Viva Voce

Just back from a flying visit to the beautiful city of Edinburgh, where I was involved in the examination of a PhD candidate at the Institute for Astronomy, which is housed on the site of the Royal Observatory.

For those of you not familiar with how this works, a PhD involves doing research into a particular topic and then writing up what you’ve done in a thesis. The thesis is a substantial piece of work, often in the region of 100,000 words (200 pages or so), which is then assessed by two examiners (one internal to the university at which the research was done, and one external). They read copies of the thesis and then the candidate has to defend it in an oral examination, which was what happened today, after which they make a recommendation to the university about whether the degree should be awarded.

At most universities the supervisor does not attend the oral examination, but is not normally required to go into hiding for the day, which is what seemed to happen in this case…

There aren’t many rules for how a viva voce examination should be conducted or how long it should last, but the can be as short as, say, 2 hours and can be as long as 5 hours or more. The examiners usually ask a mixture of questions, some about the details of the work presented and some about the general background. The unpredictable content of a viva voce examination makes it very difficult to prepare for, and it can be difficult and stressful for the candidate (as well as just tiring, as it can drag on for a long time). However, call me old-fashioned but I think if you’re going to get to call youself Doctor of Philosophy you should expect to have to work for it. Some might disagree.

As it happens, my own PhD examination 20 years ago was quite long (about 4hrs 30 minutes) and my external examiner was John Peacock, who happened to be the supervisor of today’s candidate Berian James. It wasn’t a deliberate consequence of me wanting to take vicarious revenge as external examiner on John’s student, but this turned out to be a long examination too. We did break twice (once, briefly, for the remembrance day silence and then for a longer period for lunch), but it was still a lengthy affair.

Obviously I can’t give details of what went on in the examination except that it was long primarily because the thesis was very interesting and gave us lots to discuss. In the end internal examiner Philip Best and I agreed to recommend the award of a PhD. Berian then went off to celebrate while we completed the necessary paperwork. At Edinburgh as in most UK universities, the examiners simply make a recommendation to a higher authority (e.g. Board of Graduate Studies) to formally award the degree, but in the overwhelming majority of cases they follow the recommendation.

After doing the paperwork I still had time to join the party for a glass or two of fizzy. At the do and at various points during the day I had the chance to say hello to some old friends, including Andy Taylor, Bob Mann, and Alan Heavens who all work at the ROE and Richard Nelson who was there for a meeting that I hadn’t known about when we arranged the date and time of the viva.

All in all, it was a very pleasant trip. Although I had to dash around to and from airports a bit getting to and from Scotland, all the planes went on time and since it’s less than an hour flying time from Cardiff to Edinburgh, it was all remarkably hassle-free.

Just before I left to get a taxi to the airport I had a quick chat with one of the PhD students, Alina Kiessling, who joked that I must be rushing off to write about the day on my blog. I never had time to read blogs when I was a PhD student (but  they hadn’t been invented then).

Perhaps I should start charging people to put their name in lights on In the Dark

26 Responses to “Viva Voce”

  1. Your description, of course, refers to doctoral degrees (not all are Ph.D.) in the UK. The procedure varies from country to country and from university to university within a country. (Not to mention variation between various faculties, departments etc.) In some places one can get a doctoral degree directly, in some one or even two other degrees are prerequisites, often one or both also involving a thesis. Also, how much is expected of a doctoral thesis varies quite a bit, as do the funding possibilities (i.e. is it expected that the student do the thesis in his spare time, or is he actually paid for writing it, or something in between?) In some countries, the process doesn’t stop here: the habilitation comes after the doctorate. The doctoral examination itself also varies enormously.

    In short, all are not created equal. However, in practice, a doctoral degree is a doctoral degree, no matter what country it was earned in. (The general reputation of the institute does play a role, of course.) For example, if it is a prerequisite for applying for a job. This is at odds with comparisons of pre-doctoral studies between countries, where a lot of hair-splitting goes in to determining to what extent course work in one country can be recognised in another, though the differences here are probably smaller in general than between doctoral degrees.

    You mentioned that the formal recommendation is almost always followed. My guess is that, at least these days, it is always followed. More interesting is how often no recommendation for awarding a doctorate is made. What is the fraction in the UK? Also, aren’t revisions, corrections etc sometimes required?

