Group Psychology For All, Experts And Non-Experts Alike

I’ve been reading a book I had seen over the years, but had ignored until a friend recommended it. It is The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. I guess I didn’t pay it much heed because of an assumption that it was likely lightweight pop psychology. I was wrong.

It is an intriguing book, although more of an introductory text and so can be not quite fully satisfying in that it entices the reader’s curiosity to learn more. The ideas in the book are quite radical, but the author doesn’t emphasize that aspect. There are so many directions that could be taken and that would require many other books. This particular book, however, accomplished what it sets out to do which was ambitious enough.

A number of things are covered in the text. It’s not really about crowds, the title being unfortunate. Rather, it’s about group psychology and all that relates to that.

The author discusses the conditions under which any group will operate well or not. It could be a group of average citizens, a school board, or a grassroots organization. But it also could be a group of scientists, investors, or politicians. All humans are social animals, and so the same group psychology applies to all people and all groups. Even the paternalistic elites of Scandinavian countries, for example, are dependent on and interdependent with, built upon and inseparable from the constructive group dynamics of a culture of trust.

This would apply even to effectively ruling an authoritarian regime. That said, the conditions when fulfilled to their utmost would inevitably tend toward democratization, no matter the intent. This is true in all spheres to which these conditions could be applied. It isn’t just about politics. Far from it.

In reading reviews of the book, I realized many people didn’t understand the central point the author was communicating. He isn’t opposing crowds against experts. As I said, group psychology is a universal human reality, even for experts. Much of what the author discusses is experts themselves, when they are useful and when they are not. I found it odd that some reviewers thought the book had nothing to do about experts. Either they didn’t actually read the book or the unfortunate title biased their reading experience.

The term ‘expert’ was mentioned 92 times in The Wisdom of Crowds. Expertise is discussed in numerous chapters throughout the book. I’ll offer a few examples of it being discussed, but other examples not included below go into much more detail about examples and research.

(I’d also suggest the even more recent book, The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller. He also has useful discussion of groups and experts, both separately and as they interact, including some fascinating research. There are some other books I’m reading that may be relevant. I’ll probably write more about this topic later. I specifically have in mind a post about democracy in the city I live in, as analyzed according to Surowieki’s conditions of a wise crowd.)

 * * * *

The fact that cognitive diversity matters does not mean that if you assemble a group of diverse but thoroughly uninformed people, their collective wisdom will be smarter than an expert’s. But if you can assemble a diverse group of people who possess varying degrees of knowledge and insight, you’re better off entrusting it with major decisions rather than leaving them in the hands of one or two people, no matter how smart those people are. If this is difficult to believe—in the same way that March’s assertions are hard to believe—it’s because it runs counter to our basic intuitions about intelligence and business. Suggesting that the organization with the smartest people may not be the best organization is heretical, particularly in a business world caught up in a ceaseless “war for talent” and governed by the assumption that a few superstars can make the difference between an excellent and a mediocre company. Heretical or not, it’s the truth: the value of expertise is, in many contexts, overrated.

Now, experts obviously exist. The play of a great chess player is qualitatively different from the play of a merely accomplished one. The great player sees the board differently, he processes information differently, and he recognizes meaningful patterns almost instantly. As Herbert A. Simon and W. G. Chase demonstrated in the 1970s, if you show a chess expert and an amateur a board with a chess game in progress on it, the expert will be able to re-create from memory the layout of the entire game. The amateur won’t. Yet if you show that same expert a board with chess pieces irregularly and haphazardly placed on it, he will not be able to re-create the layout. This is impressive testimony to how thoroughly chess is imprinted on the minds of successful players. But it also demonstrates how limited the scope of their expertise is. A chess expert knows about chess, and that’s it. We intuitively assume that intelligence is fungible, and that people who are excellent at one intellectual pursuit would be excellent at another. But this is not the case with experts. Instead, the fundamental truth about expertise is that it is, as Chase has said, “spectacularly narrow.”

More important, there’s no real evidence that one can become expert in something as broad as “decision making” or “policy” or “strategy.” Auto repair, piloting, skiing, perhaps even management: these are skills that yield to application, hard work, and native talent. But forecasting an uncertain future and deciding the best course of action in the face of that future are much less likely to do so. And much of what we’ve seen so far suggests that a large group of diverse individuals will come up with better and more robust forecasts and make more intelligent decisions than even the most skilled “decision maker.”

We’re all familiar with the absurd predictions that business titans have made: Harry Warner of Warner Bros. pronouncing in 1927, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?,” or Thomas Watson of IBM declaring in 1943, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” These can be written off as amusing anomalies, since over the course of a century, some smart people are bound to say some dumb things. What can’t be written off, though, is the dismal performance record of most experts.

Between 1984 and 1999, for instance, almost 90 percent of mutual-fund managers underperformed the Wilshire 5000 Index, a relatively low bar. The numbers for bond-fund managers are similar: in the most recent five-year period, more than 95 percent of all managed bond funds underperformed the market. After a survey of expert forecasts and analyses in a wide variety of fields, Wharton professor J. Scott Armstrong wrote, “I could find no studies that showed an important advantage for expertise.” Experts, in some cases, were a little better at forecasting than laypeople (although a number of studies have concluded that nonpsychologists, for instance, are actually better at predicting people’s behavior than psychologists are), but above a low level, Armstrong concluded, “expertise and accuracy are unrelated.” James Shanteau is one of the country’s leading thinkers on the nature of expertise, and has spent a great deal of time coming up with a method for estimating just how expert someone is. Yet even he suggests that “experts’ decisions are seriously flawed.”

Shanteau recounts a series of studies that have found experts’ judgments to be neither consistent with the judgments of other experts in the field nor internally consistent. For instance, the between-expert agreement in a host of fields, including stock picking, livestock judging, and clinical psychology, is below 50 percent, meaning that experts are as likely to disagree as to agree. More disconcertingly, one study found that the internal consistency of medical pathologists’ judgments was just 0.5, meaning that a pathologist presented with the same evidence would, half the time, offer a different opinion. Experts are also surprisingly bad at what social scientists call “calibrating” their judgments. If your judgments are well calibrated, then you have a sense of how likely it is that your judgment is correct. But experts are much like normal people: they routinely overestimate the likelihood that they’re right. A survey on the question of overconfidence by economist Terrance Odean found that physicians, nurses, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and investment bankers all believed that they knew more than they did. Similarly, a recent study of foreign-exchange traders found that 70 percent of the time, the traders overestimated the accuracy of their exchange-rate predictions. In other words, it wasn’t just that they were wrong; they also didn’t have any idea how wrong they were. And that seems to be the rule among experts. The only forecasters whose judgments are routinely well calibrated are expert bridge players and weathermen. It rains on 30 percent of the days when weathermen have predicted a 30 percent chance of rain.

Armstrong, who studies expertise and forecasting, summarized the case this way: “One would expect experts to have reliable information for predicting change and to be able to utilize the information effectively. However, expertise beyond a minimal level is of little value in forecasting change.” Nor was there evidence that even if most experts were not very good at forecasting, a few titans were excellent. Instead, Armstrong wrote, “claims of accuracy by a single expert would seem to be of no practical value.” This was the origin of Armstrong’s “seer-sucker theory”: “No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.”

Again, this doesn’t mean that well-informed, sophisticated analysts are of no use in making good decisions. (And it certainly doesn’t mean that you want crowds of amateurs trying to collectively perform surgery or fly planes.) It does mean that however well-informed and sophisticated an expert is, his advice and predictions should be pooled with those of others to get the most out of him. (The larger the group, the more reliable its judgment will be.) And it means that attempting to “chase the expert,” looking for the one man who will have the answers to an organization’s problem, is a waste of time. We know that the group’s decision will consistently be better than most of the people in the group, and that it will be better decision after decision, while the performance of human experts will vary dramatically depending on the problem they’re asked to solve. So it is unlikely that one person, over time, will do better than the group.

