Put Down That Salt!

Salt PoliceThis is an appropriate day to repost a classic article, especially given this story in the Daily Mail with the headline “The town that’s banned salt.” And don’t forget our “Mandatory National Standards For Salt Content Coming To A Government Near You.”

Sometime soon…

“Hold it right there, buddy! Drop that salt and raise them hands. Slowly, now. One grain of that sodium falls into that soup and you’re in a lot of trouble.” Sergeant Grimwald of the FDA Food Patrol’s eyes were riveted on the illegal shaker.

“It’s down,” said the diner. “Now would you mind putting away that gun?”

“Don’t you worry about the gun. It won’t kill you, anyway. The bullets are covered with organically grown rubber.”

The diner shrugged. “Just who are you anyway?”

“Grimwald: FDA. I was eating here undercover—we had reports this place was a salt den. I had a feeling about you when you walked in. Something about you ain’t right.” A look of pride replaced the tense grimace on his face. “I got you right before you were able to shake!”

“You do realize that there’s nothing but salt in there,” said the diner, pointing to the shaker, which was clear glass in the shape of a finger.

“Ha! Would do you think I got you on!”

“I haven’t the slightest idea.”

“Say,” Sergeant Grimwald moved closer, nearly sniffing the air. “You some kind of foreigner or something? What’s the accent of yours?”

“I’m from Texas.”

“Well, la! We got rules in this country, buddy. You might not know it, but salt’s illegal in restaurants here.”

“Is this some kind of joke?” The Texan smiled to his dining mates, expecting them to smile back and reveal the prank. However, they stayed seated and looked confused, even a little fearful.

Grimwald holstered his weapon. “Ignorance ain’t no excuse, though. I still got you.”

The Texan, brazen as they come, picked the shaker back up and said, “You’re telling me this is illegal?”

The Sergeant’s hand moved to his hip, but he didn’t draw his weapon. His perp was a foreigner and he wasn’t sure any violence would look good on his record. He said, “Everybody knows that salt leads to high blood pressure.”

“It might. But so might the stress of having a gun pointed at your face. Anyway, it isn’t that likely that salt will actually cause hypertension. It can exacerbate it—in some cases.”

Grimwald bristled. “Don’t you try and tell me the law! I used to teach salt training. The FDA has determined that each adult gets 1,500 milligrams of salt a day. If you would have tipped some of that salt out of the shaker, you would have exceed the mandated daily allowance.”

“You’re saying that I,” said the Texan, pointing to himself (he was a very large man), “should have the same amount of salt as my wife?” He gestured to another of the diners at his table, a diminutive woman.

“Rules are rules, pal. It’s 1,500 milligrams to everybody. More is certain death. Maybe they don’t teach it down there in Tex-us, but up here we know that salt causes high blood pressure. And high blood pressure causes kidney disease or stroke. And them lead right to the morgue.”

“Nonsense. Who came up with this number, anyway?”

Grimwald hiked his pants, looking prouder than before. “Why, the Government, of course.”

“Then the ‘government’”, the Texan used finger quotes around the word, “doesn’t know what it’s doing.”

The crowd, which had been listening before, quieted instantly. Most turned their faces into their plates, pretending they hadn’t heard. A man who had been coming out of the bathroom stayed inside.

To Sergeant Grimwald, it was as if somebody had suddenly thrust him into a vacuum. There was no air in his lungs; his collar choked him. He worked his jaw muscles but he was unable to supply himself with any words.

“Besides,” continued the Texan, “if I want more salt, I’ll take it. If I suffer from it, that’s my problem, not yours.”

This was too much. “You don’t get to decide what’s good for you! O–bama, man! If everybody did that…” The thought of the ensuing chaos caused if people were forced to make their own decisions so horrified him that once more he was robbed of words.

Grimwald snatched the shaker from the table with a pair of tongs he produced from his jacket, and he dropped the shaker into an evidence bag. He sealed it and signed across the seal.

The routine work restored his equanimity. He said, “Well, you’re not from here, so you don’t know what you’re saying. But you’ll get this: there’s an even better reason than all them others not to eat salt.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“Too much salt in your blood makes it hard to process you into soylent green.”

