How to choose?

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How to choose?

Illustration by Tim McDonagh

When your reasons are worse than useless, sometimes the most rational choice is a random stab in the dark

Michael Schulson is an American freelance writer. His work has appeared in Religion Dispatches, The Daily Beast, and Religion and Politics, among others. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

3000 3,000 words
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We could start with birds, or we could start with Greeks. Each option has advantages.

Let’s flip a coin. Heads and it’s the Greeks, tails and it’s the birds.


In the 1970s, a young American anthropologist named Michael Dove set out for Indonesia, intending to solve an ethnographic mystery. Then a graduate student at Stanford, Dove had been reading about the Kantu’, a group of subsistence farmers who live in the tropical forests of Borneo. The Kantu’ practise the kind of shifting agriculture known to anthropologists as swidden farming, and to everyone else as slash-and-burn. Swidden farmers usually grow crops in nutrient-poor soil. They use fire to clear their fields, which they abandon at the end of each growing season.

Like other swidden farmers, the Kantu’ would establish new farming sites ever year in which to grow rice and other crops. Unlike most other swidden farmers, the Kantu’ choose where to place these fields through a ritualised form of birdwatching. They believe that certain species of bird – the Scarlet-rumped Trogon, the Rufous Piculet, and five others – are the sons-in-law of God. The appearances of these birds guide the affairs of human beings. So, in order to select a site for cultivation, a Kantu’ farmer would walk through the forest until he spotted the right combination of omen birds. And there he would clear a field and plant his crops.

Dove figured that the birds must be serving as some kind of ecological indicator. Perhaps they gravitated toward good soil, or smaller trees, or some other useful characteristic of a swidden site. After all, the Kantu’ had been using bird augury for generations, and they hadn’t starved yet. The birds, Dove assumed, had to be telling the Kantu’ something about the land. But neither he, nor any other anthropologist, had any notion of what that something was.

He followed Kantu’ augurers. He watched omen birds. He measured the size of each household’s harvest. And he became more and more confused. Kantu’ augury is so intricate, so dependent on slight alterations and is-the-bird-to-my-left-or-my-right contingencies that Dove soon found there was no discernible correlation at all between Piculets and Trogons and the success of a Kantu’ crop. The augurers he was shadowing, Dove told me, ‘looked more and more like people who were rolling dice’.

Stumped, he switched dissertation topics. But the augury nagged him. He kept thinking about it for ‘a decade or two’. And then one day he realised that he had been looking at the question the wrong way all the time. Dove had been asking whether Kantu’ augury imparted useful ecological information, as opposed to being random. But what if augury was useful precisely because it was random?

For the Kantu’, the best option was one familiar to any investor when faced with an unpredictable market: they needed to diversify

Tropical swidden agriculture is a fundamentally unpredictable enterprise. The success of a Kantu’ swidden depends on rainfall, pest outbreaks and river levels, among other factors. A patch of forest that might yield a good harvest in a rainy year could be unproductive in a drier year, or in a year when a certain pest spreads. And things such as pest outbreaks or the weather are pretty much impossible to predict weeks or months in the future, both for humans and for birds.

In the face of such uncertainty, though, the human tendency is to seek some kind of order – to come up with a systematic method for choosing a field site, and, in particular, to make decisions based on the conditions of the previous year.

Neither option is useful. Last year’s conditions have pretty much no bearing on events in the years ahead (a rainy July 2013 does not have any bearing on the wetness of July 2014). And systematic methods can be prey to all sorts of biases. If, for example, a Kantu’ farmer predicted that the water levels would be favourable one year, and so put all his fields next to the river, a single flood could wipe out his entire crop. For the Kantu’, the best option was one familiar to any investor when faced with an unpredictable market: they needed to diversify. And bird augury was an especially effective way to bring about that kind of diversification.

It makes sense that it should have taken Dove some 15 years to realise that randomness could be an asset. As moderns, we take it for granted that the best decisions stem from a process of empirical analysis and informed choice, with a clear goal in mind. That kind of decision-making, at least in theory, undergirds the ways that we choose political leaders, play the stock market, and select candidates for schools and jobs. It also shapes the way in which we critique the rituals and superstitions of others. But, as the Kantu’ illustrate, there are plenty of situations when random chance really is your best option. And those situations might be far more prevalent in our modern lives than we generally admit.

