A randomly brilliant idea

Colum by Michael Alcorn
Posted 10/6/20

Do you ever wonder whether we’re asking the right questions about the problems we face? Or, are you more like me, and are absolutely certain the we are NOT asking the right questions. Malcolm …

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A randomly brilliant idea


Do you ever wonder whether we’re asking the right questions about the problems we face?

Or, are you more like me, and are absolutely certain the we are NOT asking the right questions.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his “Revisionist History” podcast, relates a story about a visit with the head of the grant-awarding department of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They were discussing the process the NIH goes through to award the billions of dollars it awards annually to scientists who want to research various questions. As you might guess, it involves several rounds, many committees, and a thoroughly objective process — or, so they tell themselves.

The reality is that after a complicated vetting process for these grant applications, this thorough process results in somewhat less than astonishing success. That is, by the standards that they have established — “success” means the results of a granted study are frequently cited in other scientific works — their success rate with their awards is about the same as the Rockies’ clutch hitting batting average the past two years.

Gladwell uses this statistic to support what he calls “Cronkrite’s Third Law,” named for Adam Cronkrite, the man with a revolutionary electoral process, which I will get to later. The 3rd Law is this: Nobody Knows Anything.

This idea took hold in the scientific community; in fact, it caught fire to the extent that two highly-qualified scientists — microbiologists, it turns out (Ferric Fang and Arturo Casadevall) — wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal saying “winning a government grant is a crap shoot; making it official by running a lottery would be an improvement.”

What they advocated was a process that started the same way — all of the grant applications going through the first round of the old process, so that the experts could eliminate the applications that obviously do not meet NIH muster. But then, after that, the remaining applications should go in a hat and be chosen by lottery.

So, back to Cronkrite. Adam Cronkrite began taking a version of this process to various schools — starting in Bolivia — to change their process for choosing student councils. What he had found is that several different things change when the election process becomes randomized. One, many more people want to actually *do* the job than want to *ask people to vote for them* to do the job. Secondly, when people who are untraditional get selected to do the job, it changes what the job is. For instance, instead of student governments in Bolivia planning dances and parades, these ones hold fundraisers to help combat human trafficking and sponsor community festivals. And three, even the most experienced, expert people on the scene (that is, teachers and school leadership in those schools) are often surprised and/or wrong about how effective or ineffective different people are in the job once they get it. The traditional view of what makes a great school leader — poise, communication skills, charisma — doesn’t always correlate to being a great team player, to be willing to do thankless jobs, and to look beyond one’s personal experience to pick important things to work on.

Now, obviously, we can’t apply this process to choosing our President. The Constitution lays out the process for that, and I am loath to blithely advocate for discarding the Constitution just because it has left us in this current state of affairs.

But, can it possibly be any more obvious that we are not asking the right questions any more when it comes to the leadership of our country?

I admire anyone, on any level, who is willing to step into the ring and engage in the battle of ideas. But anybody who watched the debate or who has had to view the endless Senate campaign commercials has to know that we no longer have a battle of ideas at the top level — we have a clash of personalities and budgets and strategies, almost completely bereft of ideas.

Can a lottery really do any worse?

Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Charon’s Blade,” is available at Amazon.com, on Kindle, or through MichaelJAlcorn.com.” His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.


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