Like many this summer, I found myself a bit perplexed by the way Olympic athletes in many sports received scores. It was not so much the scoring systems per se that had me flummoxed, although they were far from simple. Rather it was realizing that, while the systems for scoring gymnastics, ice skating, boxing, and sailing had been overhauled over the past few years in an effort to remedy troubling flaws, the complaint that these scores are subjective — and by extension unfair — lingered.
This dissatisfaction reflects an unwritten rule that applies to our efforts to evaluate the quality or merit of any human endeavor: if the evaluation is to be perceived as fair, it must demonstrate that it is not subjective. But is this a useful rule? Before we can wrestle with that question, we need to consider what we mean by subjective and why we feel compelled to avoid it. Continue reading