Who makes the rules for selecting the rulers?

escher hands

Our major adversarial institutions are not free-for-all, war-of-all-against-all, slugfests. They are highly regulated competitions, with specific rules in place to encourage desirable outcomes: convicting the guilty but not the innocent (law), creating prices and promoting efficiency (markets), electing competent governments (politics), entertaining fans (spectator sports). The “players” are invited to play to win; but the competitions are not in place primarily for their benefit, but mostly for the benefit of those outside the competition.

This, in a nutshell, is why it always matters who gets to write or amend the rules of these competitions. And why we worry when the “players” get to write their own rules. Especially when a subset of the players — the ones who happened to win the last round — get to write the rules for the next round.

As Arash Abizadeh writes in Toronto’s Globe and Mail,

Here’s the problem: letting politicians who won the last election decide future election rules is like letting the team who won the last playoff game decide rules for the next game. There’s an obvious conflict of interest. Electoral rules determine who forms government, and different rules favour different parties.

After surveying the options for a better process of electoral reform, Abizadeh recommends something novel:

how could electoral reform be legitimized? We need a manifestly fair procedure – a neutral body, unbeholden to politicians, that will reasonably evaluate the alternatives.

Fortunately, political scientists have a solution that fits the bill – a randomly selected citizen assembly. The idea is this: randomly select a few thousand Canadians, ask if they are willing to serve, and, from those saying yes, randomly select 100 to 200 to serve on an assembly empowered to determine federal election rules.

Putting regular citizens in charge may initially seem crazy. Wouldn’t citizens with no special experience or expertise make incompetent decisions? But that’s who decides referenda, too. In fact, Canada is a pioneer in using citizen assemblies to make decisions about voting systems.

We’ve done it twice before, in B.C. and Ontario. Political scientists havestudied both cases, and both were in many respects a great success. Once our fellow citizens received expert advice (about voting systems) and consulted the public, they became well informed, and their deliberations and decision-making were extremely competent and reasonable.

No surprise here: it’s well known to social scientists that under the right conditions, there is intelligence in numbers. The decisions of an assembly of regular but diverse individuals are often more intelligent than decisions by a lone genius or expert.

As they used to say in 1960s sitcoms, that is so crazy it just.. might.. work! It is also not beyond the realm of conceivability that the current Trudeau government in Canada, which promised electoral reform in its last campaign, would consider such a thing.

The probability that anything like this will happen south of 49th parallel, where two parties have successfully colluded to secure a political duopoly for generations, is approximately 0.0. Why think outside the box when the box is just fine the way it is? Why not just hire a consultant…

new yorker escher construction


Worth more than 1000 words

I discovered this cartoon a few weeks ago, posted it on Facebook, and within days my post had garnered more than a thousand “likes” and more than 2500 shares. Why all the love? Because it is a Perfect Cartoon. Caption unnecessary.

screwdriver pol

For more wordy reflections on a wider range of ethical issues in political campaigning, see numerous posts on this blog in recent weeks by Isak, below.

Rules of engagement for academic adversaries

Academics argue. That’s what they do. They argue against each other’s theories and results; they propose alternatives they believe are superior; and those theories, in turn, become the subject of critique by their colleagues. Yada, yada, yada, we all get closer to the truth.

Read between the lines and academic argument often sounds pretty passive-aggressive. As if we’re often not sure which kind of argument we are trying to have. The distinction between the two sense of the English word “argument” is, of course, most perfectly explained by those Cambridge philosophers, Monty Python’s Flying Circus:


So how ought we to argue in academia? Politely. Why? Because it works.

I recently came across some advice from the great American philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to write a scholarly critique. (I haven’t yet tracked down the citation, or the larger context in which it was written, but the advice given here is perfect all on its own.)


1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If I may, I would add a fifth point:

5. Once you have presented a rebuttal or criticism, search the text in question to see if the author has already considered and responded to your criticism; and if he or she hasn’t then it is up to you to formulate the best possible responses to this criticism, given the author’s other commitments. Either way, voice this actual or potential replies to your critique explicitly, and respond to them. Repeat….

So what kind of friendly advice is this? Is it academic etiquette? Academic ethics? Or the key to academic effectiveness?

If the academic community you are in has a sufficient degree of intellectual integrity, then its widely recognized leaders will have convinced a good many of their colleagues that they have discovered flaws with previous theories and findings in the field, and they will have demonstrated this critique, its implications, and possibly a new-improved theory in its place, with a reasoned argument involving clear concepts, evidence, and inferences. (In an academic community without a sufficient degree of integrity, institutional and political power will be the main tools for achieving local, if fleeting, fame.)

