First, congratulations to fellow complexity theorist and blogger Scott Aaronson for receiving the 2020 ACM Prize in Computing for "groundbreaking contributions to quantum computing". The prize is ACM's highest honor for mid-career researchers. Well deserved!
Now back to our regularly scheduled post...
Every freshman at Cornell back in 1981 had to take two seminar courses, basically one-shot courses in an usually humanities area which required no prerequisites but lots of writing. I took my first course in philosophy. The instructor, a PhD student, at one point described his research, a philosophical argument that there is an intrinsic total ordering of beauty, say that Beethoven would always sit above the Beatles, no matter the beholder. I didn't believe him then and still don't today. A few months ago the Washington Post ran a story with the same theme entitled Maradona was great, and maybe the greatest. Can we make similar claims about artists?
Somehow we have this belief when it comes to conference submissions, that there is some perfect ordering of the submissions and a good PC can suss it out. That's not really how it works. Let's say a conference has an accept rate of 30%. Typically 10% of the submissions are strong and will be accepted by any committee. About half the submissions are just okay or worse and would be rejected. The other 40% of the submissions will be chosen seemingly randomly based on the tastes of the specific members of the program committee. Experiments in the NeurIPS and ESA conferences have bourn this out.
Why not make the randomness explicit instead of implicit? Have the PC divide the papers into three piles, definite accepts, definite rejects and the middle. Take the third group and randomly choose which ones to accept. It will create a more interesting program. Also randomness removes biases, randomness doesn't care about gender, race and nationality or whether the authors are at senior professors at MIT or first year grad students at Southern North Dakota.
We put far too much weight on getting accepted into a conference given the implicit randomness of a PC. If we make the randomness explicit that would devalue that weight. We would have to judge researchers on the quality of their research instead of their luck in conferences.
Given that conferences, especially the virtual ones, have no real limits on the number of papers and talks, you might say why not just accept all the papers in the middle. Works for me.