University Professors Teach Too Much: Part IV

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

I know there wasn’t supposed to be a Part IV, but at the risk of boring you, and since this is my fantasy list of improvements, here are miscellaneous items that contribute to the degradation of education.

Bloated Administrations

There are Presidents—many of which now have degrees, certifications swearing ability, if you like, in “college administration”; which means that the market has recognized a need to train the bloat—Deans, Associate Deans, Assistance (or, if you prefer, Assistant) Deans, Provosts and underlying hierarchies, Vice President galore, a plethora of capital-O Offices with their associated staffs. The legion of non-teaching “professional” coffer drainers marches on, marches on, assimilating all in their path.

About 80% (a guess, but in the ballpark) of these nice bureaucrats can be fired tomorrow and would not be missed. They wouldn’t be needed if my divisions of trade school, college, research institute existed. But the temptation would be to reproduce the current hierarchy at each division. Given Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy, this could be a problem, so the number of non-teaching “professionals” should be capped by treaty in advance.

Russell Kirk suggested that administrators be housed in the smallest and least appealing building on campus. But when these folk perused his book, they read “largest and most opulent”, a natural mistake. Correct this.

Incidentally, most capital-O Offices are designed to placate student whininess. Mike Adams writes that “at least on our campus, the African Americans get a ‘Cultural Center,’ the Woman Americans get a ‘Resource Center’ and the Hispanic Americans…get a ‘Centro.’ But the LGBTQIA Americans only get a ‘Resource Office.’” (I’m not sure what all the letters in that last one stand for.) Students often forget that they are in school to learn, and fearful administrators often forget to remind them.

What Should Be Taught

I suggested (in Part III) that “computer science” students should be housed in trade schools and not college. This is because the vast majority of enrollees in this subject only want to secure a job in programming, web or game design, or the like. These earnest, honest folk really don’t need to know more than the basics. (In a strange twist, professors, insisting on purity (and theory), won’t teach what most of these kids want to learn. Teaching actual languages is seen as an activity…best left to trade schools?)

Hey! Wouldn’t it be nice if computer students knew all about unsolvability, Turing tests, the theory of languages. It would indeed. It would also be nice if they knew all about differential equations, analysis, group theory, quantum chemistry, string theory, all the various niceties of electronic engineering, and so on, plus (for their customers) Spanish, Chinese, and French. And since no education would be complete without a thorough understanding of history, give ‘em that. Shouldn’t they know something about literature? And writing? And a slew of other subjects? Yes, absolutely. Let’s well-round them!

My program doesn’t eliminate all these beautiful frills (as seen in the eyes of students), it merely places them in college. There would be no bar to entering a college save ability (and money). But again, the vast majority just want to learn enough to get a job. Let them! If they need to learn more, then can pick up what they need on the job or—get this!—on their own. Those few—Nock’s remnant—who feel the pang and pain of empty skulls can enroll in college. And some of them, upon graduating, can progress to apprenticeships in research institutes.

This all goes for the other trade school majors, of course.

How Long?

Trade schools should last from between one and two years, no longer unless the need for more is absolute. Every subject does not need the same time to train. “Communications”, “Journalism”, “Business” of any kind can all be packed into twelve months easily. And that’s “twelve months”, not “two sessions of sixteen weeks” plus a lengthy summer and plenty of holidays. “Nursing”, “Engineering” would take two, possibly three years. Etc.

However, no kid will stomach a mere “Associate’s” degree when “Bachelor’s” are to be had. So call all graduates “Bachelors” and save their precious egos.

College should take three years, not four. An immense savings in time is had by removing political requirements (training in “sensitivity” etc., “Introduction to” courses, and so forth), and more time is cut by eliminating electives. Three years of intense, focused reading and writing. This is boot camp.

Wither Diversity?

The carrot I can offer administrators (whose focus is solely politics) is that my plan would increase this precious commodity, for obvious reasons.

