Numbers

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The Independent Online
THIS WEEK, the National Lottery came under the starter's pistol, promising the chance of random riches to tens of millions of punters. A fortnight ago, two 11-year-olds from Burnley protested to the Prime Minister about a lottery system that denied them places at the school of their choice. So when is randomness fair?

According to guidelines issued by John Patten: 'Access to a school cannot properly be determined by lot', under the curious logic that 'decisions made by lot cannot be tested and leave no basis for appeal'. Yet, in a pure sense, nothing can be fairer than lotteries. Their decisions can be tested - statistically, for true randomness - and the fact that they leave no legitimate basis for appeal underlines their fairness: everyone stands an equal chance, with no eloquent argument or emotional pressure swaying the decision-makers. And, as every opinion pollster knows, there is nothing like random selection to achieve a representative sample. Indeed, our whole system of justice is based on randomly selected juries.

No rational person can complain to Ernie that his premium bond is being discriminated against. But while we welcome the random allocation of large sums of money, it is less easy to feel comfortable about important life decisions being made on the whim of a machine. Randomness is fair, yet that same fairness seems, to those it rejects, as unfair as anything can be. There is something comforting about fallibly human committees trying to apply unworkable systems. Having someone to blame is part of what we call 'fair'.

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