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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Chevallier: The chic populism of participative democracy

A column by Arthur Chevallier in Le Point is yet another condemnation of the allotted committee monitoring the French vaccination campaign. The author sees the creation of the committee as a sign of weakness and hesitation. The government, he asserts, must act resolutely and dispose of attempts to over-communicate.

Chevallier is an editor at Passés composés and the author of the book “Napoléon et le Bonapartisme” published by Que sais-je ?.

The chic populism of participative democracy

Jan. 5, 2021

The allotment of 35 citizens to follow the vaccination campaign was aimed to be the perfect exercise in communication. It turned out to be the opposite.

Democracy is not about weakness. It is not about the promotion of amateurism. The creation of a committee of 35 allotted citizens which is supposed to follow the vaccination against Covid-19 invited mockery. What should have been proof of transparency turned into evidence of failure. If criticising the management of the crisis is less a matter of courage than of cynicism, since the matter is not as easy as it may seems, it is still necessary to denounce the unhealthy attempt to compensate for lack of efficacy by populism. Horizotalization of power is an illusion. Democracy did not gain its prominence by getting amateurs to run complex matters, but rather by its successes.

Without being aware of it, progressivism gives way to a stereotype of recationism. Since the 19th century, an ideology which may be called counter-revolutionary mocks democracy for being “feminie”, attaching to it labels such as the well-known “prostitute”, and hurling insults claiming that it is incapable of creating a powerful and harmonious state. History proves the opposite. Democracy is in fact quite often a radicalization of politics. In antiquity, Athens was at its height of power and imperialism at the 5th century BC, being its age where its democracy attained its most sophisticated form.
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Sortition has progressed, it seems, into the ridicule phase

As Mahatma Gandhi didn’t say:

First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.

The fondness of the Macron administration for allotted bodies has prompted the following piece by the satirical site Francheinfo. Marlène Schiappa is Macron’s assistant minister in charge of citizenship.

Marlène Schiappa is going to allot 15 citizens for a free Brazilian hair straightening

Democracy above all else, like in ancient Greece, Marlène Schiappa has chosen to use sortition in order to select 15 citizens of all origins, religions and hair types as winners of Brazilian hair straightening at the Ans Brazil salon.

“Under current conditions, we must allow the French people to enjoy soft and silky hair, such as mine, all for a reasonable price as offered at Ans Brasil. This is first of all a matter of social justice. Whether one lives at Aulnay or at Poissy sur Brie, we must allow French people’s hair to be nourished from its tips to its roots, with a sufficient dose of keratin so that it does not become brittle,” explained the minister for citizenship and for the hair-growing areas of the skin.

A government that resembles us?

A piece by Hervé Gardette in France Culture.

A gay man as the secretary of transportation, a Native American single mother as the secretary of the interior, a Black woman as vice president, a transgender person as assistant secretary of health, a Black general at the Pentagon, a person in her forties as secretary of commerce, and at the lead, a White man nearing 80 at the White House. Thus will look Joe Biden’s cabinet, if confirmed by the American Senate. A diversity in the executive that is supposed to best represent the population of the United States.

This is not the first time that an American government presents such diversity. In 2015 Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau used similar criteria to select his team, having for example a First Nations member holding the post of minister of justice and a member of the Sikh community being the minister of defense. A message addressed to the Canadians: this government is yours, it understands you because it resembles you.

The idea that political institutions should be representative of the population is not new, and it is not unique to North America (even if communitarianism is more developed there than here). The concern regarding the best representativity of power claims to be a response to the crisis of confidence in democracy: if the voters do not show up at the polls, it is because they don’t see themselves reflected in the people who represent them. So the near absence of workers in political decision-making positions has the consequence of demobilizing the electorate. The same goes for French people who are descended from immigrants and those (sometimes the same ones) who are from “diverse” backgrounds.

We may be in agreement with this idea, or may reject it in the name of universalism, but this is not the issue which I wish to discuss here. The question which I pose is this: what should the French government resemble if it is to be the most representative of the French society? If it is to resemble us? How many should be residents of Auvergnat? How many plumbers? How many should hold a community college degree?
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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 www.conallboyle.com]

Samarajiva: Sortition, How Could It Be Worse?

Indi Samarajiva, a writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka, writes:

Abolish Politicians — Why We Should Just Put Random People In Office

Even the Athenians had elections for certain positions, like generals, jobs requiring expertise. Then the question is, doesn’t being a modern legislator require expertise? Look, it certainly wouldn’t hurt, but look around. Are we ruled by experts? This hypothetical is really not how things have worked out, and we’ve tried it for decades.

Today we elect the children of past rulers, which is straight feudal, and the people that scream the loudest, which is straight demagoguery, and people who simple have enough money to run, which is straight oligarchy. The only people that get there by pure merit are hard-working criminals and a few excellent speakers and true leaders. We act like the latter is the rule, when in fact it is the exception. We’re literally sending our worst.

The arguments against sortition are that we need educated, experienced people in Parliament, but these are fundamentally classist notions.

The whole idea of ‘education’ or qualification is based on the idea that a third-generation Harvard fuckboi is a better person than a plumber. It’s based on the idea that rich criminals must be doing something right, so why not run for office? It’s the idea that stay-at-home moms are dumber than lawyers, or that a poor person cannot possibly contribute to our democracy. The ancients would say yes to a lot of this, but they would do it at the citizenship level. Because they weren’t hypocrites. We need to drop the hypocrisy and look at our actual values, and if we’re living up to them.
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Senior: The tyranny of the credentialed

Jennifer Senior writes in the New York Times:

95 Percent of Representatives Have a Degree. Look Where That’s Got Us.

All these credentials haven’t led to better results.