College As High School

An increasing proportion of kids come to college/trade school unprepared in the basics (even though, in honor of their self-esteem, they may be co-co-co-…-co-valedictorians). It doesn’t matter whose fault this is, it is still futile to place a kid who can’t read or multiply fractions in college/trade school. Thus one more division must be created to re-do the job the teachers in Wisconsin (etc.) did not do. Call this one “Preparatory School”, where in one (full-length) year, students are re-taught what they should already know.

If we do not do this, and in the name of political correctness continue enrolling the unable, courses must be, as they already have been, “dumbed down.” Or, if not, the flunk out/drop out rate would be too high (see Wither Diversity).

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

University Professors Teach Too Much: Part III

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

Colleges themselves—which, I remind us, are to be separated from research institutes—should be broken in two: traditional college and technical or trade school (this break need only be administrative and not physical). As Russell Kirk tells us, college exists to impart wisdom, not knowledge, and certainly not information or even, as is by now commonplace, trivia. Trade schools should take students interested solely or mainly in obtaining a skill or a “degree”, a talisman which they must emboss on their resume to get a job at one of the many non-contemplative and undiscerning companies which require them.

Incidentally, this purblind requirement of a “degree”—and not of knowledge or ability—is why there are too many kids going to college.

Trade school will encompass majors like “business”, “marketing”, “sports management”, “diversity studies” of any kind, “communications”, “journalism”, “computer science”, “health”, “nursing”, “art” of any stripe, “engineering”, “security” (yes, it exists), “criminal science1“, “hotel management”, and so forth, which give students a taste—an amuse bouche, but no more—of the fields in which they will toil. Cosmetology and refrigeration schools have the right idea (I do not jest nor denigrate; these are useful, honest places).

Teaching as a major is not in the list, but should be. Many which are now universities, used to be colleges, which themselves used to be “normal schools” (note the grade inflation undergone by the second word). The functions formally provided by these schools should be restored.

Let the number of “majors” in trade schools increase without number. Whatever sells can be taught. It is here that the idea of student as customer comes closest to reality: businesses and students will provide the demand, trade schools will provide the supply. If a trade school promises to teach “communications” but few of its graduates find jobs in that field, then the school is selling an inferior product, with the necessary result that the school must charge less for it, must eliminate the program, or must invest real money to make improvements.

Colleges charge like movie houses: whatever is showing has the same price. Customers pay the same whether they screen Casablanca or Biodome (Pauly, God help us, Shore). Students pay the same for courses in logic as they do for lectures in women’s studies. It is far past the time for variable tuition rates—I do not mean across institutions, but within them. But this would work only if all acknowledged the trade-school nature of the education received.

Trade schools would house the semi-professional sports teams which are now at colleges. The athletes who, as employees of the trade schools, and are responsible for a significant source of income, should be paid accordingly (packages which include “degrees” in “sports management”). Football fans would thrill that playoffs could be a reality: but make ‘em pay for it. College (not trade) students would only be allowed intramural sports.

College is not a place to learn a trade or skill of any kind. It is not job training. It is a place to think; rather, a place to learn how to think, to develop the habit of discernment. As Cardinal Newman said, college is a place to “open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, [and] eloquent expression.” College is the first step for those who would be future leaders.

Majors at colleges should be few in number and must only encompass the classics: the humanities first and foremost, with math and fundamental science nearly tying for first place. Allowed electives should be limited. As Kenneth Minogue writes, “A population of students who can only be persuaded to take an interest in anything if they can be convinced that it will be useful to them is at the mercy of its own limitations.” If we “base education of what the children themselves actually want to learn; the effect is to atrophy their capacity for self-movement.”

Only the best students—proved by on-site entrance exams—would be allowed enrollment. Colleges are not, must not be, and cannot be egalitarian institutions. The work required of students should be arduous, and this difficulty should be touted (and enforced): boasting will eliminate the hard feelings some of the less able students would otherwise feel.

As Albert Jay Nock said:

Our system is based upon the assumption, popularly regarded as implicit in the doctrine of equality, that everybody is educable. This has been taken without question from the beginning; it is taken without question now. The whole structure of our system, the entire arrangement of its mechanics, testifies to this. Even our truant laws testify to it, for they are constructed with exclusive reference to school-age, not to school-ability.

