The Dunning–Kruger effect and its implications for voting

The Dunning–Kruger effect

is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.

The effect is named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the department of psychology at Cornell University who published a paper in 1999 which described a series of experiments which they conducted which demonstrated the effect.

In an interview, Dunning described his understanding of the effect as follows:

Dunning: [I]f you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.

[Interviewer:] Why not?

Dunning: If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute. The decision I just made does not make much sense. I had better go and get some independent advice.” But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is. In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer. And so we went on to see if this could possibly be true in many other areas. And to our astonishment, it was very, very true.

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“Direct democracy” vs. sortition

In June 1998 Filip Palda, an economist who seems to have been at the time preoccupied with proposing democratic reforms, published an article in The Next City magazine in which he advocated the introduction of a plebiscitary mechanism to Canada. In the article, Palda recounted the standard arguments for “direct democracy”.

Under the present all-or-nothing approach to selecting government policies, the benefits of political specialization are lost. Most governments campaign on a bundle of services that includes health, education, welfare, transportation, the environment, and security. One party may be good at protecting the environment, but terrible at health care. Its rival may be good at health care but reprehensible on the environment. Instead of voting for a party while holding our noses, unbundling public services allows us to vote with a clear conscience, at all times. […]

Direct democracy — any form of voting that bypasses representatives — has another benefit, too; it allows voters to correct individual laws that representatives have passed to their detriment, without getting rid of the government. In April, hepatitis C victims lost their claims for compensation in our federal Parliament, their appeals falling on the deaf ears of a government riding high in the public’s esteem. If Canadians had the right of initiative, they might have succeeded in repealing the law, giving the public both the government and the laws it wanted, without the anguish that followed.[…]

Referendums and initiatives cut these middlemen out of power and let people decide issues for themselves. It is also natural for the public to continue its methodical, cautious, centuries-old drive for greater political freedom. They temper democracy’s worst aspects — the unaccountability of politicians — and bring out what is ultimately its best — the common sense of the common people.

In a letter to the magazine, Simon Threlkeld suggests that allotted legislative juries would be a superior alternative to plebiscites:
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Now even the visa lottery is unsafe?

According to the NYT,

a small number of giant global outsourcing companies had flooded the [U.S. H1B visa lottery] system with applications, significantly increasing their chances of success. […O]ne of the outsourcing companies applied for at least 14,000.

What has happened to the ‘sanitizing’ effect of the lottery?

Does it matter that well-resourced companies ‘game’ this lottery?

[‘Outsourcing‘: A practice used by different companies to reduce costs by transferring portions of work to outside suppliers rather than completing it internally. (investopia) In the UK this practice is known as ‘sub-contracting’.]

An interesting online discussion of sortition

A fairly interesting discussion of sortition can be found here. The top post makes an argument for sortition which is based on the idea of using randomness to deny an opponent a winning strategy. I pursued a similar line of thought here.

Koop: Allotted assemblies allow the elected to renege on campaign promises

Kevin Mooney wrote to point out an article in the Ottawa Citizen. In the article Royce Koop, an associate professor in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba, argues against repeating the electoral reform process carried out in British Columbia and Ontario provinces.

Koop makes two arguments. The first is the somewhat tautological point that “tak[ing power] from elected representatives and giv[ing it] to the people […] threatens representative democracy by taking decision-making power from MPs and handing it to citizens, [while] representative democracy is best served by allowing MPs to represent the interests of their constituents through their votes, rather than by seizing MPs’ power and handing it to citizens”.

The more interesting argument (which to a large extent is in fact contradictory to the first one) is a much more practical one:

[T]he use of citizens assemblies and referendums would have the effect of allowing politicians to escape from being accountable to the public for their actions.
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newDemocracy Funding Will Allow Look Into the Way Communities Experience Democratic Innovation

Below is a release regarding an upcoming research project that focuses on the way that communities experience the shift from elections to randomly selected governance models, using Democracy In Practice’s work in Bolivia as a case study. Thought it might be of interest to the group!

A recent award of funding from the newDemocracy Foundation (nDF) will enable Democracy In Practice to conduct innovative empirical research into the way that communities experience change to their systems of government.