Daily Weekly

Over the millennia, cultures have expended a great deal of time, energy and ingenuity in order to introduce some element of chance into decision-making. Naskapi hunters in the Canadian province of Labrador would roast the scapula of a caribou in order to determine the direction of their next hunt, reading the cracks that formed on the surface of the bone like a map. In China, people have long sought guidance in the passages of the I Ching, using the intricate manipulation of 49 yarrow stalks to determine which section of the book they ought to consult. The Azande of central Africa, when faced with a difficult choice, would force a powdery poison down a chicken’s throat, finding the answer to their question in whether or not the chicken survived – a hard-to-predict, if not quite random, outcome. (‘I found this as satisfactory a way of running my home and affairs as any other I know of,’ wrote the British anthropologist E E Evans-Pritchard, who adopted some local customs during his time with the Azande in the 1920s).

The list goes on. It could – it does – fill books. As any blackjack dealer or tarot reader might tell you, we have a love for the flip of the card. Why shouldn’t we? Chance has some special properties. It is a swift, consistent, and (unless your chickens all die) relatively cheap decider. Devoid of any guiding mind, it is subject to neither blame nor regret. Inhuman, it can act as a blank surface on which to descry the churning of fate or the work of divine hands. Chance distributes resources and judges disputes with perfect equanimity.

The sanitising effect of augury cleans out any bad reasons

Above all, chance makes its selection without any recourse to reasons. This quality is perhaps its greatest advantage, though of course it comes at a price. Peter Stone, a political theorist at Trinity College, Dublin, and the author of The Luck of the Draw: The Role of Lotteries in Decision Making (2011), has made a career of studying the conditions under which such reasonless-ness can be, well, reasonable.

‘What lotteries are very good for is for keeping bad reasons out of decisions,’ Stone told me. ‘Lotteries guarantee that when you are choosing at random, there will be no reasons at all for one option rather than another being selected.’ He calls this the sanitising effect of lotteries – they eliminate all reasons from a decision, scrubbing away any kind of unwanted influence. As Stone acknowledges, randomness eliminates good reasons from the running as well as bad ones. He doesn’t advocate using chance indiscriminately. ‘But, sometimes,’ he argues, ‘the danger of bad reasons is bigger than the loss of the possibility of good reasons.’

For an example, let’s return to the Kantu’. Besides certain basic characteristics, when it comes to selecting a swidden site in the forest, there are no good reasons by which to choose a site. You just don’t know what the weather and pests will look like. As a result, any reasons that a Kantu’ farmer uses will either be neutral, or actively harmful. The sanitising effect of augury cleans out those bad reasons. The Kantu’ also establish fields in swampland, where the characteristics of a good site are much more predictable – where, in other words, good reasons are abundant. In the swamps, as it happens, the Kantu’ don’t use augury to make their pick.

Thinking about choice and chance in this way has applications outside rural Borneo, too. In particular, it can call into question some of the basic mechanisms of our rationalist-meritocratic-democratic system – which is why, as you might imagine, a political theorist such as Stone is so interested in randomness in the first place.

Around the same time that Michael Dove was pondering his riddle in a Kantu’ longhouse, activists and political scientists were beginning to revive the idea of filling certain political positions by lottery, a process known as sortition.

The practice has a long history. Most public officials in democratic Athens were chosen by lottery, including the nine archons who were chosen by sortition from a significant segment of the population. The nobles of Renaissance Venice used to select their head of state, the doge, through a complicated, partially randomised process. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in The Social Contract (1762), argued that lotteries would be the norm in an ideal democracy, giving every citizen an equal chance of participating in every part of the government (Rousseau added that such ideal democracies did not exist). Sortition survives today in the process of jury selection, and it crops up from time to time in unexpected places. Ontario and British Columbia, for example, have used randomly selected panels of Canadian citizens to propose election regulations.