When we attempt to run this assumption back to the philosophical doctrine of equality, we cannot do it; it is not there, nothing like it is there. The philosophical doctrine of equality gives no more ground for the assumption that all men are educable than it does for the assumption that all men are six feet tall. We see at once, then, that it is not the philosophical doctrine of equality, but an utterly untenable popular perversion of it, that we find at the basis of our educational system.2

The weeping and gnashing of teeth that will accompany these changes will be titanic. The wailing from wounded pride would reach Heaven itself (it is no secret that egos of professors rival those of Hollywood actors). “What do you mean I am now just a teacher at a, gasp, trade school!” Title outranks reality. So call trade schools “universities”, let colleges be, say, “academies” (each prefixed with the name of the school).

Leadership at many schools is weak and simple; most administrators (largely a parasitic race) would fail in the ensuing storm. This being so, the only group capable of forcing change are those who pay the bills: students and parents. Let’s mothers march on the President’s office and demand an education for their darlings that actually has value. Parents are the one group that is (potentially) more frightening than faculty; however, their efforts must be concerted.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV. I omitted many details (college or trade should only be three years maximum), but this is all we’re going to do (for now). The subject is worthy of a book; and if there is anybody who is willing to pay for me to write one, I’ll do so.


1The old joke is that anything that calls itself a science isn’t.

2Thanks to Bruce Foutch for providing this reference.

If you are a professor or researcher, please email this article to a colleague or administrator.

University Professors Teach Too Much: Part II

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

In no way should college teachers be judged by what research they produce, if any. Lists of papers and books should be forbidden to appear on CVs used for promotion. Those who now spend most of their time teaching are forced to emit “scholarly” output, just like researchers. Most of this output is of little use, is redundant, or is of poor quality. The number of journals created just to publish this material continues to grow, which is a needlessly expensive situation for libraries. These facts are well known.

A high-ranking professor at a prestigious university once told me, in reference to what counts for promotion, that “I add up the number of papers a person has and then subtract two for every one that appears in Journal X.” We all know Journal X is where bad papers go to die a lonely death. Every field has multiple Journal Xs.

Requiring teachers to write papers is asking them to do what they are not good at. If they were good at it (and had the desire), they would be researchers and not teachers. Teachers are wasting time publishing an article in the South-by-Southwest Far East Asia Journal of Research: C when they could have been polishing a lecture, holding extra office hours, or in just plain reading. It is a waste because the paper will never be read by anybody except the one or two referees attached to the journal, and it fools the teacher into thinking he has been productive. It also fools the promotion committee (which obsessively counts papers) into thinking they are measuring the ability of the teacher to do his job.

Counting papers is like eating opium: it is an addiction everybody knows its wrong, but nobody can resist. It’s only a wonder academics don’t receive spam promising a “Proven method to grow your paper numbers. 7++ new citations! Make Deans scream in delight!!!”

Teacher evaluations should disappear forthwith. In their current form, they are useless or even harmful. The kid who has just completed (I do not say “passed” or “understood”) “Introduction to Sociology” is in no position to judge whether what he has been taught is useful, or even to tell us he has learned what he should have. His ignorance is why he is at college.

College students are not customers1 and should not be asked to fill out customer complaint forms, which are, as all know, mere reflections of the grade each student receives in the course: higher grades, better evaluations. These evaluations are thus nothing but indicators of how entertained students were in their twelve- to sixteen-week sojourn. This being both true and well known, teachers change their material to ensure better evaluations2. Where this has led us is obvious.

The lust for purely quantitative measures of performance should not be sated. It leads to over-certainty and blindness to non-quantitative aspects of ability. Unsolicited student commentary, peer evaluation, and other obvious indicators are sufficient to judge teacher quality.

It is easy to judge the mettle of researchers: money and quality of result. But even here, the rush towards quantitative measures should be resisted. It is difficult to bring in the bucks for projects that aren’t considered sexy or are foundational (where the payoff is miles away; compared to hot topics where a paper per month could be pumped out). However, these provisos being read, universities, on average, rate quality of research reasonably well.