Now, it’s possible that a small number of genuine experts—that is, people who can consistently offer better judgments than those of a diverse, informed group—do exist. The investor Warren Buffett, who has consistently outperformed the S&P 500 Index since the 1960s, is certainly someone who comes to mind. The problem is that even if these superior beings do exist, there is no easy way to identify them. Past performance, as we are often told, is no guarantee of future results. And there are so many would-be experts out there that distinguishing between those who are lucky and those who are genuinely good is often a near-impossible task. At the very least, it’s a job that requires considerable patience: if you wanted to be sure that a successful money manager was beating the market because of his superior skill, and not because of luck or measurement error, you’d need many years, if not decades, of data. And if a group is so unintelligent that it will flounder without the right expert, it’s not clear why the group would be intelligent enough to recognize an expert when it found him.

We think that experts will, in some sense, identify themselves, announcing their presence and demonstrating their expertise by their level of confidence. But it doesn’t work that way. Strangely, experts are no more confident in their abilities than average people are, which is to say that they are overconfident like everyone else, but no more so. Similarly, there is very little correlation between experts’ self-assessment and their performance. Knowing and knowing that you know are apparently two very different skills.

If this is the case, then why do we cling so tightly to the idea that the right expert will save us? And why do we ignore the fact that simply averaging a group’s estimates will produce a very good result? Richard Larrick and Jack B. Soll suggest that the answer is that we have bad intuitions about averaging. We assume averaging means dumbing down or compromising. When people are faced with the choice of picking one expert or picking pieces of advice from a number of experts, they try to pick the best expert rather than simply average across the group. Another reason, surely, is our assumption that true intelligence resides only in individuals, so that finding the right person—the right consultant, the right CEO—will make all the difference. In a sense, the crowd is blind to its own wisdom. Finally, we seek out experts because we get, as the writer Nassim Taleb asserts, “fooled by randomness.” If there are enough people out there making predictions, a few of them are going to compile an impressive record over time. That does not mean that the record was the product of skill, nor does it mean that the record will continue into the future. Again, trying to find smart people will not lead you astray. Trying to find the smartest person will.

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 29-34). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This might be okay if people only spoke when they had expertise in a particular matter. And in many cases, if someone’s talking a lot, it’s a good sign that they have something valuable to add. But the truth is that there is no clear correlation between talkativeness and expertise. In fact, as the military-flier studies suggest, people who imagine themselves as leaders will often overestimate their own knowledge and project an air of confidence and expertise that is unjustified. And since, as political scientists Brock Blomberg and Joseph Harrington suggest, extremists tend to be more rigid and more convinced of their own rightness than moderates, discussion tends to pull groups away from the middle. Of course, sometimes truth lies at the extreme. And if the people who spoke first and most often were consistently the people with the best information or the keenest analysis, then polarization might not be much of a problem. But it is.

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (p. 186). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

So what would the wider distribution of real decision-making power look like? To begin with, decisions about local problems should be made, as much as possible, by people close to the problem. Friedrich Hayek, as we’ve seen, emphasized that tacit knowledge—knowledge that emerged only from experience—was crucial to the efficiency of markets. It is just as important to the efficiency of organizations. Instead of assuming that all problems need to be filtered up the hierarchy and every solution filtered back down again, companies should start with the assumption that, just as in the marketplace, people with local knowledge are often best positioned to come up with a workable and efficient solution. The virtues of specialization and local knowledge often outweigh managerial expertise in decision making.

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 209-210). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The best CEOs, of course, recognize the limits of their own knowledge and of individual decision making. That’s why important decisions at GM, in the days when it was the most successful corporation in the world, were made by what Alfred Sloan called “group management.” And it’s why legendary business thinker Peter Drucker has said, “The smart CEOs methodically build a management team around them.” The lesson of Richard Larrick and Jack Soll’s work applies to business as much as it does to other fields: chasing the expert is a mistake. The Federal Reserve’s decisions, after all, aren’t made by Alan Greenspan. They’re made by the board as a whole. In the face of uncertainty, the collective judgment of a group of executives will trump that of even the smartest executive. Think about John Craven’s work in finding the Scorpion. A relatively small group of diversely informed individuals making guesses about the likelihood of uncertain events produced, when their judgments had been aggregated, an essentially perfect decision. What more could a company want?

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 220-221). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In January of 2003, 343 people, carefully chosen so that they represented an almost perfect cross-section of the American population, gathered in Philadelphia for a weekend of political debate. The topic was American foreign policy, with the issues ranging from the impending conflict with Iraq to nuclear proliferation to the global AIDS epidemic. Before the weekend, the participants were polled to get a sense of their positions on the issues. They were then sent a set of briefing materials that, in a deliberately evenhanded fashion, tried to lay out relevant facts and provide some sense of the ongoing debate about the issues. Once they arrived, they were divided up into small groups led by trained moderators, and went on to spend the weekend deliberating. Along the way, they were given the chance to interrogate panels of competing experts and political figures. At the end of the weekend, the participants were polled again, to see what difference their deliberations had made.

The entire event, which bore the unwieldy name of the National Issues Convention Deliberative Poll, was the brainchild of a political scientist at the University of Texas named James Fishkin. Fishkin invented the deliberative poll out of frustration with the limitations of traditional polling data and out of a sense that Americans were not being given either the information or the opportunity to make intelligent political choices. The idea behind deliberative polls—which have now been run in hundreds of cities across the world—is that political debate should not be, and doesn’t need to be, confined to experts and policy elites. Given enough information and the chance to talk things over with peers, ordinary people are more than capable of understanding complex issues and making meaningful choices about them. In that sense, Fishkin’s project is a profoundly optimistic one, predicated on a kind of deep faith in both the virtue of informed debate and the ability of ordinary people to govern themselves.

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 257-258). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

One knee-jerk reaction to the evidence of democracy’s failings is to insist that we would be better off ruled by a technocratic elite, which could make decisions with dispassion and attention to the public interest. To some extent, of course, we already are ruled by a technocratic elite, what with our republican form of government and the importance of unelected officials—for instance, Donald Rumsfeld or Colin Powell—in political life. But one would be hard-pressed to argue that most elites are able to see past their ideological blinders and uncover the imaginary public interest. And trusting an insulated, unelected elite to make the right decisions is a foolish strategy, given all we now know about small-group dynamics, groupthink, and the failure of diversity.

In any case, the idea that the right answer to complex problems is simply “ask the experts” assumes that experts agree on the answers. But they don’t, and if they did, it’s hard to believe that the public would simply ignore their advice. Elites are just as partisan and no more devoted to the public interest than the average voter. More important, as you shrink the size of a decision-making body, you also shrink the likelihood that the final answer is right. Finally, most political decisions are not simply decisions about how to do something. They are decisions about what to do, decisions that involve values, trade-offs, and choices about what kind of society people should live in. There is no reason to think that experts are better at making those decisions than the average voter. Thomas Jefferson, for one, thought it likely that they might be worse. “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor,” he wrote. “The former will decide it as well and often better than the latter because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”

It’s also the case that democracy allows for the persistent injection into the system of what I called earlier “local knowledge.” Politics is ultimately about the impact of government on the everyday lives of citizens. It seems strange, then, to think that the way to do politics well is to distance yourself as much as possible from citizens’ everyday lives. In the same way that a healthy market needs the constant flow of localized information that it gets from prices, a healthy democracy needs the constant flow of information it gets from people’s votes. That is information that experts cannot get because it is not part of the world they live in. And that keeps the system more diverse than it would otherwise be. As Richard Posner puts it: “Experts constitute a distinct class in society, with values and perspectives that differ systematically from those of ‘ordinary’ people. Without supposing that the man in the street has any penetrating insights denied the expert, or is immune from demagoguery, we may nevertheless think it reassuring that political power is shared between experts and nonexperts rather than being a monopoly of the former.”

