Monday, June 24, 2013

1306.5004 (Edward D. Lee et al.)

Statistical mechanics of the US Supreme Court    [PDF]

Edward D. Lee, Chase P. Broedersz, William Bialek
We build simple models for the distribution of voting patterns in a group, using the Supreme Court of the United States as an example. The least structured, or maximum entropy, model that is consistent with the observed pairwise correlations among justices' votes is equivalent to an Ising spin glass. While all correlations (perhaps surprisingly) are positive, the effective pairwise interactions in the spin glass model have both signs, recovering some of our intuition that justices on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum should have a negative influence on one another. Despite the competing interactions, a strong tendency toward unanimity emerges from the model, and this agrees quantitatively with the data. The model shows that voting patterns are organized in a relatively simple "energy landscape," correctly predicts the extent to which each justice is correlated with the majority, and gives us a measure of the influence that justices exert on one another. These results suggest that simple models, grounded in statistical physics, can capture essential features of collective decision making quantitatively, even in a complex political context.
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