December 19, 2005

Secret Weapon of the Anglosphere 3: A Proposal

In earlier posts, here and here, I discussed the subject of Anglosphere causality from the standpoint of its many commentators ... first satirically outlining what the nature of the Anglosphere's uniqueness -- it's "secret weapon" -- must be if we accommodated all the contradictory explanations, and then offering a visual framework or map for thinking about causality in general.

During the past twelve months or more, I've familiarized myself with the literature associated with Jim Bennett's Anglosphere Challenge (especially its Annotated Bibliography) and followed up reading many additional titles suggested by both Jim and Lex during e-mail exchanges and blog posts.

Meanwhile, my other online project (a website on medical decision-making for patients) has languished. While checking out the science and business sections of a local bookstore, I spotted a title that looked useful for that medical project: James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, relating as it does to the decision-making abilities of ordinary people. Surowiecki is the business writer for the New Yorker and his argument can be boiled into simple terms:

“If you put together a big enough and diverse enough group of people and ask them to “make decisions affecting matters of general interest,” that group’s decisions will, over time, be “intellectually [superior] to the isolated individual,” no matter how smart or well-informed he is.”

In most things, the average is mediocrity, but in communal decision-making the average can, under the right circumstances, often be (counter-intuitively) excellence. Hmm. That rings a bell. Through the course of his book, Surowiecki points out how the more diverse the opinions of a group, the more accurate its aggregated decisions. Experts are, on average, outperformed by a diverse group of people with different skill levels, expectations, and abilities. It makes no sense, but it is, apparently, demonstrable fact.

The author then spends several chapters describing the different kinds of problems at which groups (rather than experts) are superior ... problems of cognition (a specific answer or direction is needed), problems of co-ordination (working systematically with others, as in a market), and problems of co-operation (deeper reciprocal and strategic relations that go beyond the exchange of money).

He then follows with chapters that cover how the impact of the "wisdom of crowds" is expressed in science, in business, in culture, and in politics. Not surprisingly, when you get superior decisions in those areas, you get rapid progress. When you pool the evaluations of a very large, very diverse group of people on a million different subjects, you get Google.

Bottom-Up from the Actual Bottom

By the time I'd reached his description of the role of Quakers in establishing the business environment of early America, it dawned on me (far, far too late for complacency) that Surowiecki was actually covering much of the same terrain as Alan Macfarlane but from the perspective of the literature on social and cognitive psychology. Macfarlane was using political, cultural, and legal history to wrap his arms around English individualism and modernity. As far as I could see, Surowiecki was documenting the bottom bottom-up processes which underlie Macfarlane’s bottom-up processes. The two approaches clicked together like Lego blocks.

It's my proposition that combining the scientific insights described by Surowiecki (on how humans can optimize their communal decision-making) with Macfarlane's historical summary of how Teutonic/Saxon culture maintained a focus on separation of powers and individuality, we arrive at a compact and powerful explanation for Anglosphere history and Anglosphere potentiality.

Readers will quickly tie my proposition back to the various odd features described for a "secret weapon" in my original satirical post. It turns out that anti-elitism provides an inherent and fundamental advantage in group decision-making. Assuming that I'm correct, the Anglosphere's central dynamic and key advantage takes place at the point at which communal decisions about particular problems are required. And those problems are better addressed because the Anglosphere supports a culture of opinionated, self-confident individuals. Nothing succeeds like Anglosphere success ... In business, in science, in technology, in politics. John Boyd’s famous OODA loop is an Anglosphere playground.


Whether in a group of two, twelve or twenty million, Anglosphere decision-making is not perfect, by any means, but just a little bit better (at every turn) than any other system for social or national decision-making. Old Winston was not far off then ... The worst of approaches, granted, except for all others that have been tried from time to time. And this dynamic is scalable from the town hall or parish meeting to the administration of billions of people. Who would have guessed?

Begging the reader’s indulgence (before they have worked carefully through both Surowiecki and Macfarlane themselves), what are the practical implications of my hypothesis for the current Anglosphere?

First of all, I would say that the success of the Anglosphere is very hard to duplicate. It draws on the symbiosis of a common human trait in groups (great for all Anglosphere immigrants) but with a particular social pattern that deeply supports "the wisdom of crowds" (which must be sustained in situations of increasing prosperity and national power). As soon as other cultures fall into one of Macfarlane's four traps (Malthusian, social hierarchy, political centralization, mandarinate gatekeeping), then the quality of that nation's or that people's decisions fall away, bit by bit, from the standard set by the Anglosphere. And the Anglosphere by comparison, bit by bit, and often by the skin of its teeth, prevails. People in the Anglosphere aren’t individually superior to everyone else on the planet but, as a group, they have inherent advantages every time a communal decision of any kind must be made. Whether arranging for snow-plowing in some little town, or co-ordinating the response to a tsunami or SARS, or in responding to guerilla warfare.