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 265-266). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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35 thoughts on “Group Psychology For All, Experts And Non-Experts Alike

  1. Ah – so we do disagree.

    I don’t think it’s a knee jerk reaction to be ruled by a technical elite. Given enough information assumes that:

    1. People have enough time to absorb all information about everything related to public policy
    2. People want to absorb the information
    3. Everyone is equally passionate and equally capable (some people inevitably prioritize different things)
    4. Everyone works towards the collective long-term interest (often not the case – I once participated in a town hall meeting in an area dominated by senior citizens; who needless to say were not very supportive of the local schools, viewing them as leeches on property taxes) – another example is the election of school trustees for school boards, which often do a terrible job. In theory, if what you asserted was true, by talking it out and with enough information, they could avoid problems. In practice, they have their own ideologies.

    The problem as I see it is, we’re ruled by the wrong kind of elite. Bankers, lawyers, and business types, versus what is needed – namely people who embrace the scientific method and view leadership as a burden.

    There are things that most experts do agree upon that are at odds with the general public – witness global warming for example, or the idea of personal savings from financial planners.

    Would experts be perfect? No, but they would be less bad overall. The problem is that real experts need to be put into the correct places.

    • I must admit that, as I read the book and wrote this post, I was reminded of our many discussions. You could say we disagree, as seen from a particular perspective or level. But I’m not sure it is exactly disagreement. It’s more that we are framing it differently.

      Surowkiecki’s arguments and evidence shifted my own thinking a bit. I realized that there was maybe a better frame for understanding and discussion. Yet I noticed that many reviewers of the book didn’t realize that the author was using a different frame.

      In our society, it is common to see experts and non-experts as opposed. It is either a technocracy ruled by experts or a democracy ruled by the people. What if this dualistic lense does’t help us to resolve the seeming conflict, but instead creates or exacerbates it? What if the conflict is in our perception, not the reality, of the challenges we face?

      The Scandinavian countries seem to be the perfect example of this. That is why I mentioned them in my post, albeit briefly.

      In the Scandinavian context of a culture of trust, both the people and elite are able to act more wisely in their shared society toward a public good that benefits all. It isn’t as if the elite entirely and solely rule in the Scandinavian countries. They are democratic governments, after all. It is a mix of rule by people and rule by elite, not just one or the other.

      They aren’t opposed, as we assume through the lense of American ideological and cultural worldview. Maybe the Scandinavians understand something we Americans don’t. Maybe that understanding is what allows both the peope and the elite to act more effectively and wisely in Scandinavia. They don’t waste precious time and energy seeing the two groups in an oppositional struggle for power.

      Books like The Wisdom of Crowds are trying to articulate in American terms what Scandinavians grok through lived experience. For us to fully understand this old Scandinavian insight, it would require a paradigm shift. I see this paradigm shift happening in American society, but I don’t know if it will successfully be implemented.

      Is it possible that Americans might find a way to achieve, even if only in part, what cultures of trust do on a regularly basis? Are we capable of new understanding or will we remain stuck in old ways of thinking that lead to the same old results with the same old problems?

  2. The problem is that the more complex the problem, the more need tor expertise.

    In my field for example, accounting, one very serious issue is that corporations lobby aggressively for weaker accounting standards that can hurt society and set up corporate fraud, or allow executives to get away with certain schemes that would allow them to get away with a lot of money. The other problem is that many corporations are represented on accounting standards boards.

    Apart from people who are well versed in accounting and finance, there aren’t very many people who know what to look for.

    What would happen if non-experts got on board? I bet that there would be even more scandals then now, for a period, at which point, it would be admitted that however imperfect, experienced people are needed.

    I would imagine it is very similar in highly technical fields. Medicine, engineering, software design, etc. Policy simply has to be set up by experts.

    Who would I define as an expert?

    1. Someone who has spent a lot of time studying a field
    2. Someone with extensive knowledge in a certain area or specialization
    3. A person who has an open mind who is open to new concepts and ideas
    4. A person who is willing to change their mind, if overwhelming evidence to the contrary exists.

    I would wager that much like accounting, public policy suffers from the same problems – the problems are often complex. It would require that the general public have extensive knowledge on all issues.

    I get the overwhelming impression that this post does try in a way to portray the problem as “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge” (that’s a quote from Asimov).

    The answer may very well be local or municipal democracy and national technocracy. One very serious problem remains though – senior citizens tend to be overrepresented in town hall meetings as are their interests simply because they have the time to attend.

  3. “The problem is that the more complex the problem, the more need tor expertise.”

    As research shows, the more complex the problem, the more that effective group psychology is applicable. This is true for experts and non-experts alike. Also, expertise by its nature is narrow in focus. When experts go beyond their narrow expertise, that is when they easily fall into the smart idiot effect. That is what a well designed group can protect against.

    If it is complexity that is entirely within their expertise, experts are useful and necessary. But even then experts can only be as good as the group, system, and culture they are part of.

    What protects individuals, including individual experts, from cognitive biases are effective group dynamics. Individual experts turn out to be a lot less reliable than most people realize. The same need for diversity of knowledge, experience, and perspectives still applies. Put a bunch of experts together with the same education and background and you will create the conditions for groupthink.

    “What would happen if non-experts got on board? I bet that there would be even more scandals then now, for a period, at which point, it would be admitted that however imperfect, experienced people are needed.”

    Well, we can look at real world examples, all from business.

    What happened when the German government required all corporate boards to have half of their members come from workers in the union? There isn’t the conflict between management and labor, as seen in the US. It created a culture of trust, a sense of shared good, and personal connection from working together toward common goals.

    One result of this is that when German companies said they had to cut costs, the labor unions agreed to take a cut in hours just as long as no employees were laid off. Working together, they solved the problem of unemployment, without government intervention. All the government had to do was create the healthy group dynamics by ensuring the corporate boards had a diversity of views that represented all involved.

    Those German corporate boards seem to meet at least some of the conditions of Surowiecki’s wise crowd or rather a smart group.

    The next two examples were given to me by my father. I’m sure I’ve mentioned him to you before. He originally worked as a factory manager and then became a professor of business management (also, doing factory consultant work on the side). One thing that has interested me in Surowiecki’s book and some other similar books is how much of what is described resonates with my father’s work with system designs and system dynamics. Peter Miller’s The Smart Swarm describes the beer game which my father used in his classes as a teaching tool about how systems operate and can lead to problems.

    One of my father’s examples involved the Japanese. Of course, it’s another culture of trust. As a side note, I wonder if all effective group dynamics require a culture of trust, either already established in the larger society or encouraged through the group design/process itself.

    There is a model of factory management that was developed in Japan. I think it may have begun with Toyota. The early model of American manufacturing produced everything at a large scale and then stored what wasn’t immediately needed in warehouses. The American manufacturing model has been hierarchical and bureaucratic, although there have been changes over time.

    Basically, how work is done in the Japanese model is more decentralized. This involves two aspects. First, everything is done in smaller batches. This allows a lot of flexibility. Second, daily problems are solved at the lowest level possible. If one worker is using screws and finds the fit isn’t quite right, he simply goes to the workers who design and make the screws. The next small batch will have the solution implemented, without any involvement of a hierarchical chain of management.

    In this case, management is more for oversight than to act as experts telling everyone exactly what to do. The Japanese are capable of this because they are willing to highly train and educate their workers. The workers aren’t experts in any normal sense. They simply have a lot of local knowledge. They know their small part in great detail, but it is all practical knowledge.

