Sunday, May 31, 2009

Elections and Physics

There is a principle called the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It goes like this “The product of the uncertainties involved in predicting the exact location and velocity of any particle is greater than a constant”. In the arena of Physics, this law has relevance only for sub atomic particles, but the law lends itself to several interpretations and variations.

Stated in English, the law can be taken to mean “Any measuring device that is used to measure any parameter sufficiently distorts that parameter during the process of measurement so as to not make the measurement completely accurate”.

Let me explain the above interpretation with an example (stolen from the stable of my physics professor). Assume that in a particular school, there is a particular noisy corridor occupied by boisterous students. The principal of the school decides to pay a surprise visit to this corridor to find out who the miscreants are and to what extent these students were making noise. Unfortunately for the principal, one particular student notices him walking down the corridor and promptly sounds the warning as a result of which the entire corridor becomes quiet. This is an ideal illustration of an extreme case of the presence of a measuring device altering the measuring parameter sufficiently so as to defeat the entire purpose of the experiment.

Taking the above illustration as a proxy for the Heisenberg principle let me build this theory further and incorporate certain corollaries. To make this process scientific, let us define certain terms; the teacher becomes the “measurer”, the teacher’s walk becomes “measuring process”, the teacher’s cane is the “feedback”, the guy who watches the teacher is the “signal”, the noisy classroom is the “object of observation”, and the entire exercise is the “experiment”.

1. When the experiment is conducted in a finite interval of time, i.e. it is not a continuous function of time (the teacher does not continuously walk up and down the corridor), the single observation made by the measurer often becomes the proxy for the performance of object of observation over a period of time.
2. If the principal walks the corridor once every ‘T’ units of time, it eliminates the necessity for the signal and the object of observation has that much more freedom to misbehave and not get noticed.
3. This implication is perhaps the most important implication in the context of the forthcoming example. Over a period of time “Effectiveness” of the object of observation gets determined solely by its performance in the experiment so much so that the only thing the object of observation does during the entire period is to create scenarios for better performance during the next experiment.

Replace “measurer” with “people”, “measuring process” with “Elections”, “object under observation” with “government” and the “experiment” with “the great democratic way of functioning” and you have uncovered what can be termed as the “Electoral Fallacy”.

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