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    More to the point Phillip, it seems that you can get away with saying you have a PhD when you don’t at some places…

  3. telescoper Says:


    It does indeed vary from country to country, but less so from university to university within the UK. I think the business of external examiners is to ensure that standards are comparable regardless of the host institution, and I think that’s pretty much true. Some theses are better than others of course, but the threshold for a pass is fairly uniform, I think.

    The examiners have to choose a recommendation from a sort of menu, including a range of options from outright pass to outright fail. The most common outcome is that the candidate should pass after completing some minor amendments discussed in the viva. Sometimes the candidate is required to resubmit after adding more substantial bits to the thesis, but this is relatively rare. The outright fail option is really quite uncommon, but does happen from time to time. The supervisor should not really allow a candidate to submit a thesis that is below par, but sometimes the student ignores this advice and goes ahead anyway. In such circumstances a fail is a definite possibility.

    I’m aware that in many other countries a PhD takes longer than in the UK. Even here the standard time is increasing to 4 years rather than 3. I finished mine and wrote it up within 3 years, but that would be unusual these days. I had my doctorate when I was 24 (3 year Bachelors + 3 year PhD) which meant I got started in research when I was very young. This fast-track system however denied me the chance to get the broader education in advanced techniques that colleagues abroad had from their longer training period.

    I think it’s my own experiences that convinced me that the UK needs a different system. I think we produce too many PhDs with too narrowly defined skills. I think we should produce more Masters and fewer Doctors, more in line with other European countries.


  4. Mr Physicist (PhD) Says:

    Name in lights? Charging?

    There was me thinking it worked the other way round – my bill is in the post.

  5. In countries without external examiners, such as Germany (external examiners are possible but not required and I think not the rule), there is probably more variation from university to university. Also, prerequisite for the doctoral work is a master’s degree (“Diplom”), which includes a 1-year thesis after 4 years of course work. For a 3-year doctorate (probably the norm), that means 8 years total before reaching the doctorate. Of course, some people in the UK do an M.Sc. as well etc. (This is referring to the old system in Germany. Now, things are moving to the uniform Bachelor and Master, which is creating chaos. In general, I think degrees should be comparable within Europe, but in many cases the cart is being put before the horse, i.e. degrees have uniform names but are still different in what they require. In Germany, there is much opposition since the Bachelor and Master degrees are deemed to be less demanding than the old ones, and also with less emphasis on original research.)

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    I have to say that 40000 words seems more typical for the length of a PhD thesis in astronomy these days (even mine was not 100000 words long, and 100000 words was the limit on the length of a PhD thesis under the University of Wales regulations). The duration of a viva seems now to be typically 1.5 to 2.5 hours.

    Peter’s experience of going straight from a batchelor’s degree to study for a PhD was the standard route in Britain for people holding a good (1st or 2ii) batchelor’s degree 15 years ago and more. The system changed in the 1990s in Britain to one which normally requires a master’s degree before progressing to research for a PhD, either requiring a 4-year undergraduate master’s degree (MSci, MPhys or whatever) or a 3-year batchelor’s degree + 1-year MSc (for the sciences). This was partly a response to the changes in the content and rigour of undergraduate courses following the slimming down of the A-level syllabus in pre-university education.

    A central issue in all this is the Bologna process for standardising university degree systems across the European Union. The intention is to move to a uniform 3-year BSc + 2-year MSc + 3-year PhD system (at least for science: substitute BA, MA, etc. for other subjects). This would allow students to move more freely from one country to another for the next stage in their education. Some European countries have already taken action to adopt this system. And as for Britain, the United Kingdom has taken the same action as it has for the common currency and the Schengen system for movement across borders (i.e. nothing).

    Adopting the Bologna system would achieve the system Peter argued for: it could produce large numbers of people with research MSc degrees who have the research, computational and numerical skills that industry needs, without the problem we have today of having considerable numbers of people with PhDs who are considered “over-qualified” or “over-specialised” by industry. The chances of people with PhDs being able to pursue careers in academic research would then not be as tiny as they are today.

  7. P.S. Apologies for spelling bachelor incorrectly.

  8. Yes, Bologna is good in principle, but it makes no sense unless the content of the degrees in various countries is very similar.

    I don’t see how it will lead to fewer Ph.Ds, though. There are lower-level degrees now. OK, if the new lower-level degrees are deemed to be better than the old ones, then maybe, but in Germany, for example, they are (rightly) deemed to be worse.

