Methodological Belief and Doubt


What happens when we undertake pure doubt or pure belief—consciously, systematically, explicitly, and with discipline? Author and English teacher Peter Elbow originally asked this question in his writing and literature courses, developing useful techniques he named “Methodological Doubt” and “Methodological Belief.” He would occasionally encourage his students to purposefully and completely believe or doubt a given interpretation of, say, Hamlet or Othello—or another student’s minority opinion. The goal was for students to use their artificially believing or doubting mindset to identify strengths or weaknesses in an argument that they might otherwise overlook.

Jean was first introduced to the concepts of Methodological Belief and Methodological Doubt by her collaborator, Mark Weisberg, of Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, with whom she has worked on presentations, retreats, and a book about teaching. In a number of settings, Jean, first with Mark, then with Sue Bryant, has since applied the concept to legal teaching and practice. They have explored Methodological Doubt and Belief as cross-cultural tools for surfacing and examining assumptions, and as teaching tools for talking about race, which can be used by lawyers, clinical teachers, and clinical students.

We agree with Elbow that both methodological doubt and methodological belief together, but only together, can ensure rigorous legal thinking.

A Deeper Look

Because we are unaccustomed to looking closely at our own patterns of doubting and believing, lawyers often treat their own doubts, beliefs, and their clients’ credibility as fixed and objective realities in the world. Methodological Doubt and Belief, along with the doubting and believing spectrum, confront lawyers with the reality that doubt and belief are subjective, part of the lawyer’s inner process, and as such, potentially fraught with assumption and bias. The methods equip the lawyer to treat doubt and belief as objects of choice in the moment and complementaries to be balanced out in the future, helping lawyers destabilize bias and patterns of spontaneous doubting and believing.

This ability to challenge assumptions especially matters in cross-cultural encounters, where privilege, stereotype, class, and the like can easily shape what narratives we find credible or dubious. Unlike the Doubting and Believing Spectrum, Methodological Doubt and Belief do not seek to identify or evaluate natural or spontaneous belief and doubt. Instead, the methods ask the lawyer to approach interpretations, events, actions, testimony, and more through consciously adopted doubt and consciously adopted belief. By asking the doubting mind to believe, or the believing mind to doubt, the lawyer can identify assumptions which might be contributing to spontaneous doubt and belief, as well as expand her understanding of those who assess credibility differently than she does.

Peter Elbow argued that “careful thinking or reasoned inquiry” required “two central ingredients”: both Methodological Doubt and Methodological Belief. Methodological Doubt is the “systematic, disciplined, and conscious attempt to criticize everything no matter how compelling it might seem—to find flaws or contradictions we might otherwise miss.” Peter Elbow, EMBRACING CONTRARIES 257 (1986). Methodological Belief, on the other hand, is “the equally systematic, disciplined, and conscious attempt to believe everything no matter how unlikely or repellent it might seem—to find virtues or strengths we might otherwise miss.” Id. The two techniques, together, are necessary for good thinking, and good lawyering. And—importantly—both are methods, “artificial, systematic, and disciplined uses of the mind.” Id. at 437. As methods, Elbow argued, “they help us see what we would miss if we only used our minds naturally or spontaneously.” Id. at 258.

Elbow’s writing and pedagogy focused on Methodological Belief, since Methodological Doubt is already such a pervasive feature of academic culture. We have similarly focused on Methodological Belief with our own law students, since legal culture is, if anything, even more enamored of the way of doubt. This is not to undervalue Methodological Doubt; again, both Methods are essential. When “the doubting game works well,” writes Elbow, “it is a lively and energetic process. . . . People are having fun wrestling. In effect, they agree to find faults with each other’s positions in order to sharpen the group’s thinking.” Id. at 288. But legal and academic discourse already reflect the value that ‘rigor’ is achieved by subjecting ideas to the white-hot fire of aggressive negative scrutiny. Lawyers often argue that the conflict of ideas, and the intensity of hostile cross-examination, is the way to surface the finest, strongest ideas and stories. For law students, this double-barreled endorsement of Methodological Doubt alone risks skewing their entire approach to balanced legal thinking and thorough legal representation. As a result, like Elbow, we typically find that our students do not need any more practice with Methodological Doubt. (On the other hand, we have found that some clinical students, in particular, can be predisposed towards “believing,” a practice that serves them well in the early parts of a representation. In those cases, we may need to bring Methodological Doubt back into the mix, especially later in the representation.)