The Anglosphere prevails through the cumulative superiority (NOT PERFECTION) of a multitude of decisions, great and small, that it makes. Thus Anglosphere history is replete with chaos, contradiction, peril, and error, and *relative* success in comparison to the rest of the world. It's not that the Anglosphere makes such great decisions, it's that the rest of the world's tyrants and elites make relatively poor ones over time. It is in the amorphous cumulative trend (“non-linear feedback” to cite a 2002 Arnold Kling article on “What Causes Prosperity?”) that we spot the tell-tales of an Anglosphere “secret weapon.”

Strategically, then, in observing the political considerations of the Anglosphere, or even the use of the Anglosphere "meme," the "Crown Jewels" are not the specific details of Anglosphere solutions in the past (our legal or political structure) ... not the justifiable pride with which its descendants reflect on adversity overcome (our work ethic, etc.) ... but in the specific details of Anglosphere culture that seem to protect, reinforce and gain nourishment from the dynamics of successful group decision-making. We accommodate oddballs, and they help us make better decisions.

Diversity and decentralization, lack of "herd" instinct, a familiar trusted method of aggregating opinion … these are the principles which must be highlighted, emphasized, and relentlessly pushed as the foundation of tackling any larger problem that might beset the Anglosphere (political, military, demographic, or epidemiological).

Since publication in 2004, complaints about Surowiecki's book have been both stylistic (“science by summary and anecdote”) and substantial (“does the WoC effect actually exist?”). Nonetheless, references to “wisdom of crowds” has joined the memes of the New Economy, just like “Long Tail” and “Singularity.” This is an idea that just makes sense, after the fact.

We can leave open the issue of whether Surowiecki got it exactly right and turn to the broader question of “is the key, the secret weapon, of the Anglosphere some serendipitous, intimate, yet obscured, link between the way Anglosphereans behave and the optimal way humans make communal decisions?”

So in future, when readers of this blog are considering their favourite aspect of the history or culture of the Anglosphere, I’d ask them to take a moment for a question “Was this the result of some relatively superior group decision-making (trying to solve a cognitive, co-ordinative, or co-operative problem) which worked well in practice but made no sense to the experts and elite of the day?”

My guess is the answer will be “Yes.”

Posted by jmccormick at December 19, 2005 08:52 PM

I've often wondered about why the jury system, which makes no sense from any straightforward rationalistic perspective, has endured and seems to have given better (although far from perfect) results than its alternatives over time. Twelve seems to be a number large enough to allow substantial diversity of opinion while small enough to assure that each participant (because an individual vote is significant) has some incentive to be attentive and conscientious. If indeed this is an example of the wisdom of crowds (the "crowd" size is smaller than the other examples given, but the same dynamic seems to be at work) then the various rationalizing reforms attempted on the jury system (particularly in trying to narrow the scope of the jury's decision) are wrong-headed. The Fully Informed Jury movement, which seeks to preserve the latitude of decisions of juries, would seem to be on the right track in preserving essential Anglosphere institutions.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 20, 2005 12:23 AM

"trusted method of aggregating opinion"

This is why certain election reforms are so critical. The two major parties in the United States have colluded to create a system where they have a built in advantage, and they have no (self-interested) incentive to change it. I'm not sure which ones of MacFarlane's four traps this counts as, but it's definately a problem. The "answers" we get from the political decision-making process are not truly representative of the WoC, but rather quite skewed.

Posted by: Brock at December 20, 2005 12:25 AM

Well, Brock, if I understand Surowiecki correctly, and understand Macfarlane correctly, it's probable that all the stuff happening at the *bottom* or local part of the political system (the NIMBY dynamic) that actually keeps things generally effective in the Anglosphere. Turgid decision-making at the top of a country of 282 million people (with potentially global impact) isn't necessarily the worst decision-making. And Surowiecki's thesis suggests that all those smart guys with an idea on "how to fix the system" usually end up screwing things ... case in point, we'd like to think on this web log, the non-Anglosphere. If history is our guide, Anglosphere democracies hem-and-haw endlessly, even perilously, about whether there is a problem. But once most people in the system decide there is, tentative, "good enough" solutions appear in reasonably short order.

Posted by: James McCormick at December 20, 2005 12:50 AM

Mirroring bottom-up 'Evolution' vs top-down 'Design', bottom-up memetic evolution requires 2 things:
1) toleration of eccentrics and innovators with new ideas that don't fit the orthodoxy [mutation],
2) lock-in and propagation of new ideas once recognised as good [selection & survival].

An elitist hierarchy handing down descisions from on-high rejects & punishes innovation as a challenge to the authority.

