Political Entomology, Part II: Liberal Ants and Their Circular Mill
Surowiecki's main point is that groups are often smarter than the smartest individuals. Anyone who knows anything about economics knows that this certainly applies to the allocation of scarce resources, which decentralized free markets accomplish much more efficiently and effectively than any individual ever could, no matter how brilliant.
But it turns out that the collective wisdom of crowds generally surpasses experts in most realms, so long as the crowd satisfies four conditions: diversity of opinion (note: the very opposite of the leftist definition of diversity), independence of thought (opinions are not determined by the opinions of those those around them), decentralization (in particular, the ability to draw on local knowledge), and aggregation (a mechanism for converting private judgments into a collective decision).
It turns out that if you assemble a group of just the brightest people to solve a problem, it will actually be less effective at solving the problem than a more diverse group with fewer brilliant people. (One immediately thinks of how our liberal looniversity bins have become such cognitively sealed asylums of foolishness.) For one thing, smart people tend to resemble each other in what they can do and how they think: "Adding in a few people who know less, but have different skills, actually improves the group's performance..... The development of knowledge may depend on maintaining an influx of the naive and the ignorant.... Groups that are too much alike find it harder to keep learning, because each member is bringing less and less new information to the table."
To cite just one example, between 1984 and 1999, almost 90 percent of all mutual find managers underperformed the Wilshire 5000 Index, "a relatively low bar." In short there was no correlation at all beween expertise and accuracy in predicting the stock market. Nevertheless, the more educated one is, the more one is likely to overestimate one's abilities and judgment, not just in the field of finance, but among "physicians, nurses, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs," who all believe they know much more than they actually do. Here, Paul Krugman comes to mind, an expert economist who is merely wrong about everything, every time.
Obviously there are unwise crowds, but for very specific reasons. Surowiecki cites the example of what entomologists call a "circular mill." In the early 20th century a naturalist came upon a group of army ants in the Guyana jungle. They were moving in a huge circle some 1,200 feet in circumference, one ant following the next, in a closed loop that took each ant two and a half hours to complete. The circle went on for a couple of days, as one ant after another eventually dropped dead from exhaustion and starvation.
Surowiecki explains: "The [circular] mill is created when army ants find themselves separated from their colony. Once they're lost, they obey a simple rule: follow the ant in front of you. The result is the mill, which usually only breaks up when a few ants straggle off by chance and the others follow them away..... The simple tools that make ants so successful are also responsible for the demise of the ants who get trapped in the circular mill."
This is an example of an unwise group. Why? Because its members are not independent decision makers. They just follow each other blindly. As Surowiecki explains, independence prevents people's mistakes from becoming correlated, from everyone making the same mistake. Secondly, "independent individuals are more likely to have new information rather than the same old data everyone is already familiar with. The smartest groups are made up of people with diverse perspectives who are able to stay independent of each other."
Exactly like the internet. And exactly unlike the MSM and its political action wing, the Democratic party. (And, I might add, the liberal R & D facility known as the university system.)
Let's hearken back to last week's post on Political Entomology and Blue-Bellied Liberals. There I noted that the liberal world is full of "media ants, Hollywood ants, academic ants, singing ants, judicial ants, educational establishment ants, and lastly, political ants who all run around randomly bumping their heads together, so that they're constantly regurgitating little half-digested bits of information and feeding them to one another. Pretty soon, just like the ants, they're all the same color."
In fact, it's even worse than I thought--our hopelessly lost and disoriented liberal elites are caught in a circular mill! They've lost touch with reality, but each is simply obeying the simple rule that he should blindly follow the liberal ant in front of him, even if it means going around in circles or taking the country over the cliff.
Remember the words of Thomas Lifson, writing on The Liberal Bubble: our liberal elites inhabit a "comfortable, supportive, and self esteem-enhancing environment. The most prestigious and widest-reaching media outlets reinforce their views, rock stars and film makers provide lyrics and stories making their points, college professors tell them they are right, and the biggest foundations like Ford fund studies to prove them correct." Liberals "are able to live their lives untroubled by what they regard as serious contrary opinion. The capture of the media, academic, and institutional high ground enables them to dismiss their conservative opponents as ill-informed, crude, bigoted, and evil." Liberalism has been reduced to an "in-group code, perfectly understandable and comforting among the elect, but increasingly disconnected from everyone else, and off-putting to those not included in the ranks of the in-group."
Not only have liberals become detached from the greater colony--as reflected in plunging ratings, fleeing readership, and diminished influence--but they have become increasingly detached from reality itself. Plodding along in a grim circle, the New York Times following behind Ted Kennedy and Howard Dean, Time and Newsweek trudging along behind the New York Times, CNN trundling behind Time and Newsweek, academics apeing other unoriginal academics, Air America slinking behind Howard Dean, dailykos goose-stepping after George Soros, George Soros shuffling behind Ted Turner... it's endless and yet finite, because it's a circle. The circle is certainly internally consistent--in fact, there's no diversity at all. Nor is there much contact with what you or I would call reality.
It couldn't be more different than the mighty internet, more on which tomorrow.