A group of undergraduates at Northeastern University studying philosophy, political science, computer science, data science, economics, and other subjects teamed up on a surprisingly interesting and sophisticated project to rank the cutest dog in the university’s Department of Philosophy and Religion.
Called The Cute Dog Project, it attempted to address “a topic about which there has been long-standing and passionate disagreement” in “a philosophically and scientifically rigorous way.”
(This is how we start weeks in the summer time, people. With cute dogs.)
One reputable method of settling disputes in judgement is to vote. We decided to run a vote to settle whose dog is cutest in the Philosophy & Religion Department (students, faculty and staff) at Northeastern. However, answering the deceptively simple question of “Who has the cutest dog?” actually requires answers to several other difficult questions in the areas of democracy, ethics, and social choice, such as:
- How can democratic processes be used fairly to resolve disputes?
- What would our voting procedure be?
- How do we balance user accessibility, voter anonymity, and security in an online voting system?
- How do we define cuteness, and what voting mechanisms work to identify that definition?
- Who would be allowed to submit photos and who would be allowed to vote?
- How does this question help us uncover answers about generalized social choice theories and voting procedures?
- How do we control for possible social and cultural biases in a way that allows us to accurately represent people’s true preferences?
- How do we collect and manage voting data in ways that are secure, ethical, and respect the privacy of the voters?
Determining whose dog is the cutest required us to design a system informed by democratic theory, social choice theory, information ethics, value theory, critical theory, and philosophy of science. We had to grapple with the same sorts of issues that arise in democratic practice and social decision-making in other contexts—for example, selecting a presidential candidate from a crowded primary field or selecting applicants for admission to a competitive university.
Voting was open from April 3 to April 22, where almost 60,000 votes were submitted by almost 1,000 unique voters. After the contest, we used a social choice method called Ranked Pairs to identify the winner. The winner of the contest was Pearl!
Interested in settling who has the cutest dog in your department? Or cuddliest cat? Or spikiest hedgehog? One of the team members, Julian Zucker, wrote to me:
I noticed that there were no open-source libraries that allow people to easily run social choice mechanisms on vote sets. So, I made one! I hope it can be useful to other philosophers and students who are implementing voting systems in practice.
He also wrote in with a query:
As part of the dog project, we collected pairwise preferences (Dog A is cuter than Dog B), and eventually we wanted to run Borda count* on the dogs. However, Borda count is position-based, and so you have to convert the pairwise preferences to an ordering. With this real-world dataset, some of the preference sets were incomplete (not covering all dogs) or intransitive. I searched for ways to convert pairwise vote sets into orderings, but couldn’t find any papers on the subject. Have you heard about this, or know where I could research further/who I could ask about it?
Readers, perhaps you could help out with this?
(*apparently first developed by Nicholas of Cusa.)