Sandel: “Summon Chance to Chasten Meritocratic Hubris”

Millions of YouTube viewers will be familiar with Michael Sandel of Harvard University’s lectures on Justice. He has been described as “a philosopher with the global profile of a rock star”, so it is greatly encouraging when in his book The Tyranny of Merit he emphatically endorses the use of lotteries for admission to elite universities.

His condemnation of actual existing Meritocracy is well worth a read, not least the societally damaging effects of hubris and self-worth among the elite ‘winners’; and the despondency and nihilistic voting for Brexit and Trump by the ‘losers’ and indeed all the non-credentialled.

In Chapter 6 makes a heartfelt and extended plea for the extensive use of lotteries for admission to not just Ivy League, but all selective colleges and universities. This Sandel says would “summon Chance to chasten Merit”.

I’m sure most readers are familiar with the American S.A.T. (Standardized Attainment Test), a sort of IQ test inflicted on 18-year-olds. This, Sandel suggests, could be used to establish a threshold for entry into the selection lottery and nothing else. This level of ‘Merit’ should be no more onerous than that imposed when the SAT was originated in the 1940s.

From this device Sandel argues that winners will be saved much  stress and avoid much of the (wasted?) effort of working towards the impressive list of activities that fills out their application form. Losers will gain too. No more rejections, and being made to feel  inadequate, despite losing narrowly. Much more psychologically healthy all round!

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2021 review – statistics

Below are some statistics about the 12th year of Equality-by-Lot. Comparable numbers for last year can be found here.

2021 Page views Posts Comments
Jan 2,684 13 182
Feb 3,105 15 117
Mar 3,253 11 131
Apr 3,096 9 118
May 3,303 14 34
June 2,806 11 70
July 2,408 7 76
Aug 2,506 6 41
Sept 2,314 11 93
Oct 2,400 8 102
Nov 2,388 10 136
Dec (to 21st) 2,133 10 92
Total 32,396 125 1,192

Note that page views do not include visits by logged-in contributors – the wordpress system does not count those visits.

Posts were made by 20 authors during 2021. (There were, of course, many other authors quoted and linked to.)

This blog currently has 152 email followers, 334 WordPress followers and 499 Twitter followers (@Klerotarian).

Searching for “distribution by lot” (with quotes) using Google returns Equality-by-Lot as the 2nd result (out of “about 330,000 results”). Continuing the demotion trend which has begun last year, Equality-by-Lot is now on the 10th page of results when searching for “sortition” using the Google search engine (out of “about 285,000 results”). This demotion may explain the significant decline in the total number of views in 2021 relative to 2020.

Happy holidays and a happy new year to Equality-by-Lot readers, commenters and posters. Keep up the good fight for democracy!

Call for 2021 review input

This is the yearly call for input for the year’s end review. As in previous years, I would like to have a post or two summarizing the ongoings here at Equality-by-Lot and notable sortition-related events over the passing year. Any input about what should be included is welcome – either through comments below or via email. You are invited to refresh your memory about the events of the passing year by browsing Equality-by-Lot’s archives.

For previous years’ summaries see: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010.

The best case ever that I’ve seen for awarding jobs, promotions and redundos by Lottery

A delightful short video, with academic backing.

Where is the quota for the short, the fat, the bald men, and all the other uglies?

Dominic Frisby adds:

It is based on some research I once read by American economist Daniel Hamermesh about the most discriminated against group in society. It doesn’t matter what race you are, what class, what sex or what age: beauty pays – attractive people are more successful. It features popular adult actress Zara du Rose, pictured above, as the Evil Queen and a host of others.

I included some of this in my own paper from 1997

The Irish Times: Colleges expect spike in random selection

The Irish Times reports:

Colleges expect spike in random selection: High-points courses in health, law, pharmacy and science most likely to be affected

A system of lottery entry for equal-scoring candidates has been in place in Ireland since 2009. It seems that this year’s exceptional circumstances (Covid) has led to a ‘spike’ in its use.

