A nation ignorant and free, that never was and never shall be. Thomas Jefferson
[This is the addended transcript of my regular KVMR commentary broadcast on 8 November 2017.]
Numeracy is the name given to a set of math oriented skills that an educated lay person is supposed to have in order to hold a job, function as a householder, and understand the day’s news and issues. Such skills include the ability to do arithmetic, understand graphs and charts, be able think logically, comprehend the basics of chance and risk, and so on. For a numerate person, the mastery of these basic skills need not be at the level of a technician, but sufficient to comprehend today’s work-a-day world that will be ever more complex tomorrow.
Well, it appears more and more with each passing day that this is not the case. The innumeracy of our electeds is already legend among those who can and do pay attention. Combined with their other character shortcomings, our fiscal messes provide enough evidence of that. But now, warning bells are also starting to ring from the highest levels of our judicial branch. Recent cases involving gerrymandering reveal that our Supreme Court is proudly innumerate as they reject arguments that describe the basics of playing with congressional district boundary lines to ensure that one or the other party gains or remains in power - a very technical yet centuries old enterprise in our republic.
I was recently surprised to learn through a correspondent that “the Supreme Court is allergic to math”. Oliver Roeder of 538.com points out “the justices, the most powerful jurists in the land, seem to have a reluctance to taking math and statistics seriously.” Currently this is in evidence in the case of Gill v Whitford that “will determine the future of partisan gerrymandering”, and how that will infringe on voters’ rights. There is some serious math involved in the algorithms that are used to compute the gerrymandered district boundaries. And at least four justices have voiced that the math is “unwieldy, complicated, and newfangled”, with one justice calling the whole thing “baloney”. Meanwhile the reality of computing such boundaries to affect political outcomes continues, no matter how little of the matter is accepted or understood by the court. (more here and here)
Now there are some ways to minimize the court’s numeracy requirements, as taught in the system sciences, ways that have yet to be broached by the lawyers in the case, who seem to be equally limited. And many legal scholars are beginning to understand that the fault here lies with traditional legal education, as delivered by the nation’s top law schools. Such training ignores the promise of advancing technology that more and more cases the court hears will hinge on sophisticated notions that can only be described with statistics and algorithms, the understanding of which will bear on the already muddied legal definitions of what is ‘fair’ and ‘just’.
The real worry here is that if our Supreme Court is flummoxed by hoary disputes such as gerrymandering, how can it possibly rule in cases involving, say, subtle discrimination, equal opportunity, or complexly regulated markets, all the measures of which today involve available numbers and statistics. And we have yet to consider the expected tsunami of cases that hinge on the rampant implementation of intelligent machines, and advanced proprietary processes such as deep learning with big data. Without a numerate judiciary, our nation will go forward with an ensconced powerful cadre of mentally medieval gatekeepers making critical decisions in a technology-dominated world. I think it’s past time to broaden the requirements for a 21st century law degree, and also for some mandated remedial training for those who already rule how the rest of us should lead our lives.
My name is Rebane, and I also expand on this and related themes on Rebane’s Ruminations where the addended transcript of this commentary is posted with relevant links, and where such issues are debated extensively. However, my views are not necessarily shared by KVMR. Thank you for listening.
[Addendum] To reduce the numeracy acumen of the courts, specifically SCOTUS, in cases such as to determine the best national prescription for gerrymandering congressional districts, it would be more than useful if the contending sides would gather with the court and attempt to put in place some of the guidance developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project led by Roger Fisher and William Ury (here, here, and here).
The contending sides should first attempt to define a mutually acceptable ‘utility function’ (UF) or simply the utility that can be used to compute how acceptable or ‘good’ is a given solution – in this case the set of gerrymandered boundaries drawn by some algorithm. We should recall that ALL utility functions are subjective – there is no UF that comes down the mountain to us inscribed in stone; we make them up to suit our needs. Such a utility will input the boundaries and the socio-political demographics of the underlying geographical area, and output a number. The larger the number, the better the mutually acceptable solution.
All utility functions are subjective and can be first described in the King’s English without resorting to any fancy math, algorithmics, or how the utility is computed – the UF is just a black box with known in puts and a single number output. UFs may also be defined in terms of several attributes, which is the usual case. (Here, such things as the district’s ratio of area to perimeter length, and closeness to, say, the state’s proportion by party affiliation.) The main notion here is that the definition of acceptable solutions and their relative ratings will be known to all parties involved, who can then work supportively work together to find either the ‘best’ or a mutually acceptable solution. Such a process also identifies the winning algorithm that computed the solution which can then be codified into law or mandated for use in some other way.
If such a mutually acceptable UF cannot be agreed upon, then both parties present to the court the UF that suits each, and once approved by the court, the search for the best gerrymandering algorithm proceeds in an open and transparent process. In this case the final solution will probably be the one that discovers what in game theory is known as the Nash Equilibrium (q.v.) solution. An NE solution is one for which the computed UF for either party will be diminished if that party tries to unilaterally abandon the solution while the satisfied party maintains it. In short, it pays for all parties to accept the NE compromise.
This approach can be used to resolve many other cases of contention where a single outcome that will be imposed on both parties is required. And nowhere in the proceedings does it require the judge/justices to acquire any “newfangled” numeracy skills.
For more esoteric adjudications involving numerical consideration wherein the parties will be asymmetrically judged – one wins (more), the other loses commensurably – the court can select an appropriate approach from to the rich body of work known as Fair Division Methods (google ‘fair division methods’)
The overarching principle that I believe our legislative and judicial institutions should abandon is purveying the fiction that there is some universally acceptable, absolute, or gold standard definitions of ‘fair’ and ‘just’ that are either sought or appended to rulings rendered by our institutions of collective power. There are none, and the worst that can be done is for our mandarins to project the hubris of certainty and absoluteness from their high-level perches.
The problem that we in the nebbish seats have is that we are either ignorant or indifferent to what is going on and how things are resolved while our attention is elsewhere. The usual response of the masses has been to not care until things become so bad as to require the aggrieved to reach for the pitchforks and torches, and march to the town square. Although there have been exceptions, such attempted solutions seldom turn out well.
We are quietly heading into an AGI (artificial generalized intelligence) crisis as we busy ourselves rearranging deck chairs. Take note of the comment stream below.