Advocates of sortition suggest applying that principle more broadly, to congresses and parliaments, in order to create a legislature that closely reflects the actual composition of a state’s citizenship. They are not (just to be clear) advocating that legislators randomly choose policies. Few, moreover, would suggest that non-representative positions such as the US presidency be appointed by a lottery of all citizens. The idea is not to banish reason from politics altogether. But plenty of bad reasons can influence the election process – through bribery, intimidation, and fraud; through vote-purchasing; through discrimination and prejudices of all kinds. The question is whether these bad reasons outweigh the benefits of a system in which voters pick their favourite candidates.

By way of illustration: a handful of powerful families and influential cliques dominated Renaissance Venice. The use of sortition in selection of the doge, writes the historian Robert Finlay in Politics in Renaissance Venice (1980), was a means of ‘limiting the ability of any group to impose its will without an overwhelming majority or substantial good luck’. Americans who worry about unbridled campaign-spending by a wealthy few might relate to this idea.

Or consider this. In theory, liberal democracies want legislatures that accurately reflect their citizenship. And, presumably, the qualities of a good legislator (intelligence, integrity, experience) aren’t limited to wealthy, straight, white men. The relatively homogeneous composition of our legislatures suggests that less-than-ideal reasons are playing a substantial role in the electoral process. Typically, we just look at this process and wonder how to eliminate that bias. Advocates of sortition see conditions ripe for randomness.

once all good reasons are eliminated, the most efficient, most fair and most honest option might be chance

It’s not only politics where the threat of bad reasons, or a lack of any good reasons, makes the luck of the draw seem attractive. Take college admissions. When Columbia University accepts just 2,291 of its roughly 33,000 applicants, as it did this year, it’s hard to imagine that the process was based strictly on good reasons. ‘College admissions are already random; let’s just admit it and begin developing a more effective system,’ wrote the education policy analyst Chad Aldeman on the US daily news site Inside Higher Ed back in 2009. He went on to describe the notion of collegiate meritocracy as ‘a pretension’ and remarked: ‘A lottery might be the answer.’

The Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz, writing in The Atlantic in 2012, came to a similar conclusion. He proposed that, once schools have narrowed down their applicant pools to a well-qualified subset, they could just draw names. Some schools in the Netherlands already use a similar system. ‘A lottery like this won’t correct the injustice that is inherent in a pyramidal system in which not everyone can rise to the top,’ wrote Schwartz. ‘But it will reveal the injustice by highlighting the role of contingency and luck.’ Once certain standards are met, no really good reasons remain to discriminate between applicant No 2,291 (who gets into Columbia) and applicant No 2,292 (who does not). And once all good reasons are eliminated, the most efficient, most fair and most honest option might be chance.

But perhaps not the most popular one. When randomness is added to a supposedly meritocratic system, it can inspire quite a backlash. In 2004, the International Skating Union (ISU) introduced a new judging system for figure-skating competitions. Under this system – which has since been tweaked – 12 judges evaluated each skater, but only nine of those votes, selected at random, actually counted towards the final tally (the ancient Athenians judged drama competitions in a similar way). Figure skating is a notoriously corrupt sport, with judges sometimes forming blocs that support each other’s favoured skaters. In theory, a randomised process makes it harder to form such alliances. A tit-for-tat arrangement, after all, doesn’t work as well if it’s unclear whether your partners will be able to reciprocate.

But the new ISU rules did more than simply remove a temptation to collude. As statisticians pointed out, random selection will change the outcome of some events. Backing their claims with competition data, they showed how other sets of randomly selected votes would have yielded different results, actually changing the line-up of the medal podium in at least one major competition. Even once all the skaters had performed, ultimate victory depended on the luck of the draw.

There are two ways to look at this kind of situation. The first way – the path of outrage – condemns a system that seems fundamentally unfair. A second approach would be to recognise that the judging process is already subjective and always will be. Had a different panel of 12 judges been chosen for the competition, the result would have varied, too. The ISU system simply makes that subjectivity more apparent, even as it reduces the likelihood that certain obviously bad influences, such as corruption, will affect the final result.