Methodological Belief asks the student or lawyer to “actually try[] to believe any view or hypothesis that a participant seriously wants to advance.” Id. at 260. “[T]o see and experience the text” as someone else does. Id. at 259. In other words, Methodological Belief is not just about polite listening, agreeing to disagree, or merely accepting a premise as true. Instead, Methodological Belief asks a thinker to envision what a believer would see—to explore that world in its fullness, and consider its implications. “What makes this process different from most academic inquiry,” writes Elbow, “is that we are not trying to construct or defend an argument but rather to transmit an experience, to enlarge a vision.” at 261. Read “believer” to include a fellow student, a client, the clinical teacher, a judge, or even opposing counsel, and you can begin to see the range of applications for Methodological Belief.

In class, Elbow suggests using Methodological Belief through a “five-minute rule,” where a group agrees to withhold any criticism of—and to actively try to believe—any given opinion for five minutes. Id. at 274. More specifically, Elbow offers a few questions that can be very helpful in deploying purposeful believing: “What’s interesting or helpful about the view? What are some intriguing features that others might not have noticed? What would you notice if you believed this view? If it were true? In what senses or under what conditions might this idea be true?” Id. at 275. Just as Methodological Doubt helps you see flaws in an argument you were not aware of, so too Methodological Belief helps you see strengths in an argument you might have missed.

Elbow notes that participants often fear “giving in” to a belief, but that Methodological Belief is simply “accepting your colleague’s interpretation for a few moments as though correct,” and nothing more. Id. at 281. Still, it is very important to be aware that Methodological Belief requires some level of trust among participants—and sensitivity about what beliefs you are asking your students to try on, even if only for a moment. While Elbow has encouraged his students to play the doubting and believing “games,” we offer the friendly amendment to consider them “serious games.” Asking someone to doubt something they deeply believe, or believe something they deeply doubt, is a significant request.

We have found that believing something you naturally doubt can make you feel foolish, or gullible. Doubting something you naturally believe can feel like a betrayal, a descent into cynicism. Of course, we are suggesting that you try Methodological Doubt or Belief—and in doing so take them seriously and count their costs. They are incredibly powerful tools for thinking; just like any other tool, they may not be right for every job. Before deploying Methodological Belief or Doubt, be aware of what you are asking who to believe and why?

Using Methodological Doubt and Belief

Generally, Methodological Doubt and Belief are useful in both group and smaller clinical legal settings. In class, try Methodological Doubt and Belief to balance out any group patterns in doubting and believing. For groups with common defaults (they tend to be doubters, or believers), we can deploy Methodological Doubt or Belief to purposefully rebalance our thinking. Methodological Doubt and Belief can also aid in introducing new theories in class, group discussions, case rounds, trainings, and be a useful technique in complicated and fraught moments of talking about race. In smaller settings, we have especially found the methods to be useful in client interviews, client moots, and supervisions. In both settings, Methodological Doubt and Belief can work especially well with students, lawyers, and other professionals familiar with the Five Habits.

Class Discussions

We have usefully employed Methodological Doubt and Methodological Belief in classroom discussions in the seminar portion of our clinics. Sue’s students, for instance, regularly read foundational, but also deeply provocative texts in class. Asking students to engage in Methodological Belief for some portion of the class discussion allows a full understanding of the author’s ideas, something Sue asks even her believing students to do. In her asylum seminar, Jean has led a class whose explicit purpose was to equip students with as full an understanding as possible of all of the perspectives in a hotly contested and public legal debate, the international child custody and immigration debate surrounding Elián González in 2000. Jean required various students to take on roles and engage for a portion of the class in Methodological Belief of a position they found difficult. Finally, Methodological Doubt and Belief can help a class briefly but intensively explore a position strongly held by a few in the group.

In the same way, a teacher can use Methodological Doubt and Belief to balance out a class with largely uniform views. In fraught moments, Methodological Doubt and Belief can be used to reveal the visions of both sides. Of course, this must be done with great care not disproportionately to burden already vulnerable students discussing painful issues of great personal resonance. The teacher can also use Methodological Belief to focus attention on a particular important view, before taking the class in a different direction.