The research institute arms of universities evolved this ability by not doing more than paying lip service to teaching quality. If they paid more, they would never let a graduate student within a mile of a classroom of freshmen. Nor would departments hire adjuncts to handle “overflow” based merely on the adjunct having the credential of “M.A./M.S.” or “PhD,” but having no particular expertise in the subject. And just what is “overflow”?

Incidentally, by “lip service” I mean the annual pantomime where an administrator slathers on bright red lipstick and tells the most outrageous lies about how important teaching is to the “mission” of the university. Nobody believes this because, of course, it is not true.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.


1But see Part III.

2I am reminded of The Onion headline, “Teacher forced to sleep with student for better evaluation.”

If you are a professor or researcher, please email this article to a colleague or administrator.

University Professors Teach Too Much: Part I

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

We are asking our best university professors to spend too much time in the classroom. It would be better for all if these professors were not made to toil the five to seven-plus hours a week required to competently teach classes such as “Pre-college mathematics” and “Introduction to reading” to ill-prepared, largely unmotivated high school graduates.

What should they do instead? What they do best: figure things out, tell us what they have found, and train apprentices to carry on their work after they have gone.

Here is what everybody knows: the best researchers are often not the best teachers. Statistically, the relationship is negatively correlated. Prowess in the lab implies indexterity in the classroom. This is natural. An individual managing four graduate students, one post-doc, writing a new grant, revising an old one, and writing papers from the results of a third cannot devote adequate energy to preparing a Friday-morning quiz on “What is a paragraph?” to freshmen, of which a non-trivial fraction are hungover or otherwise sleep deprived. I am speaking “on average”, of the predominant reality, and therefore it would be a fallacy to counter with examples of exceptional researchers who are also brilliant teachers.

The difficulty with the spate of books and articles on the awfulness of higher education is that each picks one culprit that, once defeated, will release the system from its bonds. This assumes a linearity of ills. But this is not found in practice. There is not one problem, there are many, and each is related to the other in the same way tangled fishing lines lead to hooks. The best we can hope for is incremental, occasional improvement.

One increment is this: increase class buyouts and make them all or nothing. We all know people who boast they do not have to teach. The implication is that they have more time to do the real work to which they are best suited. Those who would devote themselves to productive, useful research—as defined by external grant agencies and companies—should not be forced into teaching, which eats valuable time. Let those who would run their professorships like businesses do so. This system has proven itself in producing lasting and valuable knowledge.

Universities should become bipartite: college and research institute under one banner. In practice, each would—and should—have little to do with the other, though they would share the same name and school colors. The college mandate is to teach all undergraduate courses and those graduate courses which are non-specialized. The people that man colleges should not be researchers—unless, as will be rare, somebody wants to cross the line and write a paper on a subject dear to them. The people that man research institutes should not be teachers—unless, as will be rare, somebody wants to cross the line for a temporary change of scenery. It would be best if some “universities” eschew all research (via attrition of workers) and become solely colleges. Other universities should separate from, or eliminate their college components, and become solely research institutes.

At first, this system is bound to produce jealousies. Teachers in colleges will look at their better paid brethren and sisthren in research institutes and feel envy. When reporters come calling for quotes about what the “Latest research shows…” they will do so at research institutes and not colleges. Teachers will ask, “Why do I have to teach five classes a semester when Joe just sits in his office writing grants?”

It will be in vain to explain that this compares apples to oranges. Teachers aren’t researchers, and researchers aren’t teachers. It will do little good to say, “Okay, if you want to do research, then do it. Spend your sabbatical writing a grant and change jobs.” One job is not inherently superior to another: they cannot be, because they are different things. Apples are only superior to oranges if you want to make pie. If anything, teaching is the more crucial position to society, though it is true that the wait for results is long.

To alleviate pain, we can employ a device businesses use: inflated titles. Just as all those who were stock boys are now “Associates”, teachers, dissatisfied with being called “Professor” when researchers share that label, could be called Exalted Expostulators, Level III. Even better, researchers should not be given the title of “Professor.” Just call them “Researchers” (and prefix this with “Associate” etc. to indicate rank).