Still, most commentators opted for righteous outrage. That isn’t surprising. The ISU system conflicts with two common modern assumptions: that it is always desirable (and usually possible) to eliminate uncertainty and chance from a situation; and that achievement is perfectly reflective of effort and talent. Sortition, college admission lotteries, and randomised judging run against the grain of both of these premises. They embrace uncertainty as a useful part of their processes, and they fail to guarantee that the better citizen or student or skater, no matter how much she drives herself to success, will be declared the winner.

Let me suggest that, in the fraught and unpredictable world in which we live, both of those ideals – total certainty and perfect reward – are delusional. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to increase knowledge and reward success. It’s just that, until we reach that utopia, we might want to come to terms with the reality of our situation, which is that our lives are dominated by uncertainty, biases, subjective judgments and the vagaries of chance.

In the novel The Man in the High Castle (1962), the American sci-fi maestro Philip K Dick imagines an alternative history in which Germany and Japan win the Second World War. Most of the novel’s action takes place in Japanese-occupied San Francisco, where characters, both Japanese and American, regularly use the I Ching to guide difficult decisions in their business lives and personal affairs.

Something, somewhere, is always playing dice

As an American with no family history of divination, I’ll admit to being enchanted by Dick’s vision of a sci-fi world where people yield some of their decision-making power to the movements of dried yarrow stems. There’s something liberating, maybe, in being able to acknowledge that the reasons we have are often inadequate, or downright poor. Without needing to impose any supernatural system, it’s not hard to picture a society in which chance plays a more explicit, more accepted role in the ways in which we distribute goods, determine admissions to colleges, give out jobs to equally matched applicants, pick our elected leaders, and make personal decisions in our own lives.

Such a society is not a rationalist’s nightmare. Instead, in an uncertain world where bad reasons do determine so much of what we decide, it’s a way to become more aware of what factors shape the choices we make. As Peter Stone told me, paraphrasing Immanuel Kant, ‘the first task of reason is to recognise its own limitations’. Nor is such a society more riddled with chanciness than our own. Something, somewhere, is always playing dice. The roles of coloniser and colonised, wealthy and poor, powerful and weak, victor and vanquished, are rarely as predestined as we imagine them to be.

Dick seems to have understood this. Certainly, he embraced chance in a way that few other novelists ever have. Years after he wrote The Man in the High Castle, Dick explained to an interviewer that, setting aside from planning and the novelist’s foresight, he had settled key details of the book’s plot by flipping coins and consulting the I Ching.

Read more essays on knowledge, politics & government and sports & games


  • Heroka

    Interesting article!

    A remark on the lottery of Dutch schools; the lottery is used for schools where the number of admissions is fixed by the state (for example, medical school). It's not completely random though, as some spots are filled by applying other selection processes (examns, essays, interviews).

    In the lottery, chances of acceptance depend on the grades participants achieved in high school (everyone sits the same exams). Applicants with a mean grade of 8 or higher get guaranteed admission to the institution of their choice, below that it's a lottery but weighted by mean grade.

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  • BDewnorkin

    This article suggests a more interesting question that perhaps Dove missed. If, assuming that the Kantu's ornithology is indeed so primitive that birdwatching simulates a pure lottery, there must have been years when the practice brought about poor crop yields and punctured the mythological reassurance that made randomness psychologically tolerable. How, then, did the Kantu's belief system accommodate this challenge? Indeed, did some Kantu recognize the absurdity of their own practice?

    • LoggerheadShrike

      There would be poor yields in some fields every year, regardless of how they chose those fields. The difference when it's randomized is that some fields would always do well, because randomization gives the locations diverse attributes.

      If they abandoned the lottery they would have to replace it with some specifications for discerning the best field. Since that's impossible, since any specifications would necessarily be flawed, what they would end up with is a set of guidelines that would provide no better returns, being that success is still no less random. The only thing it would do is guarantee, sooner or later, a total failure of the entire crop by whatever common elements the fields shared as a result of the system used to determine plot locations.