Over the last few decades, Congress has diversified in important ways. It has gotten less white, less male, less straight — all positive developments. But as I was staring at one of the many recent Senate hearings, filled with the usual magisterial blustering and self-important yada yada, it dawned on me that there’s a way that Congress has moved in a wrong direction, and become quite brazenly unrepresentative.

No, it’s not that the place seethes with millionaires, though there’s that problem too.

It’s that members of Congress are credentialed out the wazoo. An astonishing number have a small kite of extra initials fluttering after their names.

According to the Congressional Research Service, more than one third of the House and more than half the Senate have law degrees. Roughly a fifth of senators and representatives have their master’s. Four senators and 21 House members have M.D.s, and an identical number in each body (four, 21) have some kind of doctoral degree, whether it’s a Ph.D., a D.Phil., an Ed.D., or a D. Min.

But perhaps most fundamentally, 95 percent of today’s House members and 100 percent of the Senate’s have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet just a bit more than one-third of Americans do.

“This means that the credentialed few govern the uncredentialed many,” writes the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel in “The Tyranny of Merit,” published this fall.
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Sortition in 2020

Continuing the series of yearly reviews appearing on this blog every December since 2010, in this post I review the 2020 sortition-related events that appear to me most significant or interesting. I invite readers to add their own reviews in posts or comments.

The most prominent sortition-related development of 2020 was without a doubt the work of the French Citizen Climate Convention. This body of 150 allotted citizens started its work in back in 2019 and has published its report in June. It received significant media attention in France even before it published its report, but public attention has intensified over the last 6 months. In fact one commentator was alarmed that discussion of sortition in France has reached pandemic proportions.

In the face of the expected pushback from elite groups, the French public has shown significant support for the CCC itself and for its recommendations. Toward the end of the year warnings have been raised about what appears to be the government’s attempts to abandon or water-down the implementation of the Convention’s proposals. In late breaking news, Macron has indicated that he is aiming to put constitutional changes aligned with the Convention’s proposals up for a referendum.

The work of the CCC and the aftermath of its report received scant coverage in the English-speaking media (with the sole exception of Equality-by-Lot).

At the same time, sortition made more modest progress in other countries as well. It was implemented or discussed in multiple contexts in Germany: 1, 2, 3, 4. Sortition was also implemented or proposed in Switzerland, Belgium, Greece, the United States, and Scotland.

In the United States, sortition got some fairly high profile exposure by Malcolm Gladwell (1, 2). On three different occasions sortition was proposed by undergraduate students as a replacement for the electoral system. It was also proposed as a way to achieve citizen oversight over the police.

Finally, two sortition-related books of interest were published this year. One is a hefty report published by the OECD on “Innovative Citizen Participation”. The report makes a historical summary of hundreds of cases of citizen participation in government, draws its conclusions and makes recommendations. The second book is by notorious sortition activist Paul Rosenfeld. In stark contrast to the OECD publication, Rosenfeld’s book, a combination of an autobiography and a sortition manifesto, makes for an easy and entertaining afternoon read.

Galland and Schnapper: Citizen conventions and representative democracy, Part 1

Olivier Galland, sociologist at the CNRS, and Dominique Schnapper, researcher at the EHESS and an honorary member of the Constitutional Council, write in Telos.

Parliamentary institutions are the only legitimate institutions for enacting legislation and for government oversight. Under what conditions could those institutions be complemented by the involvement in the public space of groups of citizens which would work for a period of time in order to come to know in an informed and open-minded way the dimensions of a political problem and which would publish the results of their deliberations?

This question is part of a general ambition for some form of democratization to which the institutions of the Republic are responding poorly at the moment. Dominique Rousseau advocates a “continuous democracy” while Rosanvallon advocates for a “counter-democracy”. But neither of them poses the problem in a way that appears to us just or practicable.

It may be accepted that low turnout rates are an indicator of the weakening of the legitimacy of the parliament and of government, or, put differently, that we are experiencing a crisis of representation. It is thus not out of the question to reflect on forms of citizen consultation which would inform the public discussion between elections. These would share the space that is now left solely to the media, to social networks and to unaccountable citizens who are not particularly informed and who make their opinion known, for example, wherever information is transmitted or even through the device of opinion polls.
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How is a poor voter to know?

Naftali Bennett is an Israeli politician who was the minister of education in the years 2015-2019. With another round of elections in Israel in the offing (the 4th round in two years), Israeli voters will soon have to decide if they are impressed with Bennett’s past achievements (and with his trust-worthiness).

During his tenure as minister of education, Bennett emphasized the importance of math studies and introduced a program which, he claimed, would allocate resources toward improving math education in Israel. Recently, Bennett was quoted as saying the following regarding the newly published results of the TIMSS international math test for 2019:

These are tremendous news and a tremendous achievement for Israeli math students. Israeli students leapt from the 16th place [in the 2015 TIMSS test] to the 9th place in their math ranking. The disparities were reduced, and these are the international tests, not national tests. The proportion of excellent students is 15%, 3 times the average of the rest of the world.

Gil Gartel, a commentator on matters of education on the Sicha Mekomit website, is not impressed. In fact, he claims that each and every one of Bennett’s assertions is factually wrong.
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