Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Voting and Rationality

Imagine the following premises for some kind of popular voting for an award:


  • Every uses a correct objective set of criteria to determine his vote.
  • There is one candidate who is 1% better than his closes competitor.
Question:  What percentage of the vote would you expect the 1% superior candidate to receive?

The answer is 100%.  If every voter is objective, one would expect the to independently each reach the same conclusion.  Just as if you sent mathematicians a math problem with a correct answer, I would expect them all to respond with the same correct answer, and any incorrect answers (even ones that were close) to be dwarfed by the correct responses.

So, I'm a bit puzzled by Christina Kahrl's disappointment that Joey Votto received 31 of 32 first place votes for the National League MVP over Albert Pujols.  If Votto is the deserving winner (which Kahrl does not dispute), then one would expect that voters using the same sound criteria would all reach the same conclusion.  Even if the difference between them was narrow.  

Kahrl is on more solid ground in criticizing those who placed others like Carlos Gonzales second over Pujols, but I don't really care that much about down-ballot selections, except when they skew the outcome at the top.

Now, I suspect that Votto's margin of victory has more to do with some of the other reasons Karhl sites (Votto's team winning the division, fatigue of voting for Pujols, Pujols being punished for having a great, rather than historically great, year) than a sudden embrace of objectivity on the part of BBWAA.  But if they had embraced objectivity, this is what the result would look like.

In any case, if you're worked up over the margin of victory for someone you believe to be the rightful winner of an award, it may be a sign you don't have enough things to worry about.

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While I'm on the topic of anger over votes that don't matter, it is obviously ridiculous that Bristol Palin is a finalist in Dancing with the Stars.  Even more absurd is the notion that the undeserving daughter of a political figure winning a competition is some kind of political statement.  If people didn't care for Sarah Palin before, I don't think they're going to give her a second look because her daughter won a TV dancing competition.

Then it occurs to me that the "rightful" winner of a competition involving novice dancers learning how to dance with the help of an experienced professional dancer is a woman most famous for her role in a movie as a novice dancer who learns to dance with the help of an experienced dancer.  Stressing out over the integrity of an "amateur" dancing competition that includes a competitor who is world-famous as a dancer seems a bit strange.

Which leads us to wonder what exactly we're consuming when we watch Dancing With the Stars.  It's not excellence in performance, since professional ballroom dancing is the stuff of non-pledge time PBS filler.  And it's not just seeing celebs embarrass themselves, since the truly awful dancers do seem to get voted out early, and the best dancers usually do win or make it to the finals, and nobody seemed to enjoy watching pseudo-celebs make fools of themselves on Skating with the Stars.  And it's not just relatability, since some relative unknowns have won or made it far.

No, it's some odd combination of the above.  We like familiar celebrities, but not too famous.  We want to see them struggle, but not make fools of themselves.  We want them to be good, but not too good.  It's a delicate balance.  And I'm not sure what it says about us that this is what we seem to want.


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