  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    Bryn: When Peter and I got our PhDs, a “Masters” meant what you got as a consolation prize if your doctoral research supervisor decided after that you weren’t flourishing and asked you to write up what you had done, to be handed in after one year. That of course would have been a M.Phil (MhD meaning magnetohydrodynamics…) The situation in England was complicated by the fact that Oxford and Cambridge automatically upgraded their degrees, all of which were BA (not BSc, because these universities were founded before modern science was invented), to MA after some time had passed without any further study. I think Oxbridge were doing that before most other universities existed, so complaints from the moderns were ignored; but I suspect that they weren’t doing it far back in their own history, since in mediaeval times you were a “Master” after you had completed the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, which were preceded by the ‘trivium’ of grammar, logic and rhetoric – which I guess comprised the Bachelors. Does anybody reading this know the history of Oxbridge degree categories?

    As for standardisation of degrees: what chance of having it Euro-wide when it does not exist in any country? We all know that some degrees from some institutions are worth more than others, and provided that an academic taking on a research student has that knowledge it doesn’t matter. What is much more acutely needed is for institutions to take pride in the degrees they give, but – despite much lip-service to the concept – that aspiration has been unintentionally subverted by government policy, beginning under John Major as I recall, in which government money follows the student. That led to an inevitable dumbing down. I know personally a department head at one of the better polytechnics-upgraded-to-unis who, in response to a meeting of department heads convened by the VC and asked “What does it take to get a degree at *****?”, murmured “A pulse and tha ability to sign a cheque.” Half of the room laughed and nodded, and the pompous and deluded were deeply shocked.

    It was laudable of a PM who never went to university to want to expand the opportunity for others, but it has changed the face of higher education, not always for the better. One problem is the divorce of theory and practice that it has fostered: how soon will hairdressing (for example) be a graduate-entry profession, in which your mind is filled with questionable political doctrine for several years before you ever pick up a pair of scissors? Whereas real learning, in any field whatsoever, proceeds by a generalised ‘apprenticeship system’.

    You mentioned the Euro and Schengen as models of standardisation. I think that this country is in a bad enough state without losing the freedom to choose our own economic policy and border controls. To assert that Brussels would run us better than our own government is a counsel of despair; whether true or not, we would be unable to kick them out at an election, unlike our own governments. Let’s clean up our own politics and retain our own mechanisms of accountability.


    • Anton: I don’t quite agree with you. There were (and are) many stand-alone taught postgraduate Masters qualifications. These usually have a very specific aim, usually as conversion courses into very specialised fields. There still are taught Masters in astrophysics and astronomy in a few places, but way back when the SERC (as it was) decided not to fund taught postgraduate qualifications and put the money instead into PhDs. I would say, however, that an MPhil is universally acknowledged to be a sort of consolation prize, like kind of Crackerjack Pencil.

      Phillip: I think if we did go to 3+2+3 then the question in the UK would be one of money. Who would fund the middle two-year Masters? I suspect that the Higher Education funders would control the Bachelors, but the additional years would go to research councils. I think the need to fund five years instead of three would reduce the total number of places, and you would in any case want to fund more Masters than PhDs because not all will go on. I think a reduction in the number of PhDs would be inevitable.


  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: The last sentence of your first para is really what I meant; thanks – Anton

  11. “When Peter and I got our PhDs, a “Masters” meant what you got as a consolation prize if your doctoral research supervisor decided after that you weren’t flourishing and asked you to write up what you had done, to be handed in after one year.”

    Definitely different than the old “Diplom” in Germany, which a) includes a thesis based on a year of research and b) is done by everyone, whether or not they go on for a doctorate. In fact, most probably decide whether to go for the doctorate during the “master’s thesis” work. (Alas, it’s not simply a continuation, since studies through to the Diplom are guaranteed to be funded somehow (including living expenses; everything else was until recently negligible and even now much less than the UK, but still has the effect of keeping poor (whether good or not) students from going to university, which is of course the real goal of charging fees) whereas to be funded for doctoral work one has to get some sort of job which allows one to work on the thesis during working hours (officially or not), some sort of fellowship (usually having a better reputation but worse pay) etc.) So, the old Diplom guaranteed that the student had spent a year in research in addition to 4 years of course work and rightly indicated a very good grounding in physics. Outside of research, practically no-one requires a doctorate in physics, except if they value the title per se (not unheard of). (This contrasts to chemistry, where even in industry practically all applicants are expected to have a doctorate, and medicine, where many (but by no means all) do (in Germany, the medical doctor is based on just a few weeks of research; it is possible to practice medicine without it and some do).

