What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos

1

Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers

2

Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge

3

Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more
Close
With rendition switcher

Transcript

Question: Do you study real-world elections or theoretical models of elections?

Steven Brams: It’s some of both. We try to construct theoretical models that represent real life situations, but like any model, they simplify the situation and we try to derive consequences of our assumptions. It’s a mathematical model so we deduce what our assumptions indicate. We prove theorems, as they are called. But we also ask about the applicability of these theorems, these consequences in real life cases. So, one gets one’s inspiration usually from observing what happens in the real world, and those are the kinds of things I teach. But I try to make them more coherent, understand them at a more scientific level, by constructing a model. A model might be something like that if you can array the candidates on a left/right continuum, you will vote for the candidate closest to you. Now, that is complicated often by the fact that the person closest to you, the candidate, might be somebody who has little chance of winning. So you might want to alter your choice to vote for a more viable second choice, or third choice.

A good example of this was the 2000 U.S. Presidential election in which Ralph Nader was a third-party candidate. He ended up getting less than 3% of the popular vote; he won no states, so he got no electoral votes. And Nader supporters, generally on the far left, were torn. Should they vote for Nader, who had no chance of winning, or should they switch to a second choice? For many of the Nader supporters, that would have been a Democrat, Al Gore. And in some cases they were torn. And one consequence of being torn is you don’t vote at all. You can’t make up your mind. But some switched, and some did not switch. Of course the major consequence was that enough stuck with Nader so that he, by all accounts, affected the election outcome. In particular, in Florida, Bush in the end got about – he beat Gore by about 500 votes. But there were 97,000 Nader supporters in Florida, and if most of them had gone for Gore as a second choice, then Gore would have won by tens of thousands of votes instead of losing by about 500. That would have changed the outcome in the country as a whole and we would have had a different President. So that’s a good example of a so-called “spoiler,” somebody who can’t win, who changes the election outcome.

So those are the kinds of situations that we study, and I think these models are very helpful in understanding them.

Question: How can your models help voters make the most rational decision in a given election?

Steven Brams: Well I think, what I just suggested about the 2000 election is the example. If you feel that the consequences of electing Bush, let’s say you’re a Democrat, far left leaning, are sufficiently problematic and you are a Nader supporter, then you might well switch. That would be the rational choice. But if you think neither candidate was very good, as Nader argued, they were both cut of the same cloth, then you would not switch and your vote would be more of a protest vote.

So rationality will move voters in different directions depending on what their preference is, their goals. If you want to just protest, or do you want to affect an election outcome, or try to affect an election outcome?

Recorded on February 2, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

More from the Big Idea for Tuesday, January 10 2012

The New Hampshire Primary: Vote or Die

The Granite State voters are going to the polls today to decide the winner of the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. But is the primary system obsolete? Is there a fairer way to elect cand... Read More…

 

Better Voting Through Mathe...

Newsletter: Share: