21/22 August 2020, 1/2 Elul 5780

“All models are wrong,” statisticians like to repeat, following words coined (most likely) by British statistician George Box in 1976  “…but some are useful”.

When does usefulness outweigh justice?

This has been quite a week; five days of much anguish for young people as they surveyed their school years of study and in some instances their future hopes and dreams in shatters. This all followed the A Level results, which had been adjudicated by a computer algorithm created by Ofqual. And on Monday at 4pm of this week, it was trumped by the human touch and knowledge of teachers. And our government reversed their trust in the system and returned to Central Assessed Grades.

There is such an anti-dystopian message in all of this. One A Level student talked of the ‘lack of humanity’ in all of this. Huy Duong, a refugee from communist Vietnam, arriving in the 1980s, now an IT consultant anticipated the errors for 39 % of students, but no-one listened. He described the algorithm as opaque and undemocratic, something he recognised from his youth. And talked of our 18 year olds’ “collective punishment by statistics”. In other words the computer said no.

How can there not be a message or a moral in all of this?

Maybe one is that justice and humanity is sometimes at odds with ‘usefulness’. This week’s portion Shoftim gives Jews their marching cry, it’s directed us for many generations. Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof…Justice, Justice shall you pursue. Amidst all the attempts for efficiency and usefulness is the desire for humane justice. This is the case whether calling out environmental damage, responding to poverty and destitution or people fleeing their countries for safety. And indeed even calling for fair and transparent ways of rewarding our school children, wherever their postcodes.

Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Rebecca