Perhaps the headline should have read:

For those scoring equally high points, despite (a Covid-related) spike in top scores, random selection (a lottery) will sort out who wins a place

The article continues:

Universities fear they will have to restrict entry to more high-points courses on the basis of “random selection” this year due to record-breaking Leaving Cert results.

Results this year climbed to a new high with a sharp increase in the number of students securing top H1 grades.

Senior university sources expect they will have to introduce more random cut-off points for entry into high-demand courses such as medicine, dentistry, law, pharmacy and science when CAO offers issue on Tuesday next.
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School entry lottery in Nepal

The Himalayan Times reports:

Lottery to attend public schools: NSEP should aim for this
By Simone Galimberti, Jul 13, 2021

Recently St. Xavier’s School, a prestigious educational institution in the country, conducted the selection process for students for the new upcoming school year. It is a rigorous and transparent process that sees thousands of families hoping to get their children admitted to a sound environment focused on the “whole” development of the student.

Despite the strict selection criteria with tests and various requirements, the senior management of St. Xavier’s School was forced, given the high number of applications, to also include in the process, at least for some of the places available, a sortition procedure to finalise the names of admitted students. In order to assure the highest levels of integrity, in what is ultimately a lottery for those who had already met the eligibility criteria, the entire process was broadcast live on TV nationally.
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A hit-piece against Lottery admissions

Prof. Jonathan Turley is an American legal scholar. In an article on his blog, he sounds the alarm regarding proposals to admit students to U.S. universities at random.

“Just Blind Chance”: The Rising Call For “Random Selection” For College Admissions

Random selection is not generally an approach that most people opt for in the selection of doctors or even restaurants or a movie. However, it appears to be the new model for some in higher education. Former Barnard College mathematics professor Cathy O’Neil has written a column calling for “random selection” of all college graduates to guarantee racial diversity. It is ever so simple: “Never mind optional standardized tests. If you show interest, your name goes in a big hat.” She is not the only one arguing for blind or random admissions.

Blind selection is the final default position for many schools. Universities have spent decades working around court decisions limiting the reliance on race as an admissions criterion. Many still refuse to disclose the full data on scores and grades for admitted students. If faced with a new decision further limiting (or entirely eliminating) race as a criterion, blind selection would effectively eliminate any basis for judicial review.
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Lotteries instead of point-scores on exams: A great quote from Peter Stone

A story in the Irish Times (25th Feb 2021). This is a paywalled link. The full text of the article appears below.

The Leaving Cert is not fair. Why not just replace it with a lottery?
Joe Humphreys
Unthinkable: We can no longer plead ignorance of the inner workings of our State exams

‘I think recognizing the wider role luck plays in society is very important,’ says TCD political scientist Peter Stone.

The Leaving Cert has had an untouchable status in Irish life. It may be a brutal memory test but it is our brutal memory test – a rite of passage nearly as old as the State itself.

In the past 12 months, however, the bonnet has been lifted on this national treasure and we can no longer plead ignorance of its inner workings. The attempt to manufacture a distribution of grades under pandemic conditions equivalent to those produced by the annual exams has spotlighted long-running questions of fairness.

As a test of ability, the Leaving Cert is fair in the narrow sense that a bobsleigh race between Jamaica and Norway is fair. Contestants do not start with the same advantages, and the format – which lends itself to a parallel grinds industry – gives an extra edge to students from better-off families.

However, there’s a second matter of fairness surrounding the appropriateness of using the Leaving Cert to determine who gets what college places. This must be considered against the backdrop of stark figures showing that, on average, a third-level graduate earns much more over her or his lifetime than a worker who doesn’t have a degree – at least €100,000 more, according to one conservative estimate.
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Only two days left to vote!