    As a culture of trust, they are willing to invest immensely in their workers. It’s similar to how cultures of trust at a political level lead to great investments in citizens. For instance, Finland has one of the best public education systems in the world and with high rates of teacher unionization. To have informed and capable workers or citizens, that requires investment. There is no such thing as a smart and wise elite where the people and the social system is stupid.

    Now, I’ll give an American example of how lean manufacturing has developed (I’m not sure in which companies this developed).

    The assembly line is built to move quickly, but every station has a button. When that button is pushed, everything stops. They also put all the engineers on the factory floor. The moment a stop happens, everyone convenes at the source of the problem and works out a solution. It is a combination of the expertise of the engineers and the local knowledge of the station worker who knows that piece of equipment in great detail. It is the diversity of knowledge, experience, and perspectives that makes possible quick and effective group decision-making.

    They schedule work shifts to allow for a certain amount of time for stops. On days when few or no problems occur, all the workers meet at a blackboard on the factory floor. One of the floor managers has kept track of recent problems and written some of them down. He asks the workers which problems they should work on. These workers aren’t experts in a broad sense, but they have detailed local knowledge of their own station. This allows these workers to see solutions that a manager would never think about.

    So, a worker points out that there is this one mechanism that doesn’t always work, but there is no way to tell when it’s not working until after it has been in operation for a while. He suggests that an indicator with a light would be helpful to deal with the problem more quickly. An engineer explains he could design such an indicator and the worker agrees to pick up a light from the hardware store on his way home. The next day, there is an indicator with a light on the worker’s station.

    Both the expert and the non-expert are necessary in these kinds of decision-making scenarios. Practical local knowledge learned through experience is just as important as well-educated expertise. The diversity of individuals working together are able to come to better solutions than any individual alone is as likely to discover.

    “Who would I define as an expert?
    1. Someone who has spent a lot of time studying a field
    2. Someone with extensive knowledge in a certain area or specialization
    3. A person who has an open mind who is open to new concepts and ideas
    4. A person who is willing to change their mind, if overwhelming evidence to the contrary exists.”

    In that case, most of the people who think of themselves and are treated as experts, by your defintion, are not experts. Very few people would fit such stringent standards, as the research shows. Also, as Surowiecki explains, identifying these rare super-experts would be extremely difficult.

    It would be better to lower the standard of expertise to a basic level of knowledge and experience. Then ensure the necessary group conditions are in place for experts to operate most effectively and their input to be used most effectively. It is relatively easy to identify narrow expertise, which can be applied to narrow problems, but the most challenging problems we face aren’t narrow.

    “I get the overwhelming impression that this post does try in a way to portray the problem as “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge” (that’s a quote from Asimov).”

    As I pointed out, that would be the American perception of this non-American understanding. But I’m also suggesting that maybe the American framing is part of the American dysfunction. Scandinavians (and the Japanese) frame such things differently. It’s possible we could learn a thing or two from them. Considering how American manufacturing has changed, maybe it indicates we are already learning these lessons.

    “The answer may very well be local or municipal democracy and national technocracy.”

    I suspect there will be many answers that will slowly and organically develop over time. That is what interests me about these books I’m reading. It isn’t about people forcing onto reality what they think will work. Instead, it is people testing out theories in practice to find out what actually does work in the real world.

    “One very serious problem remains though – senior citizens tend to be overrepresented in town hall meetings as are their interests simply because they have the time to attend.”

    That isn’t problematic in and of itself. Or to put it another way, there are multiple overlapping issues.

    Peter Miller, in The Smart Swarm, discusses New England democracy in great detail. He acknowledges the challenges faced by a changing world. You are pointing to one of these problems.

    When the children and grandchildren of senior citizens don’t live in the same community, senior citizens will probably feel less invested in taking care of the next generation in the local schools. But the same thing will happen with experts. The more they become disconnected from the communities they live in, the less they will be genuinely concerned about the public good of that community.

    This is a problem now in my town, Iowa City. The city manager is a trained professional. The very idea of hiring city manager is that an expert can manage a town better than an elected city council. The problem is that they often hire outsiders who have no personal investment in the city itself. That is the case with our city manager. He only moved here for the job itself and plans on moving away again when he retires soon. As he is retiring, he doesn’t even have any professional stake in this town. If he completely fails, it won’t effect him as his career is over. To him, it’s just a game he is playing, like an investor who plays with other people’s money.

    I mentioned a number of times the book by Peter Miller, The Smart Swarms. Below is some of where he discusses research done related to group decision-making and experts. The first couple of sections are about a study where the participants had to solve an intelligence scenario. The participants were grouped, some with experts and others without. Experts were those with specifically measured skills for the task given. The last section is about another study where participants had to solve a puzzle with a single answer (the puzzle was a code where numbers represented letters). What was different about this study is that some of the participants were put alone while others were put in groups of varying size.

    The Smart Swarm
    by Peter Miller
    pp. 54-5

    Who did the best job at solving the puzzle? Not surprisingly, the most successful teams—the ones that correctly identified the target, terrorists, and plot details—were those with experts that applied their skills appropriately and actively collaborated with one another. What no one expected, however, was that the teams with experts who made little effort to coordinate their work would do so poorly. They did even worse, in fact, than teams that had no experts at all.

    “We filmed all the teams and watched them several times,” Woolley says. “What seems to happen is that, when two of the people are experts and two are not, there’s a status thing that goes on. The two that aren’t experts defer to the two that are, when in fact you really need information from all four to answer the problem correctly.”

    Why was this disturbing? Because that’s how many analytic teams function in real life, Woolley says, whether they’re composed of intelligence agents interpreting data, medical personnel making a diagnosis, or financial teams considering an investment. Smart people with special skills are often put together to make important decisions, but they’re frequently left on their own to figure out how to apply those skills as a group. Because they’re good at what they do, many talented people don’t feel it’s necessary to collaborate. They don’t see themselves as a group. As a result, they often fail to make the most of their collective talents and end up making a poor decision.

    pp. 60-1

    Decisions made by groups, in short, can be as dysfunctional as those made by individuals. But they don’t have to be, as the swarm bees have already shown us. When groups contain the right mix of individuals and are carefully structured, they can compensate for mistakes by pooling together a greater diversity of knowledge and skills than any of their members could obtain on their own. That was the lesson of the experiments Hackman and Woolley conducted in Boston: Students did better at identifying the terrorists when they sorted out the skills of each team member and gave everyone a chance to contribute information and opinions to the process. Simply by drawing from a wider range of experiences, as Scott Page’s theorems proved, groups can put together a bigger bag of tricks for problem solving. And when it comes to making predictions, like how many gift cards will be purchased this month, groups can cancel out personal biases and bad habits by combining information and attitudes into a reliable group judgment.

    pp. 81-2

    They showed that groups of three or more people not only performed better than the average individual, they also did better than the best individual. That meant groups of three or more did better than even the smartest people in the groups, which Laughlin called “a striking and unusual result.” What was equally impressive, considering what we’ve learned about smart decision-making by hundreds of honeybees, was how few people were needed in each group. With as few as three people, the experiment proved, a group possessed enough diversity of knowledge and problem-solving skills to move to the front of the class.

    • As you can see, I’m not arguing that experts don’t have a role to play. None of these authors are making that argument either.

      It’s rather that expertise maybe doesn’t quite mean what we have thought it meant… or that it is a lot more complicated than we realized. An expert is a broad and highly subjective category. Different societies and even the same society at different times will perceive different people to be experts.

      Those senior citizens in town hall democracies could be seen as the leading experts in the most democratic system in the world. No one has more direct knowledge and experience of the direct democratic process than they do.