In any case, if your chosen field has integrity, then Dennett’s advice unites those three E’s: etiquette, ethics, and effectiveness. If you want to have an impact on the debates in your field (and if not, why are you doing this?), you need to get your critique published. Editors will invite the authors you are engaging with, or others known to be sympathetic with their views, to “referee” your critique. If they think you have simply not understood the ideas you are criticizing; or worse, if they think you have deliberately misrepresented them, then they are highly unlikely to be persuaded by your arguments — assuming they even read all the way to the end of your MS.

On the other hand, if you play nice and follow Dennett’s rules, the Journal editor may well read in the referee’s report not only “I wish I’d put it that way myself,” but also “OMG, I never noticed that gap in my argument/ that ambiguous concept/ that invalid inference/ that inconsistency….! I hope I can fix that, but this critic may be onto something original and important!” As a former editor, I can assure you, we do get those kinds of referees’ reports on papers that are criticizing their own theories. And when when we do, those submissions are usually fast-tracked for publication.

I should underscore that Dennett’s advice runs deeper than mere professional decorum or publishing tactics. If you are not successfully mastering Dennett’s first step, then you are probably not grasping why the theory you are criticizing has been taken seriously. Why it might be smarter than you realize. Similarly, if you don’t consider how an intelligent interlocutor would reply to your critique, then are likely to be ignoring the most obvious objections to your critique — the one’s the referees will not fail to point out.

But if you really are onto something, then bending over backwards to demonstrate the inescapability of your critique in a spirit of intellectual fairplay will only make the critique itself that much harder for your academic community to ignore. You “win” in the nicest possible way.

Boaty McBoatface, Primaries, and the Illusion of Democratic Legitimacy


The internet seems to bring out the extreme tendencies of human groups. It can connect us over the greatest of distances and provide for the rapid spread of information — whether in the form of revolutionary tweets or cat pictures. At the same time, the anonymity provided by certain social media platforms coupled with mass social movements can end up having some wonky effects.

One such recent sensation was the saga of Boaty McBoatface. As detailed in a recent article in The Atlantic, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recently ran a contest to determine the name of a new $300-million research vessel. The new ship would explore the remotest waters, its side emblazoned with a name chosen by “the people” of the internet. Or such was the idea.

As Atlantic writer Uri Friedman put it:

The NERC had expressed a preference for an “inspirational,” environmental science-y choice. Your “Shackleton.” Your “Endeavour.” And so on.

Of course, internet users jumped on such an opportunity to “participate” in such scientific endeavors. Before long, the leading entry for the name of the new ship was “RRS Boaty McBoatface,” a name which soon became an internet sensation. As links to the contest were shared, the name continued to gain steam, ending with 124,000 votes — over three times the votes of the runner-up entry.


The boat that will NOT be named Boaty McBoatface

Yet the captain (er, Science Minister) Jo Johnson leaned hard on the tiller and, along with the hardy crew (the NERC), decided to bring her about, ignoring the prevailing winds of internet opinion. Such a name just wouldn’t be proper!

This raises the obvious question: if the NERC wanted to maintain creative control over the naming of the ship, why hold the contest at all? Had they never asked the amorphous mob of “the internet” to participate, they could have just named it whatever boring name they wanted. But had the done so, they never would have got people interested. After all, wasn’t the purpose of the marketing ploy precisely to raise awareness for science and give people the feeling that they were somehow participating in the process?

Here we see something pertinent to the study of adversarial institutions: sometimes a contest can be used to give validation or legitimacy to an idea. The logic is generally this: the majority will have little reason to complain about the outcome, since they themselves chose it. Such a notion may appear extremely obvious — after all, we are used to it in its political form: majoritarianism.

Yet the story of “Boaty McBoatface” shows that while a body might set up a such a structured contest to give their actions legitimacy, that same body of organizers might find themselves still wanting control over the outcome. In an alternate scenario, the  NERC could have the people choose between several tried-and-true-and-boring options. But is a choice among options you didn’t pick really a valid choice for the purposes of legitimacy?

The example of Boaty McBoatface seems especially relevant in a U.S. primary season where both major parties have seen strong challenges from candidates considered to be outsiders. On the right, there has been talk of Donald Trump being blocked at the Republican convention by the party establishment; on the left, superdelegates have proved to be a hot-button issue in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Like the NERC, both parties seem to want to have their cake and eat it too: they want to let the people (generally, or of their party) appear to have some input, but they also want to maintain some control over the process.