The “PhD” should not be a requirement to teach. Nor should the lack of it, as William James admonished us over a century ago, be a bar to research. Having those letters are surely correlated with ability, but they are not especially predictive of it, particularly in teaching. It is ability that should be measured, not raw credentials. Having graduated college—but not having been apprenticed to a researcher—is the minimum necessary to teach. Researchers retired from active pursuit of papers and profits often make good teachers, though most of this improvement comes from the seasoning of years.

Overhead—that large percent that is tacked onto most grants but which is not given to researchers and instead disappears into the labyrinth of administration–in this system should be easier to track. Monies brought in by research institutes should remain on that side of the universities. Student tuition should likewise stay in colleges. Since these are separate organizations (though perhaps under one roof), their budgets should not be mixed. Success in one area does not imply success in the other. Good teachers should not finance poor research, nor should productive researchers be forced to pay for the existence of departments that have nothing to do with them.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.


If you are a professor or researcher, please email this article to a colleague or administrator.

Dear English Rioter

Dear English Rioter,

I suppose it wasn’t hard to learn how to fill light bulbs with ammonia (nasty stuff). But how did you bring yourself to throw that first one into a policeman’s face? You knew it was going to cause pain, probably lasting injury, maybe even blindness. Yet you could, and did, still throw it.

Does the harm and misery that you caused bother you, even a little? I do not ask for effect, I really want to know. Do you think you should be punished for this attack on another man, or do you think you should escape responsibility? That, somehow, society owes it to you to let you maim and wound other people?

Your picture was in the paper. Your face was obscured by a mask, but I could see the rest of you. Expensive jeans, stylish tennis shoes (or is it “trainers”?), a nice warm jacket. I should have said, “stuffed into a warm jacket” because you appear well fed. You had a backpack and carried a cell phone, a convenient tool that let you keep in contact with your brother protesters.

It’s not clear what made you want to hurt another man, but if I read the sign you carried correctly, it’s because you worked yourself into a froth because some people have more money and possessions than you do. You have forgotten that nearly all of these people with more are much older than you, have been working their entire lives, and necessarily have more because of this. The proper comparison is with others—those who stayed at home and did not try to cause grief and misery—of your own age group and inexperience.

It’s also true that you yourself have enough to live comfortably; you are in no danger of starvation or exposure. And there’s that cell phone, what most people in the world would consider a luxury good. Who’s paying the bill for that, your parents? Though I didn’t see it (because it wasn’t in the paper), I imagine you are well equipped with a computer and other electronic trinkets.

It was said by many of the “protesters” who had broken into stores to steal and destroy what wasn’t theirs that they were angry that the Government was proposing, and had already implemented a small number of, “cutbacks.” The logic of the Government is simple: the State is running a deficit and hasn’t the money to pay for a lot of perquisites demanded by you and your brother protesters. Since the vault is empty, there is nothing to hand out. It’s the old story: you can’t give what you don’t have (unless you cheat or lie).

The Government proposes shaving a percentage of the money it gives to “quangos” (honestly, I’ll never master British English), which are “quasi-non-governmental organisations financed by the state and linked to the civil service.” Two of these quangos are the Youth Justice Board and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. As noble as these organizations undoubtedly are, and even though you can’t agree with the cutbacks, do you really think it was worth injuring another human being because the Youth Justice Board will see a slight, and probably temporary, diminution of funds?

I think the real reason you are incensed is because the Government is planning on asking people to pay more for their own college: not pay for all of it, but just “more”: and not a lot more, just a little. Many youth (even in my country) feel that the Government owes them this leisure time, that they should be given free education, merely because they exist.

You might have noticed that I have capitalized “Government”. I did this because you do. “Government”, to you, is a mythical paternalistic entity which is all powerful and capable of illimitable love and beneficence, but which has been (somehow) infected by a parasite (“Taken over by the rich”). You think that if these “rich” can be removed, the money and creature comforts that you feel are owed to you will be restored.

The people that man this Government, weak and anxious to avoid bloodshed, will probably accede to your petulance. And they will eventually come to believe as you do. All will cease to believe the government is made up of people, and will see it as something that exists for itself. The government will become The Government, as in “The Government needs to take care of its people.” History says that there will always be men ready to step in and assume the power so willingly given to them. By you.