      An expert is a social role. So it is important to consider the social system and the social group in which an expert operates. Even a group can develop a kind of expertise, when developed to deal with particular kinds of problems.

      • There’s a problem with the view of senior citizens.

        1. They are usually a lot more conservative than younger people (witness the demographics of Fox News)

        2. They will vote in their best interests, not necessarily those of society

        3. It depends, but often I find the older someone is, the more closed minded they are likely to become (it’s a correlation not a causation).

        Witness the results on global warming:
        http://www.gallup.com/poll/168236/americans-show-low-levels-concern-global-warming.aspx

        It is a good illustration of why seniors in control is not always a good thing.

        1. Being conservative has become about global warming denialism in the US and senior citizens are more likely to be conservative

        2. Older people may be less concerned with the future – ever see people argue they don’t are about global warming because they won’t be around?

        3. Closed minded ness. At this point, issues like evolution and global warming are pretty solid in their science. If they don’t believe, no amount of evidence is going to persuade them.

      • “There’s a problem with the view of senior citizens.
        1. They are usually a lot more conservative than younger people (witness the demographics of Fox News)”

        Fox News is more reactionary than it is conservative. There is also conservative in the sense of becoming more moderate, less prone to change and instead preferring stability. Not all people become reactionary as they age. That is partly an American thing and most specifically the response of one generation of Americans (and those disproportionately in one particular region, the South).

        “2. They will vote in their best interests, not necessarily those of society”

        They would more likely vote in the best interests of society, under certain conditions… depending on how strong is the culture of trust, how much social capital exists, and how healthy is the community overall. That would be different from place to place. There is more of those conditions in New England small towns than probably anywhere else in the US, but everywhere is feeling the strain.

        “3. It depends, but often I find the older someone is, the more closed minded they are likely to become (it’s a correlation not a causation).”

        That just means that people tend to prefer the way society was when they were growing up and became adults. Boomers spent most of their lives in the reactionary atmosphere of the Cold War. Their childhoods were defined by it when the propaganda was at its peak. They are products of that era. It is what they know and what is familiar.

        All of this has more to do with American society over these past several generations than some generalized truth about all or even most senior citizens. The senior citizens during the New Deal probably weren’t feeling all that reactionary, for they had grown up with populist and progressive reforms that made their lives and their society better. It’s all about context, about the conditions of the social system in which one finds oneself.

      • In that case, the problem is isolated to the Boomers.

        But what happens when you have a “bad” generation (namely a generation of disproportionate numbers of people who are “bad”) and who have an outsized influence?

        Disaster.

      • “In that case, the problem is isolated to the Boomers.”

        I wouldn’t exactly say it is isolated to them. It’s just that they were hardest hit by that oppressive era at the height of the Cold War. They internalized it more than any other generation, and so they ended up embodying it and expressing it to an exaggerated degree.

        “But what happens when you have a “bad” generation (namely a generation of disproportionate numbers of people who are “bad”) and who have an outsized influence?”

        That is a problem. But it is also larger than that.

        There is more change going on right now than at any other point in history. We humans aren’t designed to deal with all this. It’s not what evolution has prepared us for.

        We are stumbling in the dark. It’s just that some of the younger generations have grown more comfortable being in the dark and have become more talented in making their way through the darkness.

        “Disaster.”

        I’d simply call it uncertainty, in extreme form. We are in a state of collective unknowing. It isn’t a happy state of mind for a society to be in.

        When you are stumbling in the dark, it is easy to walk into a tree or off a cliff. But you could also walk into a patch of ripe berries.

        It is terra incognito, which means we are in exploration mode and exploration can be a dangerous activity, big risks and potentially big rewards. Most explorers die lost in the wilderness, though. Even for the explorers who find something interesting and survive to tell others, it is usually only later generations that can make use of what was discovered.

  4. Having studied business strategy extensively, the analogy is not perfect between the German union and management.

    The problem is that the union members are arguably the experts in this case on what needs to be done. Management too is better than typical American management

    What your proposing with your system would be like having the general public vote on what that company needs to do rather than the workers (the experts) decide.

    Japanese culture is quite interesting – the book the Toyota Way goes in depth into it. In many ways though, it is an idealization of the culture. In particular, they took the works of W. Edwards Demings and his works on quality to heart, something the American manufacturers never did.

    I think that is why they were so resurgent in the 1970s.

    But there is one common thread with both those nations. It is the fact that management is much more long-term oriented and views workers as an asset, rather than the American view of them as an obstacle to profits.

    This is reflected in how they deal with and treat their workers. It is interesting to note that Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Nordic nations retain powerful manufacturing sectors, while the Anglo nations lost there’s. France too I would argue has a decent manufacturing sector. Airbus, the high speed rails, and a few other domestic industries.

    • “The problem is that the union members are arguably the experts in this case on what needs to be done. Management too is better than typical American management”

      That is part of my point. Experts are dependent on the social context for being an expert is a social role.

      In that context, workers could be seen as experts and maybe are treated as such. American workers, however, are less likely to be treated as experts even when they have as much experience and knowledge as a German worker.

      My father and I were also talking about education. He is reading Fukuyama’s most recent book. Fukuyama stated something about problems with the US education and teachers unions. I pointed out that Finland, with its superior education system, supposedly has even more teacher unionization and so obviously there is something more going on.

      My father thought maybe there was more professionalism among teachers in countries like Finland. He mentioned that when he was in Germany he was treated with immense respect because of his being a professor and he was told that is how the teaching profession is treated there. Teachers are seen as worthy experts in their field. This is seen in how Finland has put higher standards for educating and training teachers. Finnish teachers are also given much freedom in how they teach, as if they were actual experts who knew what they were doing.

      In America, we treat teachers like scum. We don’t educate and train them well, we don’t pay them well, and we don’t respect them. Unsurprisingly, the teaching profession doesn’t attract the best talent in this country. People act like experts when they are treated like experts, just as with the German workers.

      That said, workers are no more experts in a factory than the citizens are experts in a New England town hall democracy. What has made New England town hall democracy work is that citizens are treated with respect as experts in their own communities. They know their communities as no one else does, just as a assembly line worker knows the machinery at his station as no one else.

      “What your proposing with your system would be like having the general public vote on what that company needs to do rather than the workers (the experts) decide.”

      I have made no proposals. I’ve simply pointed out that there are many different social contexts in which different group dynamics are involved. And I’ve pointed out that there are conditions in which group dynamics are proven to most effectively operate. It is all very context-dependent. I was exploring the different contexts.

      That said, I do think anyone who is involved with and impacted by a decision should have some say in what is done and how it is done. If a water source is being polluted by a factory, the local citizens who are harmed by it should be allowed to vote on how to deal with that problem, even when they aren’t experts in factory chemicals or environmental science. They are experts in their local community. If the factory doesn’t like the way they voted, the factory is free to leave the community. Citizens should always have more rights than factories and the corporations that operate them, so it seems to me.

      “But there is one common thread with both those nations. It is the fact that management is much more long-term oriented and views workers as an asset, rather than the American view of them as an obstacle to profits.”

      It isn’t just that management is more long-term oriented. The workers are more long-term oriented. The governments are more long-term oriented. The citizens are more long-term oriented. The whole freaking culture and social system is long-term oriented.

      That is one of the conditions for effective group dynamics, especially on the large-scale. Such cultures of trust are well-functioning societies, which is to say a large wise crowds.

    • “That said, I do think anyone who is involved with and impacted by a decision should have some say in what is done and how it is done. If a water source is being polluted by a factory, the local citizens who are harmed by it should be allowed to vote on how to deal with that problem, even when they aren’t experts in factory chemicals or environmental science. They are experts in their local community. If the factory doesn’t like the way they voted, the factory is free to leave the community. Citizens should always have more rights than factories and the corporations that operate them, so it seems to me.”