If there’s one thing that both the saga of Boaty McBoatface and this U.S. primary season will achieve, it will be the raised awareness among citizens and internet-basement-dwellers that sometimes the way that contests are structured matters immensely. Is it enough to have a choice, or is directly choosing the options also required for democratic legitimacy? Needless to say, deciding the scope and limits of democratic legitimacy is and will continue to be a slippery business.


Does Society Favor Healthy Competitions?

Pollice Verso, by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Pollice Verso *oil on canvas *97,4 x 146,6 cm *1872

Joseph Heath’s effort to develop an adversarial ethic for business begins by noting some reasons why competitions―be they in business, in sports, or some other sphere of modern society―are ethically so puzzling. Basically, they are deliberately imposed collective action problems that are specifically designed to disincentivize cooperation and which often permit behavior that would, “. . . in other contexts, typically be regarded as anti-social.” (Heath 359) This sounds like a toxic brew, and it’s easy to see why competitions are often something we want to avoid. What’s puzzling is that, despite these features, many competitions are considered morally permissible and even desirable. But, “. . . why would society want to inflict this peculiar sort of collective action problem upon people?” (362)

Heath suggests an answer. He claims that “. . . the reason that ‘society’ favors competition in certain areas of life has everything to do with the externalities that are generated. The difference between healthy and unhealthy forms of competition is that, in the former case, the external benefits outweigh the losses incurred by the competitors, while in the latter case they do not.” (362)

Curiously, Heath illustrates this distinction by contrasting athletic training with the use of performance enhancing drugs, where the former characterizes healthy competitions and the latter unhealthy ones. He claims that training “. . . usually improves the athlete’s overall health, whereas performance enhancing drugs have serious adverse health effects in the long run.” (362) The reason this is puzzling is that Heath’s distinction between healthy and unhealthy competitions turns on all the externalities these competitions produce, not just their effects on participants. In fact, he explicitly defines positive externalities as “benefits to people other than those directly involved.” And while it’s true that the use of performance enhancing drugs constitutes a net harm for the competitors, whether or not it constitutes a net harm for society at large is anybody’s guess.

The example aside, what about Heath’s claim that society favors competitions on the basis of their externalities? Is this plausible? In my view, no. In fact, I think it’s so implausible that I doubt Heath actually wants to commit himself to it (his project certainly doesn’t require him to do so). But whether or not Heath holds it, this externality-based view is an interesting idea in it’s own right, so it’s worth discussing what’s wrong with it. Here are three problems.

First, there appear to be counterexamples: Gladiatorial combats, jousting, and flower wars were all objects of positive social attitudes in their time, but the huge costs they imposed on their participants and their debasing effect on spectators makes it hard to believe that they constituted healthy competitions in Heath’s sense. Contemporary counterexamples might include hunting, fishing, eating contests, and environmentally destructive economic competitions.

Admittedly, it’s hard to know that these really are counterexamples. That would require identifying all of the relevant externalities and accurately quantifying their value―hardly feasible tasks! But this gets to a more fundamental problem with the externality-based view: Given how difficult it is to determine the aggregate value of competitions’ externalities with any degree of precision, it’s just not plausible that society’s approval could accurately track whether or not they are healthy in Heath’s sense. How could social attitudes reliably gauge the outcome of such a complex calculation?

The third problem arises when the proposal is applied to competitions involving fans and spectators. Probably a substantial share (the bulk?) of the positive externalities generated by these competitions consists of their entertainment value. But to that extent, the claim that society favors competitions with positive externalities seems to get things backwards. It’s not that society favors competitions because they have positive externalities; rather, competitions have positive externalities because society favors them.  In that case, why society favors them remains an open question. I have no idea what the answer is, but I suspect that it’s much more variegated and messy than the externality-based view suggests.

All citations are from Heath’s “An Adversarial Ethic for Business: Or When Sun-Tzu Met the Stakeholder,” Journal of Business Ethics, 72.4 (Jun., 2007).

The Clock Doesn’t Lie:  Gaming, Cheating, and the case of Julie Miller


Corked Bats. Blood doping. Deflated footballs —after a while, we almost cease to be surprised when another story surfaces of a professional athlete engaging in shady (or outright banned) practices to gain an upper hand in competition. Without excusing such behavior, we might recognize that professional players and programs perhaps face greater temptation to cheat than an average person: after all, millions of dollars are on the line in these professional contests, right? Plus, after finding out that competitors are cheating, players may feel that they too need to cheat in order to stay competitive, resulting in a race to the bottom as a culture of cheating takes hold.

