Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bonanza Column 204 – Let’s Get Smarter, not Dumber

There is an old adage that says "all of us is smarter than any of us," reflecting the view that people thinking together will come up with better solutions to a problem than individuals, however expert, thinking separately. James Surowiecki, among other things the Economics columnist for The New Yorker undertook a study to see if this adage held water, and if it did, under what conditions did it obtain? He published the results of his research in a 2003 book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Overall, his conclsions were positive – under the right conditions, a group will, indeed, come up with smarter answers to a questions or solutions to a problem than would have been yielded by its smartest member(s) thinking alone.

It's the "right conditions" that are the sticking point. First of all, the group must be of sufficient size and at the same time not unwieldy in its size. Second, the group rules of engagement must maximize free, open, and honest interchange. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the group must embody sufficient diversity of thought. In fact, the "smartest" groups include people who know little or nothing about the subject at hand as well as experts – these naïve individuals bring a fresh point of view and ask questions that would not occur to the experts. As Surowiecki details, the results of groups of experts with no diversity of thought can be disastrous as in the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Challenger disaster, where "groupthink" let to calamitous results.

Unfortunately, the current political climate does not seem to be making anyone smarter. We are facing critical issues – the economy, jobs, terrorism, the war in Afghanistan and the advise and train mission in Iraq, Iran and its wacko leader, the Middle East conflict, the continued discrimination against Gay and Lesbian Americans, anti-Muslim prejudice, the list goes on. These issues demand the best of our thinking and seem too often to get our worst. What is missing is, first and foremost, any real commitment to thinking together. We have stopped talking to each other, and more importantly we have stopped listening to each other. Conservatives have their favorite voices to listen to – whether it's Limbaugh and Beck or Krauthammer and Kristol, and Liberals have equally narrow pass-bands, limited to Olbermann and Maddow or Moore and Daily Kos. On both ends of the political spectrum we are engaged in something dangerously close to groupthink, and that does not bode well for solving our problems.

As importantly, this refusal to listen to views other than our own leaves both sides vulnerable to cynical manipulators whose agendas may have nothing to do with our best interests. I'm not privy to what the Florida "pastor" was trying to accomplish by his threat to burn copies of the Qu'ran, but what he did accomplish was to instantly polarize a national debate that was way out of proportion to anything he could actually accomplish, and to get people killed 8.000 miles away. Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's "marches," while satirical in intent, are likely to attract non-satirical arguments, and so it goes – debate rules and the opportunity for dialogue is lost.

Here in Incline we have pro-and anti-IB, along with the Reid-Angle and Reid-Sandoval and Whomes-Gammick forces arrayed against each other, and in the words of W.H. Auden, "each ear is listening to its own hearing, so none hears," and as in the national debate, this leaves us open to outsiders with their own agenda coming in to manipulate the situation. With two weeks before early voting begins, and about a month until the election season is over, it's not too late to start listening to each other and getting smarter about what is best for our community, not for people in New York or Washington who are looking out for other interests.


Dick Weed Baldini said...

While I understand your point.........clarity kicks in while pondering Reid or Sandoval - Whomes or Gammick.

Gray areas quickly becomes black and white.

I want to throw a potato at the TV each time I see or hear Reid. He is toxic for the state of Nevada.

Opposing views can be healthy, although attacks can be venomous - but then again, sometimes rightly so.

Dick Weed Baldini said...

P.S. Whomes is the correct choice for District Attorney.