Evaluators (and figure skating judges) should be impartial

Although figure skating is still one of the most popular Olympic sports it has lost some of its romance and charm with Tonya Harding’s henchmen whacking on Nancy Kerrigan’s knee and the ongoing real and alleged buying and selling of the judging.

We were all familiar with the 6 point grading scale used in figure skating, scrapped after the cheating scandals at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. The old 6 pt grading scale required each judge to publicly give a grade to a skating performance, and the synthesis of the judges scores has been done in a number of different ways over the years.

The new evaluation system, the ISU of International Judging System) took effect in 2005. The ISU breaks the performance into elements (determined by a technical judge) and uses a computerized tabulation as a primary function of which is to make the judges grading anonymous. Low and high scores are discarded and the remaining scores averaged. It’s a complicated evaluation system… many criteria, use of video playback to analyze the technical elements, checks for extreme errors in judging, anonymous judging, and so on. It isn’t clear that this new system is better.

At the heart of the judging issues in figure skating is an important evaluation issue: impartiality. Even though judges scores are anonymous, which many agree has compromised accountability and transparency, judges are selected by nations and so nationalist favoritism may still be at play. Eric Zitzewitz, a Dartmouth economist analyzed judging data and found the chance that judges give higher marks to skaters from their own country is now about 20 percent greater than in the 6.0 system.

How can impartiality in evaluation be fostered? First, those doing the evaluations ought to be accountable for the justification of their judgements. That means they are known and there needs to be transparency in the evaluation process ~ what is the evidence and how has it been synthesized into an evaluative claim? This is a feature of meta-evaluation and isn’t much more than expecting that evaluations should be auditable. But impartiality requires more than transparency, it also requires fairness as well as integrity & honesty (one of AEA’s guiding principles). What we mean by impartiality is quite complex and the matter won’t be resolved here, but figure skating judging sure reminds us of the importance of minding this matter in our practice.

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