    “As for standardisation of degrees: what chance of having it Euro-wide when it does not exist in any country? We all know that some degrees from some institutions are worth more than others, and provided that an academic taking on a research student has that knowledge it doesn’t matter.”

    I agree, but a) a harmonisation driven by the EU might aid harmonisation within a country (though particularly difficult in Germany, where there is the absurd rule that the 16 states are solely responsible (this was made even more strict a couple of years ago) for education) and b) objective comparability can exist even if the name of the institution continues to play a role. Peter has indicated here how and why he thinks the standards are quite uniform within the UK, but at the same time probably no other country has the gap in impression between Oxbridge on the one hand and everyone else on the other, despite this and similar indications (for example, when I was at Jodrell Bank, Manchester got 20 points for teaching quality while Cambridge got only 19).

    “Whereas real learning, in any field whatsoever, proceeds by a generalised ‘apprenticeship system’.”

    Indeed. For many non-academic professions, the apprenticeship system is still the only way to a career in Germany, and in general that is a good thing. So, when you see statistics indicating that fewer Germans go on to “higher education” than in other countries, take them with a grain of salt and make sure that the comparison is not between apples and oranges. (Not that I am uncritical of the German educational system in general; in particular, the younger the people involved (elementary school, kindergarten etc), the worse it is compared with neighbouring countries. The university system used to be quite good but has suffered due to Bologna and general lack of funding (not necessarily correlated, but hitting at about the same time).

    “You mentioned the Euro and Schengen as models of standardisation. I think that this country is in a bad enough state without losing the freedom to choose our own economic policy and border controls.”

    This is probably what most people in the rest of the EU would say. However, with respect to economics, despite claims to the contrary, objectively almost all countries have benefitted and few have suffered and if so than quite little (probably within the noise). Maybe the state of the UK is bad BECAUSE it isn’t part of the single currency. 😐 (Not having read Peter’s statistics book, I don’t know if it illustrates cause-and-effect fallacies (e.g. most people who die are married). Border controls are probably more important in the UK than elsewhere; if I understand things correctly, there is no required ID, one can quite easily change one’s name etc so it is much easier to freeload than in countries where more paperwork makes this (rightly, in my view) more difficult.

    “To assert that Brussels would run us better than our own government is a counsel of despair; whether true or not, we would be unable to kick them out at an election, unlike our own governments.”

    This, I think, is the biggest weakness of the EU: the EU government is not elected by the EU parliament. A parliamentary system is the best. The current system is not very transparent. (Electing them directly would be even worse; a parliamentary system assures that the government has a majority in parliament.) (Another big disadvantage is that the EU parliament cannot initiate laws, which is supposed to be the main job of a parliament.)

    My personal view is that the UK wants to keep clear of the EU because the EU would improve things (workers’ an human rights, for example) whereas the other countries who haven’t even joined or who don’t participate in everything do so because they would see themselves pulled down to the level of the EU. 🙂

  12. Anton Garrett Says:


    I should have been clearer by posting the relevant sentence as “real expertise, in any field whatsoever, is learned by a generalised “apprenticeship system”, but you got what I meant. Much of our knowledge is picked up by being close to experts and observing them at work rather than by bookwork (although in academe the latter is vital too). Philosophers call the former “tacit knowledge,” and Michael Polanyi, a central European research chemist who became a philosopher at U Manchester, publicised the concept extensively.

    “Maybe the state of the UK is bad BECAUSE it isn’t part of the single currency.” Maybe… but maybe not. Supposing you are referring only to the state of the economy, rather than social policy, our exchange rate for buying Euros has degenerated in this recession because our government has messed things up worse than the rest of Europe; but without the safety valve of the exchange rate the strain would have been taken in other, arguably worse, ways for our economy.

    I am glad that you acknowledge the problems of the EU system but am mystified that most Europeans want to go ahead anyway in the full knowledge of them. (Did you know that Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of Eurofederalism even before World War 2, is documented as stating that the peoples of Europe would have to be intentionally deceived about the true federalist aims of the project?) Most people in Britain don’t want to go with this project, however – including many of the workers whose rights might theoretically be improved. I think the core of it is that there is a longstanding tradition of individual freedom relative to the State in Britain, compared to continental Europe (this was first commented upon by Voltaire), and although that freedom is rapidly dwindling Britons are still aware of this tradition. Unhappily we in Britain today have a government that cares little about personal liberties – I am prepared to suggest that many of them share a mindset that would have their opponents locked up, but for the constitutional safeguards (put in place by better men) that they have yet to dismember.