      • BDewnorkin

        I wasn't challenging the effectiveness of the practice (though I do have some doubts: arbitrariness is more or less assumed in Dove's work) but pointing out a different anthropological question altogether, one stemming from Schulson's suggestion that it's psychologically difficult to accept that one is acting arbitrarily.

        • LoggerheadShrike

          I don't think they do accept that. The mechanics of the lottery are kept hidden by fictions about the birds. The oldest and/or most perceptive tribal members probably realize it's a bunch of fiction, but by that time, they're likely wise to its purpose, and work to sustain the fiction for everyone else.

          • Derek Roche

            The lie agreed upon: We take these truths to be self-evident . . .

          • BDewnorkin

            Belief is much more complicated than can be even approximated by a reason-faith dichotomy; some serious ethnography is called for.

          • LoggerheadShrike

            Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    • ApathyNihilism

      The Kantu sound like a society nearly as sick as our own. Those who poison animals should instead poison themselves as their decision-making process. If they survive, that means they should take the relevant course of action. If not, then...

  • gogododo

    I would think one of the best reasons for randomness would be the elimination of needless power struggles between people who have different opinion on where to plant. You want to plant over in one field for some reason and I wish to plant somewhere else for an equally random reason. We can spend a good deal of energy arguing which could potentially elevate into real violence. Even a slight break in the cohesiveness of the group can be problematic. This sounds like the sort of wisdom that would come from having elders. I always feel like one of the main problems with western democratic thought is it doesn't take into account human nature

    • William Burke

      And, since corruption cannot be absolutely (or even effectively) eliminated in election politics (to name but one area), introducing randomness should act as an equalizer, and in fact will probably (a word I'll leave as is, for reasons that should be clear) act to actually minimize corruption better than any other method!

      • ApathyNihilism

        Why would this minimize corruption? There will still be people in positions of power, even if randomly selected. At least some of those will still be corrupt - possibly more, since there is no oversight in their selection.

        • Napo Martin

          It can be achieved in two ways.

          First, oversight should not come from the pool of selected people, it should be an independent entity, possibly made of members randomly selected (similarly, it is foolish to consider electors to exercise such judgement in our current political selection processes).

          Second, the randomness means that a leader has a high chance not to be selected again for another term, so if a leader is corrupt, the consequences of his/her corrupt behavior come with an expiration date. If we are to consider people to be generally good, then the chances to get corrupt after corrupt leaders should be low.

          I think your comment is important because it raises the question of how are we going to define the lottery to select leadership. One can hardly imagine a randomly elected leader to be chosen for a very long period of time, for example.

  • Tim Chambers

    The Kantu's ornithology may be a wise manner in which to decide on a place to plant, but lotteries in place of elections merely guarantees a legislative power vacuum that someone else will have to fill. The need for knowledge and expertise on virtually every issue would probably lead to even more reliance on lobbyists than already is the case.
    Otherwise, it sounds every much like the random walk theory of investing.

    • LoggerheadShrike

      Knowledge and expertise don't win elections. Money, media appeal, and demagoguery do.

      • Tim Chambers

        Lotteries in place of elections obviates money, media appeal and demagoguery. The knowledge and expertise I speak of are needed once you're in office. Legislators who work on issues for a long time generally have it, or have staff members who have it. Without it, they are far too reliant on lobbyists.

        • William Burke

          Since you are right about the effect of lobbyists in politics, wouldn't outlawing lobbying (with strictly-enforced penalties) make the so-called "random" selection of office-holders even more desirable as a method?

    • 013090

      Additonally, to make it where we could have a high confidence level (in a statistical sense) that it is truly random, we would need a massive legislative branch (several thousand representatives). Most would be highly uninformed of the issues, and many simply incapable of understanding them (it is not elitist to acknowledge that fact). With so many, there would still inevitably be charismatic leaders who use money, emotion, and personality to abuse the system.

      Also, if it is random, you would need to lengthen terms. With two year cycles for a hypothetical several thousand member House, it would be absolutely chaotic.

    • JimBaugh

      Legislators already rely very heavily on lobbyists for information. That would not change. However, legislators reliance on lobbyists for campaign funds would be eliminated. I think the net effect would be that lobbyists would have much less influence, and that the influence they do have would be based on information and expertise. A less pernicious basis. There are other problems with lotteries replacing elections though.

