Science to the Rescue

By: MikeAugust 24, 2015

Sunday we returned from Sasquan, the 2015 Worldcon held in Spokane WA. It was a good convention, but spirits were somewhat dampened due to political discord. For much of the convention, a literal pall lay over the land. No really, the numerous wildfires in the region filled the Spokane valley with heavy white smoke that reduced visibility to a few hundred feet and turned the sun into a glowing red orb that reminded me of the eye of Sauron.

However, the weather wasn't as oppressive as the politics surrounding the Hugo awards. Science fiction and fantasy authors are used to being seen as weird and possibly unstable by the world, but we've always had each other. Some wear vulcan ears and some wear elf ears (and doubtless too many of us look like hobbits) but we always stick together. This year's Hugos threatened to change that.

I swore that I wasn't going to comment on the controversy surrounding this years Hugo awards. I was raised with the idea that gossip is best avoided, and there were already plenty of people throwing gasoline on the fire.

Conflict cannot survive without your participation.

Sometimes, though, even the heat of conflict can be used to forge something new and beautiful. The Hugos are a prestigious award given to authors and editors. They are a popular award, voted on by the membership of Worldcon. The problem, of course, is that there are far more creative works in a given year than anyone could hope to read, and nominations tend to be scattered widely among thousands of eligible works. With votes scattered so widely, even a small group of people voting in concert can dramatically affect the results.

A couple of years back, a few authors thought they saw evidence that the votes were being manipulated, and brought it to the attention of Worldcon's organizers. Faced with an unconfirmed problem with no readily-apparent solution, the committee chose to take no action. Frustrated, the authors decided to prove that a problem existed by gaming the system themselves. And from there, the accounts diverge and much finger-wagging and name-calling ensues.

The Hugo awards, for all their prestige, are easily manipulated. The Emperor has no clothes, and once that's been pointed out, even shooting the messengers won't restore the illusion. It doesn't really matter if the awards were manipulated in years past, it has now been irrefutably demonstrated that the deck can be stacked.

And so we came to Worldcon with the drama of the Hugos hanging over everything. Fans were frustrated and angry, and the people who had proven the Emperor was naked were endlessly vilified. Draconian solutions were proposed, each worse than the last. Only let the right people vote, throw away the ballets of people who voted too much alike, limit the voting to a select panel of judges. Each proposed solution came with it's own cohort of complications, which were usually worse than the original problem.

Into this swirling maelstrom of ire and frustration there came a hero. I never met him, or was it her? I have no idea what the hero looked like, or where they studied. They didn't have an enchanted axe, a light saber or even an illudium Q-36 explosive space modulator. They wielded the power of math.

By the second day of Worldcon I began to hear rumors of a proposal that would save the Hugos from the perils of slate voting. I was told it would weight the votes. I cringed, thinking of some "literacy test" based system used to decide whose votes should count. No possibility of abuse there, right? Then I heard that it detected slate votes and discarded them. I cringed even more. Measuring covariance is a fairly straightforward way of detecting slate voters, but discarding any vote feels wrong. After hearing several more disturbing rumors, I did a little digging . . .

And found a surprisingly elegant solution had been laid at our feet. Well, in all fairness, it won't stop slate voting. If enough people vote for a slate of authors the slate will still win, but really, isn't that how it should be? It does, however, make it very hard for an organized minority to essentially stuff the ballot box.

And, just to make good news better, the folks at Worldcon were smart enough to see the advantages of this new method, and have voted to adopt it in place of simple vote-counting. Thank you, mysterious hero, for bringing us the power of math in our hour of need. May all your functions be smooth, continuous, and easily integrated.

For those who want to see the gift that Math-Man (or was that Stat-Lady?) left, here's a nice PDF of the presentation made at Sasquan that explains the whole thing. I have to admit that I'm pretty darn impressed.