  13. I don’t think that most Europeans want to go ahead. Note that, for example, the Lisbon treaty was (initially) rejected where there was a chance to do so in a plebiscite. Most European governments might indeed want to go ahead. However, most of the countries have more to gain than to lose even if this is not generally realised. (Yes, it’s possible that more countries stand to gain than to lose, because even if we “meet in the middle”, those with more to gain usually have smaller populations.) Why is that, i.e. why do the governments differ on this issue from the general population? Maybe because the common people exaggerate the fears. (The entire EU has fewer employees than the city of Amsterdam, but “bureaucratic monster” is a common charge against the former.) However, I think the main reason is that most people vote for the party of their choice on other grounds. Anti-EU parties are generally not perceived as competent, even if one agrees with the anti-EU stance.

    The largest EU member is Germany, both in terms of money paid in (Germany is a net loser, financially) and in terms of population. I also think that many things in Germany were better before they were dumbed down to the common EU level. However, Germany can’t take an anti-EU stance, even if the government and population wanted to, since then Thatcher and her ilk would utter the utter nonsense “Germany is going its own way—again” and that would be the end of that. As Thatcher herself said, Germany must realise that it lost the war.

    The tradition of independence in the UK certainly plays a role as well.

    However, for most people outside the UK, the disadvantages that I mentioned mean that the EU doesn’t have that much real power, hence it is not seen as a big disadvantage.

    Also, many small countries stand to gain, not just financially but because they have proportionally more weight than they otherwise do, whatever system is used. Big countries stand to gain because if they effectively agree (as France and Germany often do, regardless of which party is in power where), they can sway the entire EU.

    Personally, I have a lot of sympathy for Norway not joining, and for Denmark and Sweden opting out on the single currency (though not for Switzerland, since the motivation is different—Switzerland only joined the UN a few years ago), though my personal view is that in those cases they maintain a higher standard than they would if they went along with the EU in everything, whereas the UK would stand to gain but wants to stay out a) as a matter of principle or b) because some parties (not necessarily in the sense of political party) have an interest in some lower standards in the UK. A good example is the fact that the UK has, until very recently, repeatedly torpedoed any suggestion for world-wide (and they have to be, otherwise they won’t work) regulation of the financial markets.

  14. Anton Garrett Says:


    I think the great problem is that a political class has developed – in Britain as well as continental countries – that has its own agenda, so that the people do not feel that their governments represent them in any realistic way. Much of the drive for European union has been due to an understandable desire to make another major European war impossible, but we are now heading toward something resembling the Soviet Union except with a higher material standard of living. There was, of course, peace inside the Soviet Union, but is that really what we want?


  15. Political class? A worse problem in the UK; I blame the two-party system.

    I think the analogy with the Soviet Union, or with the Roman Empire, is pushing it a bit too far. There are blatantly anti-EU parties in all countries; the fact that they don’t win many votes shows that most people don’t see the EU as a serious problem. (Or, of course, that they have been brainwashed by the Eurocrats. 🙂 )

    As for the UK, most people don’t want to join the single currency, and the government has not applied to join the single currency, so where is the problem? Or will the TORIES join the single currency when they are in power?

    On the other hand, if you take a survey of the common people in the former Soviet Union, or in the former Yugoslavia, most will say that it was better in the good old days (not necessarily under Stalin, but, say, in the 1960s and 1970s). Those who dissent would be the few who have become extremely rich in recent years. (I think Moscow now holds the record for the city with the most millionaires and is also—get this—one of the most expensive cities in the world.) Of course, in almost all cases—whether or not they own a UK football team—their path to riches was probably not 100% honest and corruption-free.

    I’m not saying that I would like to have lived in the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia (though I know people who have and they are not damaged for life), but I know for a fact that I wouldn’t want to live in any of the present-day countries of the former Soviet Union nor in those of the former Yugoslavia. There is a tendency, of course, to think that things were better in the good old days, but even correcting for this, I think most people are telling the truth when they say that for themselves, personally, they would rather live in the Soviet Union of the 1970s than in the Russia of the 2000s and that their quality of life was objectively better.

  16. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’m not sure whether the political class is more disconnected in UK and I’m not really interested in arguing that one; the results of some referendums suggest significant disconnection all over Europe. In Britain we don’t have a 2-party “system,” by the way (except perhaps in the layout of the House of Commons), we simply have two dominant parties by will of the electorate.

