Fuzzy Math

How you look at things.
Nov. 15 2000 3:00 AM

Fuzzy Math

(Continued from Page 1)

Is consistency really more important than discretion? Is it better to exclude all ambiguous ballots equally than to rescue as many wrongly rejected ballots as possible? Does the former approach necessarily yield fewer errors than the latter? Republicans rule out these questions a priori. "A manual count under the situation that exists here would have a far greater error rate [than computers] because it is so subjective," Baker insisted on Meet the Press. "It cannot be as accurate as a machine count."


The implicit premise of this stipulation is that human beings, as conservatives have always argued, are morally weak. "It's not just human error, it's human manipulation. Those canvassing boards are 2-to-1 Democrat-Republican," Republican strategist Mary Matalin argued this weekend. By contrast, Baker argued, "Machines are neither Republicans nor Democrats, and therefore can be neither consciously nor unconsciously biased." The conservative wager, in other words, is that systematic human bias yields more error—or a worse kind of error—than systematic computer flaws do. That wager may be true. But it hasn't been articulated or scrutinized.

Democrats, conversely, stack the deck against the computer. They define intelligence in the language of a trial court, emphasizing "evidence" and case-by-case judgment. Human vote counters "look at the evidence they have before them to see whether or not the machine count was accurate," Christopher argued this weekend. Daley agreed: "It's the judgment that they make, based on evidence." Meanwhile, Democrats counter the GOP's conservative bias against human nature with a liberal bias in favor of unconstrained democracy. When asked on Meet the Press about the unreliability of a human recount, Christopher sniffed, "These are local election officials chosen by the people in their counties." Does Gore trust politicians to count the votes of the people? No, he trusts people "chosen by the people" to count the votes of the people.

In the debate over whether to trust humans or computers, Democrats enjoy a crucial advantage: The audience judging the debate is human. We don't notice the occasions on which we're wrong and computers are right—and when we do, either we refuse to admit it or we erase it from our memories. But we always notice and never forget the occasions on which we're right and computers are wrong. Democrats are happy to remind us of these occasions. "The machine counts are very often inaccurate, just as you find probably your own credit card bills are sometimes inaccurate," Christopher suggested on Meet the Press. Democratic strategist James Carville agreed: "All of this just unbelievable faith that these people have in these machines—I mean, have you ever gotten a flight reservation that wasn't there?" 

Throughout the weekend, as he argued that the machine tally should be followed by a manual tally, Christopher described the human counters as "checking" the computers rather than the other way around. "The citizens of those counties felt that the machine count did not accurately reflect [their] views," he explained. Bush "should not have any reason … to fear to have the machine count checked by a hand count." And why is a hand count good enough to "check" a machine count? It's "seen as the best way to ascertain the true views of the voters," said Christopher. Seen as the best way by whom? By us, the human audience whose egotism Democrats are invisibly exploiting. Against this unconscious bias, Jim Baker raises the specter of Democratic mischief. The dilemma in Florida turns, in the end, on a question we dare not ask computers: whether we're more afraid of them or of ourselves. 


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