Science funding is a gamble so let’s give out money by lottery

Perhaps your life, like that of many of my friends and relatives, has been improved by propranolol – a beta-blocker that reduces the effects of stress hormones, and that’s used to treat conditions such as high blood pressure, chest pain, an uneven heartbeat and migraines. It’s considered one of the most important pharmaceutical breakthroughs of the 20th century.

Thank goodness, then, that the United States in the 1940s didn’t have the same attitude to science funding that it does today. If it had, you could expect to see seven experts sitting around a table, trying to assign a score to an unorthodox grant proposal to study the function of adrenaline in the body. ‘If I have properly understood the author’s intent, then this mechanism has already been settled, surely,’ a senior physician might say. A lone physiologist mounts a defence, but the pharmacologists in the room are dismissive, with one who remarks that the mathematics ‘look cumbrous and inconvenient’. So the pathbreaking research of the late Raymond Ahlquist, a professor at the Medical College of Georgia who laid the foundations for the discovery of propranolol, could easily end up with low marks, and his theories would never see the light of day.

Science is expensive, and since we can’t fund every scientist, we need some way of deciding whose research deserves a chance. So, how do we pick? At the moment, expert reviewers spend a lot of time allocating grant money by trying to identify the best work. But the truth is that they’re not very good at it, and that the process is a huge waste of time. It would be better to do away with the search for excellence, and to fund science by lottery.
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Criteria for the application of sortition in a political system

Preamble:

Representation by sortition is defined as “democratic” while representation by election is defined as “aristocratic”. Sortition is a democratic instrument because this way people are represented by “their peers” while in an election-based system people are choosing “the best” as “leaders” (= electoral aristocracy).

To illustrate the aristocratic nature of the electoral system, we can take the example of (what may be a somewhat romanticized description of) pirate ships. A hundred years before the French Revolution, pirate ships were run on lines in which liberty, equality and fraternity were the rule. On a pirate ship, the captain was elected and could be deposed by the votes of the crew. The crew, and not the captain, decided whether to attack a particular ship, or a fleet of ships.

The ancient Greeks (circa 400 BC) used the electoral system for the designation of “the best” as military generals. The legislative institutions, however, were based on democratic instruments: representation by sortition and the people’s assembly. Using an electoral system for legislative institutions mainly finds its origins in the Roman Republic [1].
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Hartz-Karp: Unlike the Athenians, we don’t believe that every citizen is capable of participating in important decision-making

Janette Hartz-Karp, a professor at the Sustainability Policy Institute at Curtin University, has a sortition advocacy piece in The Conversation. It covers well known ground: history, diversity, deliberation, applications in Australia, etc.

The opening of the “What’s the obstacle to reform?” section is interesting:

So why isn’t deliberative democracy happening more often? Simple. Those in power are wary about sharing their power.

Unlike the Athenians, we don’t believe that every citizen is capable of participating in important decision-making. We assume most people are too self-interested to make decisions for the common good.

This seems to conflate two different ideas:

  1. Resistance by the elite,
  2. Anti-democratic sentiments in the population.

The first idea is clear and presents a general phenomenon. Power concedes nothing without a demand.

The second idea, however, is more intriguing. How resistant are the people themselves to democratic rule? If they are, why? An empirical study of this question could be useful.

The article also generated a lively conversation in the comments.

Hague and Harrop: Would we really want a parliament containing its due proportion of the ignorant, the inarticulate and the corrupt?

The following excerpt is from the 2004 edition of Rod Hague and Martin Harrop’s textbook Comparative Government and Politics (The “Functions of legislatures” section, p. 253):

We have suggested that the essence of assemblies is that they ‘represent’ the wider society to the government. But how can we judge whether, and how well, that function is fulfilled? What features would a fully representative assembly exhibit?

One interpretation, plausible at first sight, is that a representative assembly should be a microcosm of society. The idea here is that a legislature should be society in miniature, literally ‘re-presentating’ society in all its diversity. Such a parliament would balance men and women, rich and poor, black and white, even educated and uneducated, in the same mix as in society. How, after all, could a parliament composted entirely of middle-aged white men go about representing young black women – or vice versa? To retain the confidence of society, the argument continues, a representative assembly must reflect social diversity, standing in for society and not just acting on its behalf (Anne Phillips, The Politics of Presence, 1995).
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McCormick: The new ochlophobia? Populism, majority rule and prospects for democratic republicanism