      I’m not sure that will always lead to the best outcome.

      For example, smokers might not always vote to take serious action against tobacco companies.

      The emergence of the “fat acceptance” movement may be a similar example – we are not going after the food industry, the corn refining industry, the big agricultural companies, or the biotech industry. Combine human complacency with corporate greed and that’s a disaster.

      Libertarians in particular tend to take this to extremes. For example, I have heard of them opposing making seat belts law despite the obvious safety benefits of mandating seat belts.

      The other problem is that it would lead to a slowdown in legislation that would cause problems because everyone is affected by so many different things.

      To me the problem is that the leadership on top is oriented towards benefiting a few special interests at the expense of the collective, versus the way it should be.

    • “I’m not sure that will always lead to the best outcome.”

      There is nothing that will always lead to the best outcome. But there are somethings that will more often lead to better outcomes than other things. It’s relatively better, with endless room for improvement.

      “For example, smokers might not always vote to take serious action against tobacco companies.”

      If most of the people in a society are smokers and they don’t have a problem with smoking, there isn’t much that can be done about that. In a non-democratic society, that would be an even worse problem. At least, a democracy offers the potential for change.

      “The emergence of the “fat acceptance” movement may be a similar example – we are not going after the food industry, the corn refining industry, the big agricultural companies, or the biotech industry. Combine human complacency with corporate greed and that’s a disaster.”

      I have a feeling that there is a lot more going on with issues like that. The challenge is less about democracy or not. We simply don’t even understand the problem(s) itself. It’s probably not just about all the aspects of the food and what goes into it. There are numerous known and unknown factors (environmental toxins, growing inequality, etc) that are contributing to obesity rates.

      We barely can acknowledge those factors on an individual level. The ability to comprehend how they interact is nearly beyond us, including nearly beyond most experts who are trapped in the same dominant paradigm of our society (in some ways, even more trapped than the average person, for most experts come from the middle-to-upper classes that are heavily invested in the dysfunctional status quo).

      Still, the fat acceptance movement is intriguing. I’m not sure what to make of it. I’m not even sure how large and influential it is as a movement. I see it spoken of in the media, but it isn’t something I ever run into in my daily life. I haven’t personally met anyone who has argued for fat acceptance. I doubt the average American gives a flying fuck about fat acceptance. For those who are poor and fat, it is what it is and they have more important things to worry about than accepting their health conditions.

      “Libertarians in particular tend to take this to extremes. For example, I have heard of them opposing making seat belts law despite the obvious safety benefits of mandating seat belts.”

      Yeah, my father can sometimes be like that. He has become more nuanced in his libertarian tendencies, though, as he has aged. He has come to accept that there is more of a role for the public good than he once was willing to accept. The other day, he even admitted to being in favor of progressive reform at the local level.

      “The other problem is that it would lead to a slowdown in legislation that would cause problems because everyone is affected by so many different things.”

      I don’t claim to have all the solutions. I think we are largely in the dark at the moment. It isn’t even that we know what doesn’t work. We haven’t allowed enough experimentation. I’d like to see more diverse things tried. Find out what works and what doesn’t, and then tweak conditions a bit and experiment further.

      That is what interests me about these books I’m reading. The authors express an attitude of embracing experimentation, of knowledge-seeking and a continuous process of learning. They don’t start with the assumption of having things figured out. Rather, they offer a vision of human potential.

      “To me the problem is that the leadership on top is oriented towards benefiting a few special interests at the expense of the collective, versus the way it should be.”

      No doubt about that. But I wonder if the attitude of experimentation will begin to have a greater impact on our society, even among the ruling elite. As the dysfunction gets worse, even the previously comfortable will begin to feel more afflicted by the growing social problems.

  5. “In that case, most of the people who think of themselves and are treated as experts, by your defintion, are not experts. Very few people would fit such stringent standards, as the research shows. Also, as Surowiecki explains, identifying these rare super-experts would be extremely difficult.”

    There are very few people in this world who I would call genuine experts. Look in the field of economics. A lot of the neoliberal economics responsible for the crash for example was done by “experts” (not really experts) but people who were highly educated who made the wrong decisions.

    People who were right:

    Chalmers Johnson (passed away I fear)
    Dean Baker
    Jeff Faux

    Most of the progressive economics – they are the real experts in this case. They predicted this recession before it happened and they’ve been right about the failure of austerity.

      • Disagree.

        The reason is because the neoliberals did not change their view after the crash. They did not do a mea culpa.

        Neither for example did most of the people who advocated for the war in Iraq.

        Good article on this matter:
        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/thomas-frank/too-smart-to-fail-notes-baffler_b_1380458.html

        These are not cognitive failures – these are moral failings. Many of these people do not have an open mind and facts do not drive their opinions.

      • “The reason is because the neoliberals did not change their view after the crash. They did not do a mea culpa.”

        I wasn’t thinking of that as the same issue as expertise, per se. I was mostly considering the predictions themselves. There were many people who made predictions about economic problems, and not all of them agreed about the reasons. There are always hundreds, if not more, supposed experts making predictions.

        But you are right that it would be nice if those that got it wrong would at least humbly admit that their predictive ability was a complete failure. The fact that they didn’t change their views even shows that it never was an issue of prediction in the first place. It was always about ideological rhetoric, self-interest, and social control. The face value of their words isn’t the true meaning or intent behind their words.

        In private, they may have known perfectly fine where it was all heading and shared this knowledge amongst themselves. It’s more that they didn’t care about who would suffer, outside their crony friends. Some of them may have intentionally given false predictions to the media and the public in order to manipulate conditions further to their advantage.

        “Good article on this matter”

        Yeah, that is good. Since we’re sharing links and since you mentioned Iraq, here is an article a friend of mine sent to me the other day. It’s sort of related to what we are talking about, in that it is about the elite leading Americans astray and their reasons for doing so.

        http://inthesetimes.com/article/17626/what_the_Iraq_war_teaches_us

        “These are not cognitive failures – these are moral failings. Many of these people do not have an open mind and facts do not drive their opinions.”

        That is an interesting thought. Most people don’t think of morality in terms of expertise. The focus tends to be on cognitive failures versus cognitive successes, which in American society is taken as a proxy for morality. In a supposed meritocracy, the various elites are assumed to be moral superiors to the rest of the population simply because of their position.

    • That is because the US still has strong elements of Calvanism in society.

      To a large part of the Us still, intellect is viewed as a bad thing, and to be feared.

  6. The truth is, we agree more than we disagree.

    I do not think that top-down management works; my views are much more heavily influenced by Deming and those of a military thinker by the name of John Boyd.

    Authority needs to be put onto those that value knowledge.

    The problem I see is cultural more than anything else:

    1. There is the deep assumption that ignorance is as good as knowledge in Western culture. That is a serious, serious defect and one that is not easy to correct.

    Education is not as valued as in other cultures, although northern Europe does a better job. East Asia and South Asia seem to do a very good job here.

    Knowledge is not valued as much as it should be.

    2. Another problem is that a person cannot be an expert at everything – although in public policy, I would argue that there are some that do it better than others.

    3. Orientation of society is very short-term. This is a serous problem – reflected in the business environment of the US, but also in terms of low savings (even after income is considered).

    4. Society is also too individualistic. It is a proxy for selfishness. Although the “can do” culture is not without its advantages, it has become a proxy for other serious problems.

    At the same time, dissent is often viewed as disloyalty. In other words, society has nullified most of the advantages of individualism while amplifying the drawbacks.

    5. Too low trust – cannot empower people when society is excessively low trust.

    6. Another fundamental problem may be that society seems to breed people with high RWA measures. Perhaps that is a matter of culture as well.

