Wednesday 27 February 2008

Does the public favour mediocrity?

I don't watch reality singing contest, but have overheard enough to get the distinct feeling that the voting public often favours singers who sing badly, often in spite of repeated requests from the judges.


The matter can be easily settled by looking at the data, and examining the extent of negative correlation between judges' scores and voters' votes, after accounting for regional imbalances (for example, one mustn't expect South Indians to be as interested in a Hindi film song contest as North Indians).


Unfortunately, these contests allow voters to vote repeatedly for the same contestant. So the number of votes need not coincide with the number of voters. To account for this, one should only count unique voters. Or assume that all contestants have the same proportion of repeat-voting fans, and all their votes would be scaled down by the same proportion. Or one may actually find the proportion of repeaters from representative samples.


Most probably, we will have to account for a few other things as well, like (a) gender of contestant (voters can't seem to vote for girls at all) (b) number of contestants from the same region and (c) level of the contest (preliminaries, semifinals, etc).


Fortunately, there are many such contests, in several languates. So we should get plenty of data, if the channels cooperate. There is no reason for them not to, because all the scores and votes were on tv: Nothing is secret.


Besides, reputed accounting firms are commissioned to tally the figures. Everything should be readily available.


Maybe bookies have already made these calculations.


My interest is elsewhere. If my haunch turns out right, and it turns out that the public does indeed favour the mediocre, how would social scientists explain it?


Speaking of voting, there is another question that has recently started to intrigue me: Does secret ballot stand in the way of good candidates in a dysfunctional democracy?


Let me explain. Suppose an election is being contested by a thug and a honest candidate. The thug's electioneering is simple. His henchmen terrorise voters, especially slum dwellers and other poor people, to vote for him en block. The voters know that they are voting for the wrong candidate but have no choice.


Yet they could have gotten rid of the thug, by voting overwhelmingly in favour of the good candiate. Because it is unlikely that the goon would retain much muscle power if he suffered an enormous defeat politically.

I'd like to believe that the one reason why they cannot do this is because no voter knows what the other voters are doing.


The voters' only hope for change lies in making a near unanimous choice, that strips the goon of all political power and scores an enormous psychological victory for the voters. Such unanimity can never be archived as long as each voter fears that his neighbour will give in to fear in the secrecy of the booth!


In a nutshell, to tackle a gang, they must act like a mob. And a mob can't act in secret.


This is not to say that a show of hands would be a way out. Who will bell the cat?


Nonetheless, I'd love to know if my line of reasoning is sensible, and if secret ballot can end up ensuring dictatorship.


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