Contributors to this blog who argue the case for full-mandate, voluntarist sortition will find support for their arguments in a forthcoming book chapter by John P. McCormick, author of Machiavellian Democracy. According to McCormick, electoral representation involves rule (primarily) by the rich, whereas democracy by lot is rule by the poor — a perspective that he derives from Aristotle, mediated by Machiavelli, Montesquieu [and Marx]:

The hoplites of ancient Greece and the plebeians of Republican Rome established institutions that granted ultimate legislative authority to the majority qua the poor . . . Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic exhibited primary institutions intended to insure that the poor would rule over or share rule equitably with the rich. (pp. 2-3)

Given this dichotomy it matters little which individuals are selected by preference election or sortition, as the two mechanisms will privilege (respectively) economic elites and the poor, and the resulting political decisions will (presumably) reflect the preferences of these two socio-economic groups.
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Explaining non-participation in deliberative mini-publics

One of the issues dividing commentators on this blog is whether participation in sortition-based assemblies should be mandatory or voluntary — see, for example. Those of us advocating legislative juries based on Athenian nomothetic panels advocate quasi-mandatory participation in order to ensure accurate descriptive representativity. Those, however, who argue for full in-depth participatory deliberation claim that mandatory participation would be ‘disastrous’, as it is hard to see how a a ‘full-charge’ legislature — essentially like existing elected legislatures but with members selected by lot — could function with (in effect) conscripted members.

A paper by Vincent Jacquet in the European Journal of Political Research, examines why it is that the overwhelming majority of randomly-selected persons refuse the invitation to participate in deliberative minipublics. Given that the descriptive representativity of the minipublic (vis-a-vis the target population) is one of the principal rationales for sortition, acceptance rates are extremely poor, ranging from 1% (America Speaks) through 3% (Belgium), 5.7% (Ontario), 6.2% (Netherlands), 7.4% (British Columbia) to 20% in Deliberative Polls. As a result there is a danger that voluntary participation risks the ‘over-representation of better educated and politically active individuals’ as ‘the [overwhelming] majority of the recruited population refuse to participate (pp.2-3).

Stratified sampling can enable some correction but this is generally on the basis of crude population metrics and ‘[voluntary] participation follows the social unequal distribution pattern of political engagement . . . participants are better educated, mostly men and older than the average population . . . participants are more politically interested and have a higher sense of efficacy’ (p.3). Such ‘statistical biases’ might suggest that deliberative minipublics privilege the usual suspects, the added disadvantage being that nobody has chosen ‘descriptive’ representatives and there is no way to kick the rascals out. There is a danger that

Using mini-publics to shape public policies may create new deliberative elites — randomly selected but distinct from the wider population precisely because they have taken the time to deliberate. (p.14)

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2016 review – sortition-related events

This is a review of notable sortition-related events of the year 2016.

Paul Lucardie wrote to note that sortition has been gaining some momentum in the Netherlands with a proposal from a group of mayors to appoint municipal councils members by lot, a proposal that received some media attention. Paul also reports that the Groningen municipal government is set to have an experiment in 2017 in which a partly allotted body will be granted some limited decision making power in the municipality. Paul and some other academics will be monitoring the experiment.

Going over last year’s posts on Equality-by-Lot, I note the following:

Sortition continues its movement toward the center of the political stage in French-speaking Europe.
The most notable developments this year occurred in France, where two prominent candidates for the leadership of the socialist party made separate proposals for introducing allotted bodies into the French system in a way that would potentially give those bodies significant independent power. Allotment was also used to select delegates for a convention of a Left-wing party. More modest steps were taken elsewhere on the continent: in Switzerland and, as Paul mentions, in the Netherlands.

To a much lesser extent sortition is making gains in the English speaking world. In Ireland, the government expressed an intent to convene allotted citizen assemblies to review various issues. In Australia, allotted bodies were convened to handle corruption in local government, and to consider a nuclear dump in SA. David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections was published in English and received some attention. In Canada and the UK sortition was discussed by academics. In the US, sortition was mentioned in a workshop of the APSA.

Sortition’s gains are fueled by the ongoing delegitimization and destabilization of the electoral system throughout the Western world. The two outstanding electoral events of 2016 – the Brexit vote and the election of Trump – are both expressions of a rejection of the electorally-generated establishment and status-quo. For the first time, the U.S. presidential elections featured major party candidates who both had negative net favorability ratings. A study reported that citizens all over the Western world – and in particular, rich citizens – are losing their faith in the electoral system and mainstream political scientists re-discover that electoral government is inherently non-responsive. Elites’ frustration with the electorate is manifesting itself in a revival of openly anti-democratic ideas. Van Reybrouck and others offer sortition as an alternative: a democratic mechanism that will furnish the elites with the outcomes they desire.