Looking forward to hearing from you,


March Madness Tournament Analysis: Which Seed Has Best Chance Of Winning?

Most know what the structure of the March Madness basketball tournament looks like. I am not most; I had to look it up; what I don’t know about college basketball would fill volumes: nevertheless, I was able to discover this picture. 64 teams are seeded into one of four groups; these teams are paired and play knock-out games, the winner advancing to play the team that bested its opponent, and this continues until one team is left standing. March Madness Tournament Structure

This structure is similar to the First Things Tournament of Novels. There, individual novels paired off, the winners advancing to the next bracket, and so forth. The same structures are also used in playoffs in the major leagues.

There is undoubtedly much extant analysis on the statistical properties of these kinds of tournaments, but my knowledge of these results mirrors my acquaintance with basketball. However, we can say some interesting things with just a little effort. The simplest question is what effect seeding has on the chances of winning the tournament.

Suppose teams (or novels, or whatever) enter the tournament with fixed measures of ability, higher indicating the superior entity (team, novel, etc.). Then it is easy to see that the best team always wins its tournament. This is because no matter where team number 1 is seeded, that team always beats its opponent because its ability is always higher than any other team’s. Thus, if all entities had fixed strengths, then tournaments would be boring, the outcome known before they begin.

It is more likely that teams can be ranked on strength—say, their historical win percentage—and that weaker teams (based on this ranking) have a non-zero chance of beating stronger teams. Clearly, the higher the ranking the more likely it is the better team beats the weaker team. The closer in strength two teams are, the more any contest between them becomes a toss up, i.e. the closer the chance of winning nears 50%.

Teams must be seeded into the “brackets.” This can be done in many ways, but I chose two: random seeding, whereby each team regardless of strength is placed uniformly into the brackets; and by strength, whereby each team is initially matched with its next strongest competitor. That is, the team with the highest strength is initially matched against the team with the second highest strength, and so on.

Some measure of strength must be chosen; actually, all we need is a distance. If the distance, measured in terms of strength, between the best and worst teams is large, then we would expect the best team to have a better chance of winning the tournament than if this distance is small. I used three relative distances: 0.6, 0.4, and 0.2, indicating the strength of the worst team: strength is a number between 0 and 1; think of it like the historical win percentage; the best team always had a winning percent of 0.8.

Suppose a team with a strength of 0.8 faces a team with a strength of 0.4; then the chance the better team wins is

      (0.8 – 0.4) / 2 + 0.5 = 0.7

and so on for all match-ups.

Finally! If there were only 2 teams in the tournament and the distance was 0.6, the chance the best team wins is 80%. If there were 64 teams, and all were randomly seeded, then the chance that the top team wins the entire tournament is about 5% (see the solid black line with open circles).

Tournament Wins Random Seeding

As the distance between the best and worst teams decreases, so does the chance that the top teams takes it all, as we might expect. The top-rated team always has the best chance of winning among all other teams.

The dashed blue line is the “uniform strength line”, it is the chance any team wins if all teams are equally matched at the beginning. Thus, the distance between (say) the black line and the dashed blue indicates the lift superior strength imbues. (The lines are not straight because each point is based on a simulation of 5000 tournaments.)

The other dashed lines indicate the chance that the worst team in the tournament wins. It is also non-zero, but always well below the best team.

Next comes strength, or positioning seeding. The best team still has the highest chance of winning, but that chance is significantly diminished. Even the worst team now has hope. The (simple) lesson is that if the best teams face each other early, rich blood will be shed, leaving the more anaemic teams in a position to do serious damage.

Tournament Wins Strength Seeding

What to do next is best-worst seeding, where the best team is paired with the worse, the second best with the second worst, and so on. Presumably, the best team will have the top chances of winning tournaments like this. Just how much better a chance than with random seeding, I leave for you as an exercise. (R code for the two simulations above can be downloaded here. Try incorporating actual historical win rates.)

This post was inspired by long-time reader J Ferguson.