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  • ChrisinCT

    "until we reach that utopia, we might want to come to
    terms with the reality of our situation, which is that our lives are
    dominated by uncertainty, biases, subjective judgments and the vagaries
    of chance".

    This is very true. We are always looking for reasons for things, but so much of what happens in life are subjectively derived, unplanned, random occurrences that we try to give meaning to after the fact. Or we map out a plan for something beforehand, only to see that we had no idea how it was going to turn out in the end.

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  • speegster

    Great article, thanks. I wonder whether the fact that the anthropologist who set out to study a group of subsistence farmers that select their cultivation sites by the actions of birds had the surname 'Dove' is also down to chance!

  • SARK7

    Insightful and thought provoking article - thank you! It inspired me to write a shout-out on my analytics / decision making blog:

  • 013090

    A good article, though I am surprised you mentioned that school admission based on lottery happens in the Netherlands, without mentioning that admission based on lottery is already in widespread use throughout the United States.

    Where specifically? In charter schools

    Many, if not most charter schools base their admissions on lotteries (with exceptions for children of teachers/faculty members). There is usually very high demand to get into the schools, so to avoid controversy, and to attain an accurate representation of the community they are in, they rely on randomness, so that the only non-random factor in admissions becomes how likely it is for one to apply.

  • 013090

    From the article: "For an example, let’s return to the Kantu’. Besides certain basic characteristics, when it comes to selecting a swidden site in the forest, there are no good reasons by which to choose a site. You just don’t know what the weather and pests will look like. As a result, any reasons that a Kantu’ farmer uses will either be neutral, or actively harmful."

    I might be missing something, and if so please point it out to me, but why can reasons be actively harmful but not actively helpful? Even if they have no strong reasoning to legitmize their reasons, if it is truly random, don't those reasons have a random chance (though not necessarily 50/50) of being either harmful or helpful?

    • ApathyNihilism

      Yes, that point bothered me as well. I didn't follow the logic of that argument.

    • Sergio Graziosi

      This one is not difficult: if you employ objective, real and quantifiable reasons to choose a particular kind of field, you will, by definition not diversify your investment. As a result external, unpredictable events (the flood, parasites, etc) may wipe you out in one particular year.

      This is true even if the "objective, real and quantifiable reasons" do work well on average, e.g. they do identify good spots, in the absence of catastrophic events. Say that you have 10 "types" of field to choose from, type1 produces more crop than all other types, but may be flooded; if a flood occurs produces nothing. Other types will produce less, and some will be susceptible to other types of disruption (and combinations thereof).
      If A: disruptions are indeed unpredictable and
      If B: all your crops are in type1 (because you know it yields more)
      the tribe will perish at the first flood (that's a supposedly "good" and objective reason that was in the end actively harmful).
      The other tribe that was randomising choice will struggle a little more on normal years, but never incur in the high-cost occasional extermination. Hence, the randomising tribe survived the test of time, the apparently more rational tribe didn't.

      If the reasons of your choice are not good reasons, as in "they don't map to real qualities of your environment" then they are effectively random. If they do track something real, then there is always the chance that a catastrophic event will eventually strike the sites that have that particular common characteristic and kill the whole tribe. Therefore "real" reasons are bad (even when effective), imagined reasons (those that don't track any real feature) are neutral or equivalent of choosing at random (e.g. "good").

      In other words, if you don't diversify, you maximise risk, and that's bad. But humans are very poor at consciously making random choices, we are really terrible at that, hence the need for some unpredictable external factor (in this case complex bird observations).

  • Jon

    From a personal standpoint, just picking one direction at random also eliminates the the massive effort and energy that might be spent worrying about and vacillating between dichotomies or equally valid paths of choice. It's also a great feat of acceptance, fatalism, a leap of faith -- it seems an attractive way of thinking about life. For one thing, it's viewing life as a possibility space rather than a linear and determined path. That to me seems far more exciting a way of life than the one I was brought up to cling to.