    The problem as I see it is that when it comes to public policy, there needs to be some good direction at the top, while giving the bottom and those in the know the necessary authority.

    If the tone at the top is indifferent, then that will be reflected.

    • “The truth is, we agree more than we disagree.”

      That is typically the case in our discussions.

      “The problem as I see it is that when it comes to public policy, there needs to be some good direction at the top, while giving the bottom and those in the know the necessary authority.”

      Beyond generalities, I’m not sure what my views are about this. I favor democracy and greater freedom in general. But more I find myself interested in the social factors themselves. It is meaningless to talk about any particular ideological system or ideal structure without determining the social conditions that make it both possible and probable.

      We are forced to deal with the social conditions we have, not the ones we’d like to have. Yet it is always an issue of how to influence the social conditions into more beneficial directions, prodding and leveraging in whatever ways are available. I see it as a positive that some businesses are thinking about different methods because that indicates that shifts are already happening in concrete ways.

    • I’ve come to the conclusion that something close to a Scandinavian style society is probably the best that we can come up with given the flaws of human nature.

      Perhaps with a few elements of Asian society (greater long term orientation).

      What is needed:

      – Very high trust society
      – Very long term orientation
      – Some degree of independence (to question authority)
      – Very low power distance (in other words, flat society with low tolerance for economic inequality and hierarchy)
      – Very strong value attached to education and knowledge
      – High tolerance for new ideas and uncertainty (this is one area the US probably does better than most of the world)
      – Un-materialistic society that focuses on human happiness and quality of life above all else (in the long run and for the collective)
      – Very open society with no real restrictions on the flow of information (and a tolerance for factually based dissent)
      – Although I am at odds with the Right wing “personal responsibility”, I do believe that individual willingness to accept responsibility for failure when it actually is their fault is very high, as is some degree of aspiration for greatness (so long as it is not narcissism)

      Society that breeds the concept of the scientific method into people to question.

      There hasn’t been a society that’s accomplished all of that yet.

      • A nice list, you put together there. The only thing I’d add or rather make more clear is the freedom and desire to experiment. But experimentation is implicit in your list (as related to education and knowledge, new ideas and uncertainty).

  7. I should point to the context of my thinking. This relates to an ongoing line of thought I’ve had that has been developing into a web of thoughts.

    A while back, I was thinking about the radicalism of the Enlightenment. I specifically had in mind the radicalism of the at the time new economic thinking.

    Conservatives now defend what once was a radical system of ideas that overturned all of society, and yet conservatives can’t see how radical these ideas remain even to this day. Human society has been globalized and destabilized like never before.

    The very ideologies that conservatives have embraced are the most destructive forces to traditional society. The anti-traditional nature of conservatism always amazes me, since conservatives are so oblivious to it.

    As is often the case, the Enlightenment Age reminded me of the Axial Age. Then that made me think further about Julian Jaynes’ theory about the breakdown of the bicameral mind, from which the foundation of modern individuality formed. It has always interested me how the ideas emerging in the ancient world have continued to be of central concern to moderns, having become forces of revolution millennia later.

    I really do think all of this speaks to where we are right now. We are facing changes at a level not seen in a very long time. All that is clear is the future will be far different from the past. The books by Surowiecki and others point toward what some of these changes might mean, although it’s still at such an early stage. Other books like Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari have interesting things to say about our society, specifically in that case in terms of addiction and the rat park research (I’ve wondered about addiction as a primary model of modern individuality as the isolated self).

    It’s not just or maybe not even primarily about democracy, at least not as we understand it. I sense that our entire paradigm is changing and with it everything will be reframed, reformulated, and redefined.

    Beyond just group psychology and social change, what more broadly captures my curiosity is the new way of thinking itself. This applies to anything and everything, not just politics or economics. There are some fascinating things going on right now in systems theory, complexity theory, and in various other aspects of science (epigenetics, for example, is challenging assumptions that are as old as science itself or even older).

    Here are some of the other books I’ve been most recently looking at (this past month or so), although I’ve only started reading a few of them so far:

    Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness by Frederic Laloux

    The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges
    by Zaid Hassan and Joi Ito

    The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life
    by Len Fisher

    Swarm Intelligence: What Nature Teaches Us About Shaping Creative Leadership
    by James Haywood Rolling Jr.

    The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism
    by William E. Connolly

    Coming to Our Senses: Perceiving Complexity to Avoid Catastrophes
    by Viki McCabe

    A Third Window: Natural Life beyond Newton and Darwin
    by Robert E. Ulanowicz

    The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision
    by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi

    Thinking in Systems: A Primer
    by Donella H. Meadows and Diana Wright

    Living Systems: An Introductory Guide to the Theories of Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela
    by Jane Cull

    The Circularity of Life: An Essential Shift for Sustainability
    by Jane Cull

    Of Ants and Men: The Unexpected Side Effects of Complexity in Society
    by David G. Green

    Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age
    by Duncan J. Watts

    Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life
    by Steven Strogatz

    • I was browsing on Amazon for possible reads. There are many potentially interesting and insightful books, but it can be hard to tell with some of these. Some look more like college textbooks and are quite expensive. Others might be more accessible. I am curious to learn more about these kinds of topics. I’m not sure any of these would be anything more than dry tomes.

      Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices
      by John Law (Editor), Annemarie Mol (Editor)

      Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences: An Introduction
      by David Byrne

      A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity
      by Manuel DeLanda

      Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity, and Policy
      by Sandra D. Mitchell

      Complexity and Social Movements: Multitudes at the Edge of Chaos
      by Graeme Chesters, Ian Welsh

      Navigating Social-Ecological Systems: Building Resilience for Complexity and Change
      by Fikret Berkes (Author), Fikret Berkes (Editor), Johan Colding (Editor), Carl Folke (Editor)

      Nonlinearity, Chaos, and Complexity: The Dynamics of Natural and Social Systems
      by Cristoforo Sergio Bertuglia, Franco Vaio

      Complexity Theories of Cities Have Come of Age
      by Juval Portugali (Author, Editor), Han Meyer (Author, Editor), Egbert Stolk (Author, Editor), Ekim Tan (Author, Editor)

      Cities and Regions as Self-Organizing Systems: Models of Complexity: 1
      by Peter M. Allen

      Emergence in Complex, Cognitive, Social, and Biological Systems
      by Gianfranco Minati (Author, Editor), Eliano Pessa (Author, Editor)

      Complex Human Dynamics: From Mind to Societies
      by Andrzej Nowak (Editor), Katarzyna Winkowska-Nowak (Editor), David Brée (editor)

      New Thinking in Complexity for the Social Sciences and Humanities
      by Ton Jörg

      Complexity and the Human Experience: Modeling Complexity in the Humanities and Social Sciences
      by Paul A. Youngman (Author, Editor), Mirsad Hadzikadic (Editor)

      Evolutionary Foundations of Economic Science: How Can Scientists Study Evolving Economic Doctrines from the Last Centuries? (Evolutionary Economics and Social Complexity Science)
      by Yuji Aruka

      Networks, Crowds, and Markets [Kindle Edition]
      by David Easley, Jon Kleinberg

  8. I think we are going to have to agree to disagree then.

    Arguably it was a “group” of very right wing politicians that took society to the very right, with a large proportion of voters supporting this.

    I don’t think than a technocracy run by experts would be perfection. I think that it would be “less bad” though, in that on average decisions would be made correctly, provided the decision makers had the capacity for self-correction.

    To be honest, I’m not concerned about collective group dynamics vs individual. It’s like economic development – the constraint is not what “ism” (ex: capitalism, communism), etc. The constraint is that the right decisions are made.

    in that regard, the capacity for self correction becomes the bottleneck.