If we were to accept such assumptions about the reasons for cheating in sports, the case of Canadian triathlete Julie Miller would appear all the more bizarre. A recent article in the New York Times details how Miller’s competitors and fellow triathletes used timing data, race photos, and spectator testimony to accuse Miller, who competes in the female 40-44 division of Ironman races, of skipping portions of the 2015 Ironman Canada. Miller apparently has a knack for “losing” her timing chip.


When competitors and spectators couldn’t recall seeing her during parts of the 2015 race, suspicions were raised, and forum posters at Slowtwitch.com began to conduct an impromptu forensic investigation, CSI-style. Times were compared, stories swapped, photos enhanced. See presentation of evidence here, and the NYT infographic of the course here.

Despite Miller’s claims of innocence, the evidence presented to Ironman officials caused her to be stripped of several past titles and barred indefinitely from competing in future Ironman events. One could say that in the triathlon world, it looks like it is no longer … (puts on sunglasses) … Miller time. (Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaah)

Two things in particular stand out in the case of Miller. First, she was competing in a sport that does not draw huge crowds and offers few (if any) monetary rewards. Many Ironman competitors probably embody the spirit of amateurism in the etymological sense of the word: they compete for the love of the sport. As triathlete Claire Young put it in the NYT article:

“Most of us are essentially racing against ourselves. There’s no money and no glory. It’s just a hobby, and if you cheat, who are you cheating? You’re only cheating yourself.”

Yet the NYT article suggests that Miller still had an important standard to live up to: her image. Miller, a mental health counselor specializing in body-image disorders, had become a hometown hero in her hometown of Squamish, British Columbia:

“Miller had established herself as a minor celebrity in town, an inspirational, warm, sympathetic woman who could apparently handle it all: work, motherhood, training and high-level sports competition.”

The second thing to note is how cutting the course in a triathlon differs in kind from the sports scandals mentioned at the beginning of this post. The use of illicit equipment or banned substances may give an athlete an unfair advantage, but they still require that the athlete actually compete. Miller’s violation was not gaming or rule-bending for unfair advantage, it was downright failure to complete the designated activity. One might call such conduct beyond the pale, or so reprehensible that it seems difficult to defend in any capacity. Unlike other race to the bottom scenarios that cheating might foster, cutting the course seems less likely to inspire other athletes to act similarly: after all, it was Miller’s competitors who called her out.

With Miller out of future contests, the triathlon world can hopefully return to business as usual, i.e., not on the front of the sports section of the New York Times. But Miller’s case might cause us to stop and ponder why it is that people cheat, and what cheating does to the culture of a sport. Her (bad) example might help us to recognize how the desire to maintain our image (or self-image) may tempt us to bend —or flagrantly flout — the rules of the competitions that we supposedly love.

Are European Soccer Matches Won in Stadiums or in Boardrooms?

Wembley - Tor

Was it a goal or not? This question will forever cause a stir between English and German soccer fans. (Probably less of a stir for English fans since England were awarded the disputed goal in extra time of the 1966 World Cup final in Wembley Stadium: watch the disputed goal here, read about it here.) But this is not the only thing matter of debate between English and German soccer. Germans often complain that English football is just about money, finding a big sponsor, and less about sports and a fair competition.

Whenever we are talking about professional spectator sports there are always two overlapping competitions in play, so to speak. The one we are watching take place on the fields (court, ice, etc.) between the teams, and the one that goes on in the marketplace between rival businesses. The German complaint, in a nutshell, is that English football is driven too much by the pressures of the marketplace, and not enough by what the English fan’s themselves love to call “England’s game.”

In order to promote the sport over the marketplace, the German Bundesliga invented the “50+1 rule”. It says that clubs are allowed to compete in the Bundesliga only if they hold a majority of their own voting rights (50% + at least 1 additional vote; read more about the rule here.) By this rule the “on-field” sporting interests of a club should be protected from the “marketplace” economic interests of its investors. This way, financiers and businesses will be able to gain control over clubs and professional football teams. The Germans believe that this is exactly what has gone wrong with English football. For example, Manchester United is owned by the US-American business-family, Glazer. (You can read about the differences between English and German football policies in this BBC article from 2013.)

What does that mean for the sport? Is the competition in England and elsewhere unfairly manipulated by investors? Is it unfair that some clubs have wealthier or more generous investors than others? Does the German rule make it impossible for smaller teams to compete with the historic giants of the Bundesliga like Bayern Munich? Perhaps finding an investor is just part of the game if you really want to be able to compete on the field. Such are the dilemmas and paradoxes when two fundamentally different kinds of competitions – sports and markets – overlap so completely.