We generally introduce students to Methodological Belief and Doubt as part of a class that introduces students to all three approaches to thinking about belief and doubt. To do this we use a hypothetical that students can identify belief and doubt at rest and in motion. After they have established a final position on the belief and doubt spectrum. If we are short on time, we might ask them to engage Methodological Doubt if they ended up on the belief side of the scale and ask them to engage in methodological belief if they ended up on the doubting side of the scale. Alternatively, we might assign half the room to doubt systematically and half to believe. Our debrief includes two different threads: (1) what new information or perspective did they recognize and (2) how did they feel about engaging in this type of thinking? Was it comfortable? Do they naturally tend to one or the other? See the attached PowerPoint, for further development of the set up and debrief.

One student teacher sought to demystify the terms “METHODOLOGICAL DOUBT AND BELIEF” by writing the phrase on the board and editing it to read “METHODOLOGICAL ^Purposefully trying on pure^ DOUBT AND ^pure^ BELIEF” One of his classmates noted to Jean that this was a stroke of teaching clarity, remembering it as a highpoint of the semester which created the moment that the whole concept clicked for him.

Case Rounds

We ask students who are presenting case materials, including draft briefs, affidavits, and similar documents, to specify artificial levels of doubt or belief for their classmates and teachers to put on in considering the merits of their client’s case. For instance, a confident student on the eve of trial may ask for Methodological Doubt to confirm that she has anticipated all attacks on cross-examination; a student presenting her first draft of an affidavit may ask for Methodological Belief as she seeks fully to inhabit and understand her client’s narrative.


Like Parallel Universe Thinking, Methodological Doubt and Belief can be undertaken at any time to take supervisory conversations out of stuck places, or ruts. For instance, a student undergoing an array of reactions about a client’s puzzling behavior could engage in Methodological Belief about the client’s own explanation for the behavior. Students who automatically default to believing could be asked to engage in Methodological Doubt concerning their client’s case prospects before committing to (or even planning) an action strategy. Making Methodological Doubt and Belief a normal, regularly expected part of the supervision conversation allows student lawyers to make important decisions only after considering the issue through balanced, rigorous thinking.

Client Interviews

One piece of advice we regularly offered our new clinical students is to initially approach their clients in a believing mode. Initial interviews alternate between gathering facts and building rapport; using Methodological Belief during their first encounters helps a new lawyer to establish rapport, to take seriously her client’s felt and presented views, and to hear and understand as a whole a client’s story before asking critical or clarifying questions. Yet, as their relationship progresses, it would be inappropriate for a lawyer to maintain a purely believing mode in her listening. Extrinsic evidence may contradict or make her skeptical about her client’s position, and the client must be confronted with concerns about his case. Clients themselves reported to us that they felt better when they heard all the arguments against them. (Still, Methodological Belief provides a good place to start.) We urge students to make sure that they have considered their case from all vantage points on the Doubting/Believing Spectrum before they deem the case ready for an adjudicator.

Client Moots

Eventually, the client must be prepared for skeptical adversaries, fact-finders, and decision-makers. Since we naturally tend to the believing end of the spectrum with clients and students, we regularly had to engage in purposeful—that is, Methodological—doubt. With the client’s agreement and participation, we offered moots and simulated administrative interviews and cross-examinations so that the client can experience the kind of doubt and skepticism she might face before a judge or administrative officer. Jean often described the Doubting and Believing Spectrum to clients preparing for an asylum interview, explained to clients where she believed the average asylum officer would naturally fall, and then asked her client to choose what level of doubt or belief they wanted her to show as the simulated officer in an interview. While a mixed level of doubt and belief is the most common situation they would actually face, most clients chose to simulate an officer showing close to pure, Methodological Doubt first. Typically, Jean performed the client’s requested methodologically-doubting moot, and would then request that a later moot feature a simulated officer closer to the actual norm. After practicing with methodologically-doubting officers, Jean’s clients would regularly tease her after the actual interview, for being “so much harder than the real thing!”