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  • beachcomber

    "If you come to a fork in the road, take it!" Yogi Berra ... and regarding literature and randomness, there's also Luke Rhinehart's "The Dice Man" and "Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

    Not forgetting that a monkey throwing a dart at a list of stocks has as good a chance of beating the index as a professional fund manager.

    As with the monkeys, it may simply be a matter of time; the longer you do something without too much of an adverse result there isn't really any logical reason to stop doing it. Refer innumerable social behaviours.

  • skanik

    The notion that we can fully analyse all possible contingencies and then make the most rational decision is one that allow rapacious stockbrokers off when the market -
    that they fully manipulated - crashes and they clean up on "our misfortune" and then
    tell us - two years later: "The Market is Coming Back- time to Invest" and given that
    the Banks pay 0.1 % interest...

    Yes, admit 50 % of the students by merit and then randomly pick from the remaining
    qualified students - as long as each department has enough incoming freshman -
    and see what the random admittance produces.

    Now that we have the internet - what is to stop a national vote whenever
    any major bill passes congress or to approve or disapprove of a new Supreme
    Court Justice ?

    Power to the People - even if they are a rather random lot.

  • Roy Niles

    The author is basically substituting randomness for the lack of intelligence, and then using his version of intelligence to tell us why randomness is a more intelligent process. What actually occurs in life is that we often do the right things for the wrong reasons as there is no such thing as a perfect process of prediction in a random world. One reason being that we live in a form of randomness that is in itself operable within a predictable range.
    Which in the end is why we've evolved intelligently operative thinking systems that are all based on a trial and error process. Random trials however often based on superstition that often accidentally works. Otherwise, for one example, we'd have no operative oil fields in the religious societies in the middle east. And lets not forget how often they're the cause of wars.

  • ApathyNihilism

    A hybrid system seems best, at least in the common situations where there are more candidates than positions.

    That is (as in the college admissions example), first distill the best candidates as far as possible, that is, to the point of quality indeterminacy (where the differences can no longer be judged as predictably better or worse). Then apply chance/random procedures to select from that pool.

    This means that those who fill the positions are drawn from among the best, but without any prejudicial bias in choosing from that pool of the best.

    The extreme version of complete randomness would be foolish, as it would permit unqualified and inferior individuals to occupy positions for which they are not suited, and would conversely block those who deserve those positions.

  • ApathyNihilism

    "recognise that the judging process is already subjective and always will be."

    Why is this necessarily a bad thing? Once the objective criteria are met, then of course subjective judgement comes into play. To utilize the criterion of randomness instead is to presume the subjective judgment is always corrupt, evil, defective, detrimental. That is clearly not the case; else we should all be robots.

    For example, in figure skating, the judge must first consider the objective standards, and then apply the subjective standard of aesthetic judgment. In college admissions, beyond the objective standards, the judges then consider subjective standards, a judgement of the candidate's character and personality as discerned from the essays, interview process, letters of recommendation, and so on. Of course, there are risks, of bias/prejudice, and so on. However, it is not clear how a random process would necessarily improve upon this.

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  • A Kaleberg

    This is introductory game theory. If you don't have complete information, the optimal strategy usually has a random component. In theory, a chess player should never move at random. All the pieces are visible and the rules are well known. This is rarely the case in real life where there is always something unknown and the rules are unclear. Maybe more people should take a few hours of time to learn some game theory, or perhaps, roll a die and learn some game theory if it lands on one of its faces.

  • tarry2020

    Information for decision-making has always been incomplete, often inadequate and sometimes inappropriate but decisions have to be made anyway. So what has been driving this process? Chance and random choice unknown to the users who think they are making rational choices. Just think of how people choose their life partners.

  • Sue suntan

    I hope the Orangutans are alright while they're busy randomly 'slashing and burning' the place up

  • Sergio Graziosi

    I find it very peculiar, surprising and somewhat worrying that the article doesn't mention Nassim N. Taleb's work. beachcomber does mention him in the comments, but left out the one book that makes all the relevant points in one go:
    Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder”
    Also relevant is his article on Edge: Understanding is a poor substitute for convexity (antifragility)