The poll for the change to the subtitle of this blog ends on Tuesday, yet currently only .02% of the “electorate” have recorded their preferences. This might seem like a trivial matter, but it crucially affects the range and scope of the posts submitted. The blog was founded by Conall Boyle and others some ten years ago in order to discuss the work of those with an interest in lotteries for equal distribution and social justice — see for example Barbara Goodwin’s Justice by Lottery. However the blog soon became dominated by those (like Yoram and myself) exploring the political potential of sortition in reforming (or replacing) electoral democracy. This change of focus seems to meet the needs of most contributors and readers but it would be a tragedy if those working on other aspects of sortition felt excluded by an over-prescriptive sub-title. If you look at the book series Sortition and Public Policy you’ll see that around half of the titles are devoted to the non-political use of lot. And many theorists dealing with the political potential of sortition, for example Oliver Dowlen and Peter Stone are unpersuaded regarding the use of sortition for democratic representation (they focus more on the Blind Break as an arational prophylactic against factionalism). So it would be good if the new subtitle reflected the full range of interest in sortition. If you want to vote, just go to the Online Poll, look at the list of “candidates”, choose your preference(s) and post a comment, it’s that easy!

Covid Treatment Lottery

“For patients with similar prognosis, who cannot be separated in other ways, a random allocation, such as a lottery, may be used”, says the protocol.

So says a Report in the Daily Telegraph (UK) of 5th January by Paul Nuki titled “Covid ‘lottery’: Doctors draw up triage protocol in the event treatment has to be rationed” (Telegraph usually paywalled, but this seems open-access)

It refers to a paper in J Medical Ethics “Development of a structured process for fair allocation of critical care resources in the setting of insufficient capacity: a discussion paper” also accessible f.o.c.

This is circulating in NHS hospitals as a proposed protocol.

The protocol – drafted by medical, legal and palliative care specialists at the Royal United Hospital Bath NHS Trust – is the most sophisticated attempt yet to devise an ethical system for rationing care in the event that there are insufficient resources to treat everyone.

Now this is exciting! But it is not new. Right from the start of organ transplantation (1960s) such moralistic contentions were weighed up.

In Seattle the so-called ‘God committee’ was set up to make these difficult choices (reported in Calabresi & Bobbit (1978) Tragic Choices). The committee eventually found that it was too agonising to make these choices, and passed the task back to the medical practitioners. In the end it was felt that only medical  factors should be taken into account. Even if no overt rules on social merit were in place, we should not be surprised if the doctor, genuinely uncertain on medical grounds,  was to pick the ‘nicer’ of the two patients.

A secret lottery?

Elster (1989) in his masterly ‘Solomonic Choices’ gives the example of child custody cases, where the judge is frequently unable (in his own mind) to give a clear-cut decision. Yet decide he must, so he goes ahead, dressing up the verdict with trappings of rationality.

This, claims Elster, satisfies both parties, the winner praising the wisdom of the judge, the loser cursing his bias. No doubt a similar process might go on when a medical doctor decides, even if partly randomly and in secret, between her two patients: So long as both patients believe that their case is decided clinically by an expert, then both winner and loser may find it acceptable.

The doctor herself may even be a bit cognitively dissonant—convincing herself that she is doing the right thing for the right reason, exercising judgement based on intuition  rather than validated knowledge. This form of fudging may be acceptable all round, but it is fraught with dangers.

If fakery is suspected, patients rapidly lose their trust in their professionals. Unwitting discrimination seems inevitable. True expertise will fail to develop unless its limits are acknowledged.

Against a lottery is Greely (1977) who suggests that if recipients can argue about any allocation, they feel more satisfied. Anand was also interested in what is called ‘voice’—that one of the reasons a coin-toss was thought to be unfair is that it deprived customers of a say in the decision.

In favour of a visible act of coin-tossing Calabresi & Bobbit explain that it draws attention to the fact that resources are limited. Edgeworth (1888) suggested another benefit would be that the public, seeing a random drawing take place, would be alerted to the ‘aleatory nature’ of the decision. Bureaucrats might not like having such attention focussed on this shortage of resources and their uncertain knowledge.

[This was part of my 2006 thesis Who Gets The Prize. It can be viewed in full on my website]