by Sandra Loosemore May, 2002
In "real life", I am a software engineer with a PhD in computer science and over 20 years of professional experience in my field. As a software professional, I have an ethical obligation to "blow the whistle" about public policy issues within my area of expertise: in particular, I have a responsibility to encourage understanding of computing, including the impacts of computer systems and their limitations, and to counter any false views related to computing.
After having seen the proposals for changes to the figure skating scoring system being put forth variously by the ISU Council, the USFSA, and other federations (see links below), I am utterly horrified: no responsible computer professional could possibly approve of any of these proposals. The most serious problem is the reliance on secret and supposedly "random" selection by computer, with absolutely no means of verifying that the computation of the results is being performed correctly. Computer hardware and software systems are not infallible, and in critical applications it is essential to be able to independently reconstruct the output from the same input data. One would think that, after seeing the scoring computer announce the wrong winners at the Grand Prix Final last December, no one connected with the sport of figure skating could possibly believe that secret and unverifiable computation of results would be a good idea. And yet, this is exactly what is being proposed as an urgently-required "improvement" to the current system!
Another serious problem with the various proposals is that statistically, choosing a "random" subset of judges' marks as the basis for scoring is more prone to error and bias than using all the judges' marks. If the ISU is willing to go through the expense and trouble to put larger panels of judges rinkside at every competition, then the most obvious way to improve the accuracy of the scoring and reduce the influence of any one biased or incompetent judge is to count every judge's marks for every skater. This does not require any changes to the scoring system. It would also ensure that every skater is judged by the same set of judges, which is essential for fairness.
From my perspective as a skating fan, I believe that the federations involved -- the IOC as well as the ISU and various national skating federations -- have lost sight of the fundamental root of the controversy in Salt Lake City: the problem is not the scoring system at all, but rather the ethics and accountability of judges and other officials. Aside from the software correctness and reliability issues that concern me as a professional, as a fan I cannot see how making the judging and scoring of skating completely secret and inpenetrable to the public will do anything to address the crisis of public confidence that is now facing the sport. Surrounding the entire judging process in secrecy will likely only convince the public that judges and the ISU have something to hide. What is needed to rescue the public image of figure skating is more openness and public accountability in the judging, not less.
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