for – it’s not anonymous for my successes, I’d much rather my successes were projected onto the moon but it’s the mistakes and the “non-successes” and controversial news that anonymity’s good for. I’m about to give the reader an object lesson in keeping on top of your uni work.

I was 2 days late with my holiday assignment. That’s not the end of the world but it’s a big thing at uni, that’s a 10% deduction right off the bat. I took a very relaxing and unproductive Christmas break assuming that my one piece of imminent written work was straight forward and short and could be dealt with quickly and I would be able to pretend that my break was more intellectual and less lazy and fattening than it happened to be.

It was not. I came home from a lovely weekend away the morning before it was due and looked over it. It was gargantuan and meandered across three vastly different areas of law. I swore, loudly, because there was nothing else I could really do.

I then gritted my teeth and sat up until it was done, as it happens that was two days of solid 4 hours sleep one night, none the next toil, and grabbing food to eat at my desk. The room I’m sitting in currently is a bomb site with plates and cups strewn around sitting on top of open books and a sleeping bag in the corner and I’m only just calmed down enough to start tidying it up.

The desk’s surface is inexplicably covered in a detailed pencil study of a tree I can see from my window that was drawn at a particularly bleak point around dawn this morning that saw me hit a wall. It’s actually rather beautiful and I’m much prouder of it than I am the assignment.

It’s very grim. I have read enough to produce a treatise on three areas of law and then boiled it down to produce an essay far short of the word limit (read: word suggestion), that and the long hours staring at a computer screen have left my eyes bloodshot and weepy and I’ve never appreciated being able to sleep more in a long time. I can’t sleep though, I’m still feeling far too flush with adrenaline from trying to make it to the deadline (or at least before I ended up 3 days late) and that’s why I handed in such a small effort. I checked the delivery status of my assignment with my heart in my mouth and then I immediately got up to stand under the shower for 40 minutes.

I’m concerned because this is one of my feared “professional subjects” – the ones that decide your application to the post graduate Diploma in Legal Practice that’s pretty much a required step for the wannabe lawyer and the assignment was for a great deal more of the total mark than my other subjects and not only do these grades affect your entry to the diploma, they also affect the quality of the scholarships you may or may not qualify for. It’s a very expensive couple of months and a scholarship’s not to be sniffed at. As it happens I get my undergraduate degree fees paid for by Mr Salmond, if I’m honest I’d much rather he paid for my post graduate studies because I can much easier meet the subsidised fees I get written off by the SAAS each year.

Flunking an assignment for a professional subject isn’t the end of the world but it’s stressful and a needless headache if you had weeks with not much in the way of university obligations and it’s a task to make up the difference in the written exam later on if, really, you could have avoided it by just working through the new Jonathan Creek (although it was quite good) and Wallace and Gromit (which was its quirky, nostalgic, British golden self) . There’s a few subjects that you want to make sure you actually pass – your big credit earning ones, your professional subject and anything you took because a professional regulatory body told you to. This class here happened to be all three.

And when I say “you” what I mean is “me.”

My advice to any and all students is:

  1. Read your assignments over, not just the question but also the other bits of helpful paper you’re given.
    I thought I was dealing with a cute problem solving scenario to tear through using the textbook, Westlaw and the 4 part structure right until I discovered I was supposed to make it  the length of a small book the day I was supposed to send it to be marked.
  2. Have a diary or calendar that you use every day.
    I personally use my mobile phone’s calendar which lets me plug in all the dates that I’d possibly need (I’m not that busy a person 😉 ) and I’ve set it up to remind me either the week before or the day before before every appointment. It’s crazy and it’s over kill but it means that I know when I need to drag the sleeping bag under the computer desk. This particular assignment was left out in a memory full bug that was cured a good bit after the homework had slipped my mind and I thought it wasn’t due in until next week.
  3. Have a backup diary that won’t run out of memory at the worst possible time.
    I know, it’s incredibly tedious keeping a handwritten diary up to date but if I did it better I’d be sitting here thinking how generally smug I was that I got my coursework in on time.
  4. Be honest that you (meaning I) have the impulse control of a crack addict when it comes to doing anything that isn’t schoolwork.
    Sometimes, even if you’re even the most ardent law fan (as I like to think I am) you’ll realise that the holidays with all the friends who moved away to other towns coming home and seeing family and all the other parts of holidays is just much better than sitting reading the works of the institutional writers in an all-too empty library until your eyes start to puff up. Bite the bullet and get any work you need done, done. Then sit back and think how smug you get to be about it. One of my friends gets her assignments done at least 2 weeks before the due date and I’ve known her two years now and I still think she must have the discipline needed to only take one After 8 mint and I admire her in the same way I admire astronauts. That’s a bad sign. I’m great at reading but not so good at sitting down and doing the written work, try and get a balance in your own studies.