Awards Imply False Certainty

In high school I got sick of most award systems.  Prizes were given like “best science student” or “2nd best musician” like “best” really meant something.  I also was questionable of whether the negative externalities created by these systems offset the positive benefit for the recipients and close friends, but I think the more pressing issue is the implied certainty.

obligatory average photograph of standard trophies
Obligatory average photograph of standard trophies

What the hell does it mean to be the “best science student”?  Most of the time people have little idea what “best” actually refers to, but rather assume it’s within a space of shared understanding that the local community will agree upon.  This is not always true, especially when there are disagreements about the winner.  Should the “best” book be one with more character emphasis, or verbal eloquence?  In some cases it’s obvious how to rank items according to this vague space of shared understanding, but in other cases it’s apparent that the space isn’t narrow at all.

Even this assumes a level of consistency of mindset and competency of judges, which may be and often is highly questionable.  Just because a person may be an “expert” at their field doesn’t mean they are any good at it.  They may just be the best of ignoramuses.

We can of course overcome this in part by assigning high uncertainty to our prizes and phases.

“This award is given to the person who our team of three specific, somewhat randomly chosen but assumingly competent (according to our school’s current department standards)  people.  Using our current understanding of what likely makes up “excellent”, we have predicted that this entree is the most likely to be the best one.  If we had chosen a different group of judges from a similar group and this had been done again, we predict that there would be a 40% chance of this entree still winning 1st place.”

Of course, few organizations will ever do this.  It hurts the often false sense of their own authority.  It makes the competition seem rather unimportant, even though it likely is.

My CounterPlan

In high school I designed a small representation of this, in a “Seal of Perceived Excellence”.  I finally purchased a custom stamp in the beginning of college.  I considered it accurate on my homework, when I would spend a lot of time doing a job I thought was decent, but knowing I probably got some fundamental elements wrong and had little idea of how well I actually did.  While now I look back on it and find the design a bit childish, I still like the point and would later be interested in extending it elsewhere. Ozzie Gooen Seal of Perceived Excellence Ozzie Gooen Seal of Perceived Excellence

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