Trainings & Activities

Whether with students, administrators, lawyers, or other teachers, Methodological Doubt and Belief can be very helpful components of trainings or class activities. For example, in trainings with USCIS asylum officers, Jean has urged the officers to consider Methodological Doubt and Belief as tools in their asylum interviews. One useful activity is to review a fact pattern with the trainees, then practice applying Methodological Belief and Doubt. Methodological Doubt can be described as: “Considering the [applicant’s/client’s] account and doubting everything, no matter how compelling it might seem, to find flaws or contradictions we might otherwise miss.” Methodological Belief can be described as: “Considering the [applicant’s/client’s] account and believing everything, no matter how unlikely or repellant it might seem, to find virtues or strengths we might otherwise miss.” It is helpful to practice this skill oneself—but also to see how others might respond. As a result, we will often have students or trainees perform one of the tools on their own, and the other as a group. For instance, everyone might individually come up with a list of the account’s strengths through Methodological Belief, then brainstorm as a group the account’s weaknesses through Methodological Doubt. Jean also suggested to officers that, once they had reached a preliminary decision on the merits, they test their conclusion by applying Methodological Belief to the opposite conclusion.

Pairing With the Habits

Methodological Belief and Doubt pair well with each of the Habits. For instance, in Habit One, a student who finds very little overlap with the client’s world could apply Methodological Belief towards understanding the client’s divergent life experience and story to counteract the tendency to judge more harshly those who are “outsiders.” Similarly, a lawyer who identifies closely with the client could use Methodological Doubt to avoid automatically crediting a story with so many resonances to his own, or assuming that the reason something is true for the client is the same reason something is true for the lawyer. In Habit Two, lawyers representing clients with weak legal claims must understand fully the perspectives of a totally doubting forum (Methodological Doubt). But then, the lawyer must use Methodological Belief to explore the possibility of extending or altering the law’s view of merit. Habit Three can be enriched by demanding both Doubting and Believing parallel universes in times of minimal information. Similarly, Habit Four brainstorming, which is so steeped in parallel universe thinking, would benefit from a balanced strategizing about communication. Communication styles of the client that provoke negative instinctual responses should be explored with Methodological Belief; views about charismatic clients whom the lawyer fully believes should at some point be subjected to Methodological Doubt. In Habit Five, a lawyer struggling to think nonjudgmentally about himself after a cross-cultural breakdown can engage in Methodological Belief about his commitment to cross-cultural respect and his attempts to do his best in complex cultural situations, to help generate constructive ideas for bettering his conduct in the future. Finally, the methods often reveal new ideas that can be a source of reflection to gain self-knowledge about our instinctual thinking. Self-knowledge is a key goal of Habit Five.


Methodological Doubt and Belief reinforce nonjudgment, by converting the doubt and belief experienced by the lawyer into adopted actions. Our natural, unexamined tendencies to doubt or believe wield inordinate force in our judgments, conclusions, and perspectives on the truth. Methodological Belief opens possibilities, sparks new insights, assists different perspectives, and generates creative ideas for legal representation. Methodological Belief can also cultivate greater empathy in the lawyer for the client and her situation and move the lawyer closer to the client’s authentic story. The focus in this webpage has been on Methodological Belief only because there is a common misconception and practice among lawyers and students that rigorous thinking requires doubt alone. This should not be replaced with another misconception: that rigorous thinking requires belief alone. Both are necessary. We have to be active at both ends of the Doubting/Believing Spectrum, often methodologically—that is, by choice. Indeed, Methodological Doubt and Methodological Belief are practices that we believe many thoughtful and cross-culturally competent practitioners already use in their daily work. We encourage you to play with these ideas daily in your teaching and representation, and to develop new ways to employ these methods in service of stronger, less-biased, cross-cultural lawyering.

Further Reading

Susan Bryant & Jean Koh Peters, Reflecting on the Habits IN TRANSFORMING THE EDUCATION OF LAWYERS 364-372 (2014).

Jean Koh Peters, Doubting and Believing: At Rest, Methodological and In Motion: Assessing Credibility in Asylum Cases, 2012.

Mark Weisberg & Jean Koh Peters, Experiments in Listening, 57:3 J. OF LEGAL ED. 427 (2007).