Profs. Epstein and Martin Share Expertise with International Group of Scholars at Empirical Workshop

About 30 law school faculty, political science faculty, and graduate students representing eight countries and seven states recently attended the 13th Annual Conducting Empirical Legal Scholarship Workshop at Washington University School of Law.

Led by empirical scholars Lee Epstein, the Ethan A.H. Shepley Distinguished University Professor, and Andrew Martin, the Charles Nagel Chair of Constitutional Law and Political Science and director of the Center for Empirical Research in the Law (CERL), the three-day conference provided the formal training necessary to conduct empirical research. 

After an overview of empirical research from Epstein, participants took part in sessions on designing research, collecting and recording data, statistical software, the logic of statistical inference, and data analysis. “Scientific research is full of choices, and those choices have consequences,” Epstein said. “You are always making judgment calls when you are trying to determine something like how ideology affects a judge’s decisions.”

That’s exactly what Pedro Buck, a PhD student at the Universidade São Paulo in Brazil, is researching. “There was a lot of useful information provided about how to manage databases, use statistical software, and make inferences from that information,” Buck said.

For Chunyan Ding, an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong School of Law, the conference provided information that will be helpful to her in her work on tort and medical law, but she believes it will benefit legal scholars working in any area. “It was very useful, and the lecturers were easy to follow. The classroom assistants were also helpful,” she added.

However, as Martin pointed out, even the best-designed empirical research project can be “messy.”

“The question that interests you is almost always not the one that you wanted to have answered,” he said. “With empirical research, you see a description of something like the relationship between voting and ideology, but saying why that’s the case is difficult. The process is very hard, so understanding how to make inferences from data is critical.”

 Timothy J. Fox, Summer 2014