The research project, occurring under the auspices of Simon Fraser University in Canada and running from October 2015 to June 2016, will use Democracy In Practice’s student government-based projects as case studies to explore the shift from elected governments to those that are randomly selected and rotated. The research team will conduct empirical research to explore how various stakeholders – students, student government members, and teachers – experience and interpret the replacement of a hierarchical election-based student governance system with one based on random selection, rotation, and deliberation among equals. The projects that will be studied are now in their second year of operation in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

While the use of random selection to create more inclusive, representative and deliberative democracy has been a mainstay of democratic innovations around the globe, these innovations have largely been limited to temporary, one-off, complementary processes, and little is known about how these democratic structures would function as a standing feature of democratic governance. Research on the use of random selection in standing political bodies has to date been limited to theory, and so this empirical research project represents the first of its kind.
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Talking about Sortition in Istanbul

2 weeks ago, I gave a talk in Istanbul on sortition. The talk was part of a small conference entitled “A Pilot Meeting for the Democracies of the Future,” held in conjunction with the Istanbul Biennial. the talks from the conference are now available on Youtube. My talk can be found here:

Threlkeld: Juries of citizens should select senators

Still catching up with the series of articles Simon Threlkeld published in 1997-98.

Juries of citizens should select senators

Simon Threlkeld

Toronto Star (Toronto, Ontario), September 9, 1998, page A17.

The current method of choosing the Senate is undemocratic. The public has no say in who is chosen, patronage is rife and the lifetime terms make senators unaccountable.

The best way to choose the Senate is for each senator to be chosen by a jury of citizens for a set term, say by a jury of 15 or so for a term of three or four years. The main virtue of juries is that they combine a capacity to make an informed choice with being a representative cross-section of the citizens. In a democracy there is no better authority than one which is both well-informed and representative.

Juries are representative because they are chosen from the citizens by random selection. In order for the selection to be truly random, each citizen must have the same chance of being chosen as any other.

Candidates can be given an equal opportunity to present their views

Juries are suited for making an informed choice because they can meet together face-to-face and work full-time for the weeks or months needed to become well-informed about a matter. Jurors can be paid so that they can afford to serve full-time.
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Threlkeld: Democratizing Public Institutions

This is another one of the five sortition-advocacy pieces that Simon Threlkeld published in 1997-1998.

Democratizing Public Institutions: Juries for the selection of public officials

A rational analysis suggesting the use of juries of citizens instead of government monopoly for the purpose of selecting public decision-makers

Simon Threlkeld

Humanist in Canada, Spring 1997

A wide variety of public officials are chosen by the government. Among such officials are the various regulatory commissions, boards and tribunals, the boards of public broadcasters, judges, coroners and justices of the peace.

This government monopoly on the selection of so many decision-makers leaves a great deal to be desired. In the first place it is undemocratic because the people have no say in who the decision-makers are. In a more democratic society the selection of such decision-makers would be in the hands of the citizens, not the government.

A further problem is patronage. Where the government selects public officials, patronage is common. Patronage discriminates against people who lack the right political connections and turns public offices into the spoils of electoral victories. Distaste for patronage is near universal amongst citizens.
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Threlkeld: Juries, not referenda

Simon Threlkeld has shared the full text of his 1998 article in Social Policy journal. A PDF version is here.

A Blueprint for Democratic Law­ Making: Give Citizen Juries the Final Say

Simon Threlkeld


Simon Threlkeld is a Canadian lawyer with his own law practice in Toronto; he has been on the steering committees of various social∙ change organizations such as the social justice­ oriented Law Union of Ontario.

In jurisdictions from California to Switzerland, citizens have the right to initiate binding referendum votes by getting enough petition signatures. Unfortunately, referenda are a drastically flawed way to give citizens a final say in law­making. Referenda are ill­-suited for the informed decision-­making necessary for meaningful democracy and are heavily skewed in favor of wealth and power. A different approach is needed.

“Juries” or “jury assemblies” are the most effective and optimal way to give citizens a final say about laws. By a “jury” or “jury assembly,” I mean a group of citizens randomly chosen from the citizenry and convened to make an informed decision. Juries are chosen by random selection because that is the best way to get a representative cross-­section of the citizenry. Each citizen has the same chance and right to be chosen as any other.

A jury is well suited for making an informed decision because the jurors can meet face to face and work full time for the days, weeks, or months needed to become fully informed about the matter at hand. Jurors are paid so they can afford to serve full time.

By combining a capacity to make an informed decision with being a representative cross-­section of the citizens, a jury gives expression to the informed will of the citizenry­ – the highest democratic mandate that a law can have.
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