    I didn’t actually say that the EU was currently comparable to the Soviet Union, but that “we are now heading toward something resembling the Soviet Union except with a higher material standard of living”. I stand by that extrapolation, although I hope I am wrong.

    Liberty or bread? I want both. I have been lucky enough to have had both for most of my life, and I don’t see why it should be either/or, which is why I am unhappy with politicians, whether in Westminster or Brussels, who are progressively taking away my freedoms.


  17. Of course, the House of Commons is the main political body in the UK, and is also an elected one (cf. House of Lords), so it is quite significant that it operates on a two-party system—not in the sense that only two are allowed, but in the sense that the first-past-the-post (oh, please, spare me the swingometer) system puts people before the very undemocratic choice of voting for the lesser of two evils or for the party they really want but with the probably outcome that their vote will be “lost” or, worse, will actually enable the worse of two evils to win (e.g. George Bush defeating Al Gore in the 2000 U.S. election since many left-leaning voters voted for Nader; had they voted for Gore, Bush wouldn’t have one, despite the highly nonlinear electoral system and the hanging chads in Florida where his brother the guv’nor influenced the vote counting—yes an illustration from the US, but the countries are similar in this respect, along with an emphasis on personal freedom and extremely soft and flexible bread).

  18. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yes we certainly have a first-past-the-post system in Britain (although that is not the same as a 2-party system, for there are plenty of political parties here, and some extremist ones are currently gaining ground because the political class that dominates the big parties are not engaging with legitimate concerns of the electorate). As to whether first-past-the-post is a better system than PR: there are arguments for and against each, but none that are decisive IMHO. Certain of the desiderata of a democratic voting system have been mathematically proven to be incompatible, after all (Arrow’s theorem).


  19. Yes, but as the US and the UK show, there can be no doubt that, IN PRACTICE, first-past-the-post leads to a de facto two-party system. Stretching the comparison somewhat, many people are surprised to hear that in the former East Germany, there were actually several political parties. However, as (to a lesser extent) in a two-party system, that obviously didn’t mean that the government was accountable to the parties or to the voters or that the voting was somehow reflected in the relative strength of the parties inside or outside of government.

  20. Bryn Jones Says:

    To respond to Anton’s points, yes, I meant master’s degree in the sense that most universities use the term, not in the Oxbridge sense where the M.A. is essentially a B.A. plus a 15 pound (or whatever) fee. And Anton is right to point to the character of the M.Phil., which can often be awarded for research of some merit that took a few years’ work (often done while registered for a Ph.D.).

    My reference to the euro and Schengen border-control system in relation to the Bolgna process was as examples of European harmonisation not occurring throughout the European Union. The point was that the same may happen to the Bologna process: it is possible that not all countries will adopt the system (i.e. the U.K. plus one or two others will stand outside, as usual).

  21. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: First-past-the-post appears to lead in practice to a system in which there are two large parties, but (1) so what; Arrow’s theorem still applies; (2) a two-large-party system is distinctly not the same as a “2-party system” because the existence of smaller parties, even if they never get elected, forces the big parties to address the issues likely to divert votes to those smaller parties – Anton

  22. Even accepting Arrow’s theorem, one shouldn’t conclude that since no system is fair, it doesn’t matter which system we have. Also, the theorem is built on assumptions; one can drop an assumption one doesn’t agree is desirable anyway and obtain a fair system.

    I agree that a first-past-the-post de-facto 2-party system is not the same as a de-jure 2-party system and somewhat better for the reasons you describe. However, I fail to see how any system which a) doesn’t proportion seats in parliament according to the fraction of votes received or b) contains restrictions such that people don’t vote for the parties they really want to can be described as “democratic” in any meaningful sense.

  23. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: OK, let’s recreate Arrow’s theorem. What do you mean by “democratic in any real sense”?

    The point of the British system is to elect a person who represents you at Westminster. Whereas continentals think Party and State, Brits think Individual (and hooray for that). In that difference lies my basic objection to PR. Unhappily, the ever-increasing strength of the party system has subverted the ideal of representation at Westminster to the point that most MPs are now mere lobby fodder for their party leaders. If I could think of a way of outlawing that without banning the free association of MPs then I would. Ideas anyone?


  24. […] observed it, in Physics and Astronomy. And I’ve done quite a few over the years; see, e.g., here. For a start, it’s extremely rare for a student to spend five years doing a PhD in my field […]

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