    • “I think we are going to have to agree to disagree then.”

      I still don’t know if it is exactly disagreement. We just seem to focus on different aspects and interpret through different frames.

      “Arguably it was a “group” of very right wing politicians that took society to the very right, with a large proportion of voters supporting this.”

      But that has nothing to do with democracy. We don’t have a functioning democracy, except to some degree in certain local governments. The entire election process and the mainstream media reporting on it is controlled and manipulated. On top of that, the vast majority of government officials aren’t elected, including those in presidential administrations.

      “I don’t think than a technocracy run by experts would be perfection. I think that it would be “less bad” though, in that on average decisions would be made correctly, provided the decision makers had the capacity for self-correction.”

      We already have a technocracy. It’s just a really dysfunctional technocracy. But that is always the danger of technocracies. Without democratic self-governance, you get whatever the ruling elite choose to give you. If you don’t like what we have, then you at least don’t like this particular technocracy.

  9. The problem is that the experts come from either a business or legal background.

    What we need are:

    1. Scientists/engineers/technologists
    2. Perhaps historians

    Most important of all:
    3. People who work for the benefit of society – not themselves and who can correct their own errors
    4. People who are not narcissists (I bet that if you were to do psychological tests, a lot of rich people and politicians would test positive for narcissistic personality disorder).

    That may be one reason why the East Asians have done comparatively better despite being authoritarian. Technocracy of scientists and engineers trumps technocracy of lawyers any day.

    • I don’t think we really are disagreeing. But obviously we tend toward a different emphasis. Still, in the end, we would both be happy in a similar kind of society.

      The difference between Scandinavia and the US isn’t the difference between technocracy and democracy. In some ways, I wonder if those social democracies with high trust cultures are not just more functional technocracies but also more functional democracies.

      I think it is relevant that American democracy does have its roots in Scandinavian and Germanic proto-democracy, although as filtered through British social and political traditions. The American Revolution was built on Northern European traditions with its open air ‘things’ and liberty trees.

      However, Americans have lost contact with the roots of their own democratic aspirations. Maybe the spirit of democracy has survived better in Northern Europe. Maybe there is something about a functioning democracy and a functioning technocracy being dependent upon one another, at least in this particular Western tradition which our country is part of.

  10. There does remain one huge problem with groups.

    Namely, the issue of Collective Action Failure. A group’s members may do what is individually rational, but what is bad for the group as a whole.

    I suspect that what played a role in the demise of American manufacturing may have been exactly that – everyone liked low prices, nobody thought about the consequences. Combine collective action failure with apathy with a ruthless corporate world and you have the recipe for disaster.

    The other problem is that there are going to be people who vote against their own interests. I would estimate perhaps as many as a third do. Working class whites arguably are the best known example in the US, but there are others.

    Global warming is perhaps the ultimate example.

    I would argue that collective action failure is deliberately attributable to group dynamics – doing what is rational for ones self, but at the expense of the collective. To that end, leadership is a certain necessary evil.

    The other reason is that it’s inevitable in groups that leaders do seem to naturally rise to the top at times.

    • What I note is that your criticisms apply as well to experts, leaders, and other elites. There is no escape from groups. Humans are social animals. We are all members of groups and we all act in groups, exept if one is a hermit in the wilderness or lost on a desert island.

      I’ve been constantly amazed by how elites act in ways that are both harmful to themselves and to the larger society. Such self-destructive behavior almost seems like a death urge, or so it seems in my darker moments.

      For example, economic inequality increases highly detrimental social problems even for the wealthy. Or take your example of global warming, where most of the elite have felt unable or unwilling to respond strongly (or respond at all), including many elites on the pollitical left who should be leading the way.

      These group behaviors would never happen if not for the complicity of the elite, which in America includes the technocratic elite. The group dysfunction is at all levels and in all aspects. This is about an entire society with its entire government, economy, and culture. This involves every kind of person, even the religious leaders who traditionally are supposed to be the moral exemplars and visionaries (a role MLK played well, although MLK was a rare exception in our society).

      I’ve wondered about this often in terms of the long history of oppression in this country, from mass genocide to mass slavery. The system of oppression shift and morphs, but never really changes. Most people seem incapable of coming to terms with it or even fully acknowledging its existence. This systemic and institutional oppression has been continuing for centuries, even before this country was founded. Environmental problems have their roots in a particular relationship to nature that is at the very foundation of all of civilization.

      It isn’t a problem of just this group or that group, but a set of problems that involves nearly all of humanity (excluding the few remaining isolated people). The leadership we have is what brought us to this point. You’d need to change the entire society, the entire system to create new conditions that would promote new and better leadership.

    • With leaders, it’s generally going to be one point of failure.

      I suppose that means that it’s possible to either succeed extremely well or in the case of awful leaders (arguably the case with America), it’s possible to fail very poorly.

      With a group of high quality leaders, I think that on average, you’ll see better decisions. That is not to say they won’t make mistakes (they will), it’s that on average, I expect better results.

      But yes, it would have to be ground up change.

    • “I suppose that means that it’s possible to either succeed extremely well or in the case of awful leaders (arguably the case with America), it’s possible to fail very poorly.”

      Paternalistic technocracies can be similar to authoritarian governments. There is a reason a country like Germany can transition from social democracy to Nazism and then back to social democracy again.

      The US, on the other hand, is less likely to have either a well-functioning technocracy or a well-functioning authoritarian state. The Nazis would never have tolerated the kind of partisan bickering, obstructionism, and gridlock as we have. The US being so large and diverse has been a cause of conflict and dysfunction. But it also has been a saving grace, a counterbalance to those who would concentrate all power and wealth.

      The US is unlikely to be as great of country in many ways. And unlikely to fail as greatly either. Instead of going down in flames like the overtly brutal authoritarian states, the US is more apt to fall into slow decline. It’s not that revolution or civil war is entirely out of the picture. I’m just thinking it is less likely we are going to try to take over the world (in the traditional imperialistic sense) and meanwhile to put all the Mexicans into concentration camps in order to kill them.

      Americans excel at two things, mediocrity and reaction. The only way we ever escape the former is through the latter. Americans haven’t had anything in a while that is great enough to collectively react against and so we’ve had no motivation to go beyond our mediocrity. Americans just aren’t proactive visionaries like the Nazi Germans, Soviet Russians, and Maoist Chinese. But give us something worthy enough to react against and then we can show what we are capable of.

  11. Arguably that is what has happened with China too – from Mao (although even with Mao there was progress in some areas) to the current regime. I am simplifying things of course, although Mao was a terrible dictator, there were some things that he did right, and some things that I would argue the current regime does not do right. It’s possible to swing from extremes.

    On the other hand, China is perhaps an apt comparison, since it is large, and relatively diverse. Even if most Chinese do identify themselves as Han, there is inevitably diversity and disagreement. The Communist Party in particular is not the unified body that it seems to the West.

    I’ve said this before, but I think that the US did arise to superpower status out of a unique set of conditions that is not going to be repeated:

    1. Everyone else’s mistakes starting wars (particularly in Europe, but also Japan in Asia as well)

    2. The large natural resources in North America (and what amounts to the genocide of the Native population)

    3. Immigration through it’s history and certain events, like the arrival of so many scientists after WWII

    4. Certainly, perhaps American can-do culture played a role. It has both its upsides and downsides.

    5. I would argue that the leaders of the past, although far from ideal, did aspire to greatness much more so than today. They were certainly more future oriented and willing to sacrifice for the future.

    But reactions – can the US “react” fast enough? A lot of things are based on incremental improvement. Manufacturing for example. Made in Japan and Made in South Korea used to mean garbage. That’s no longer the case for example and so long as they keep up incremental improvements, it may be harder to “catch up”.

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