Ceci n’est pas une excuse

January 2, 2010 – 12:48 am

Sometimes, I will hear comments that go something like “well, you worked really hard and made it, so other <insert group label here> people could do it too if only they would just Work Really Hard like you did.” The implication is that Yea, There May Be Barriers, But They Can Be Overcome through Sheer Grit and Self-Determination.

I do believe that. I also believe that just because that’s true doesn’t mean it’s fair, or that it ought to be expected, or accepted.

Imagine taking two randomly selected and identical groups of students and having them take the same 100-question math exam – say the passing score is 70%. Then score according to this criteria:

Group 1: For each question, check the answer. If they got an answer right, they get 1 point for that question. If they get an answer wrong, they get 0 points for that question.

Group 2: For each question, roll a 12-sided die. If the roll is 3 or below, they get 0 points for that question. If the roll is a 4 or higher, check the answer. If they get the answer right, they get 1 point for that question. If they get the answer wrong, they get 0 points for that question.

Is it a given that Group 1 will outscore Group 2? Nope. Can Group 2 pass the test? Absolutely. Can Group 1 fail? Totally. If someone in Group 2 answers every question correctly, will they probably pass? Statistically speaking, sure. But there’s no guarantee – they could get every question right and still fail. They can fail because of a dice roll, whereas the first group can only fail if they answer questions incorrectly.

Is this arrangement obviously unfair? Yes. Would you want to play this game, if you were assigned to be in Group 2, and knew the rules? There are some folks in Group 2 who don’t care and just like doing math and will keep on doing it for the fun of it; there are some folks in Group 2 who will stay the course because they have to do well on this test or their parents will be furious… and there will be some folks in Group 2 who’ll decide that this is so unfair it isn’t even worth the bother, and proceed to blow the whole exam off (thus dragging down the average score of Group 2 and reinforcing the “Group 2 Doesn’t Do Well Due To Faults Of Their Own” perception.

What if you weren’t told which group you were in – but had to take that same test every day, and only got back your scores (never seeing the original tests again, never being able to check if a particular answer was correct or not)? What if you weren’t told there were two groups at all, but were under the impression that all tests were scored the first way? Would you be surprised when you started getting scores lower than what you imagined they should be? Would you think “oh, something must be strange with the grading,” or would you think “I must be wrong, this is my fault, I’m just not good at this”? What effect would that have on your performance on the test the next day? After months or years or decades of continuously taking the same sort of exam? And how would you feel if, after multiple years, the scoring scheme and the group you were in were suddenly revealed to you?

Under these circumstances, could it actually be construed as smart to choose to not play the rigged game? Could it actually make less logical sense to wake up every day and play a game you suspect – or know – to be stacked against you in a way you can’t control?

And if you’re in Group 2 and happen to get consistently high scores, do you owe your scores to your own skill – or to an anomalous run of consistently high dice rolls? How confident would you be of being able to maintain those scores? You can control the answers you give to the math questions… but you never quite know how the dice will fall.

And if you don’t know if you’re in Group 2 but suspect you might be (but really you don’t know for sure so it might just be in your head and maybe you should just work harder and…)

Privilege: Not Having To Ever Wonder About This Sort Of Thing.

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  1. 7 Responses to “Ceci n’est pas une excuse”

  2. great example

    By Kevin Mark on Jan 2, 2010

  3. Very cool analogy, Mel.

    By Dan Ray on Jan 16, 2010

  4. You know, I’d really like to see that done as a clinical psychology experiment. Recruit volunteers to take math tests over the course of several days, promising prizes to the highest overall scorers over the course of two weeks, one test per day. Unbeknownst to the participants, randomly divide them into two groups and conduct the experiment as you describe, posting scores at the end of each day but not allowing the participants to see their marked tests. Track performance and retention.

    It really is a brilliant idea. I wish I knew some clinical psychologists.

    By Meredith L. Patterson on Jul 13, 2010

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