Posted by: Rog at December 20, 2005 03:15 AM

Hooray for eccentrics!

If the above is correct, then an elitist system cannot perform as well as a non-elitist bottom-up system - the Elite in the former would have to recognise that they are the problem and get out of the way.

The English language provides an example - if someone comes up with a new word or usage then it might catch on and be propagated & accepted. Contrast French, where the Academie Francaise attempts to hand down the approved word (eg. approved "courriel" for popular "email").

(Sorry about my speeling mistooks BTW).

Posted by: Rog at December 20, 2005 03:36 AM

On the other hand, I have a theory of emergent stupidity, or the "Committee Effect," which was also cited by Kling.

Posted by: Rand Simberg at December 20, 2005 06:16 AM

The jury system does seem to be a successful implementation of WoC theory. However, I think its most important feature is the requirement, in criminal proceedings, for unanimity. This requirement makes it difficult to get convictions in weak cases and especially in cases where a minority of the public disapproves of particular laws. Like representative government, the jury system in practice does not work perfectly but seems to work better than do the alternatives.

In a broader sense is it not true that the Anglospheric advantage comes not mainly from better decisionmaking but jointly from better decisionmaking and better accountability? (Or is accountability via feedback implied in WoC theory?) Some dictators have good judgment and unlike democratic governments can be extremely flexible and quick-reacting, particularly in international and military affairs. However, because dictators by nature are unaccountable for mistakes they can persist with bad policies long after more-accountable leaders would have been checked by their legislatures.

Posted by: Jonathan at December 20, 2005 06:49 AM

On the jury, eight is generally considered to be the maximum number of subordinates an individual can manage. Above that, control is lost. Henry Fonda to the contrary notwithstanding, it is very difficult for one individual to sway a group of 11 others without exception to that individual's direction.

If the jury question is interesting, how about the Grand Jury? I do not know enough about how they operate to expand on it, but perhaps one who does can explain why the jury that decides to bring the charge is so much larger and how its mechanics take advantage of the WoC?

The common law process is an example of the WoC among elites. But instead of the elites of one time making the decision, it is the "crowd of elites" over time refining decisions of other elites.

The two party system is also a very bad system subject to the Churchillian reservation that it is superior to all the others tried. The two party system is more WoC oriented than the alternatives, expecially PR. It forces the two parties to fight over the middle 2% of the populace and arrive at a program the majority support. The alternatives allow extremists to maintain positions that are not held by the majority but which can be imposed on it in order to assemble a government.

The two party system can break down as it seems to have in California. The primary reason for this is the gerrymandering of the state's legislative districts into uncontestable safe districts. The result is effectively system where candidates are unaccountable to the electorate but to the party. They are primarily party ideologues seeking approval and funding from the party hierarchy instead of seekers of the 51st%. A noxious result of Baker v Carr and reminder of the great good fortune of the drafting of our Constitution.

The solution to such a breakdown is to create more contested districts. The people of Caliphornia, in their infinite wisdom, chose not to do that. It will be interesting to see if this is a demonstration of the WoC by way of example for the benefit of others or if they are demonstrating some wisdom that has thus far eluded me.

Posted by: Richard A. Heddleson at December 20, 2005 10:25 AM

Evolution needs variation and selection. Bureaucratic organizations often do not have selection mechanisms, so they may not evolve. The selection also may be for something other than the organization's stated purpose. NASA, to take Rand's example, can be functionally described as having the purpose of spending money in the American South; any actual spaceflight is a side effect. It was designed by LBJ to be, in essence, the Marshall Plan of the Confederacy. As such it is a great success.

Ask your self which eventuality would be "selected against" -- NASA not flying spacecraft, or NASA not spending funds in target Congressional districts? I recall one prominent space engineer saying that NASA's real problem period began after Apollo was shut down and before the Shuttle flew-- "when NASA discovered it could get paid just as much for talking about flying in space as for actually doing it -- and at much less risk."

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 20, 2005 03:13 PM

So what differientiates the commitee effect from the more positive group decision effect? The anglosphere isn't the only realm where there is a difference of opinion and a need for consensus.

While it might be a bit inaccurate to describe any democracy as a group decision system, why has the anglosphere made comparatively better decisions? One only needs to look at the present election results in latin america to see groups indulging in mass stupidity by commitee.

"...but in the specific details of Anglosphere culture that seem to protect, reinforce and gain nourishment from the dynamics of successful group decision-making."

This is the critical portion of the thesis, the crux of the matter. It's the culture, without which no decision made by a group can be successful over the long term.

Posted by: The Wobbly Guy at December 20, 2005 11:37 PM

Good point, Wobbly. The key distinction is that the "wisdom of crowds" is NOT consensus ... it's diversity of initial opinion, effectively aggregated. The dynamic, if I understand Surowiecki correctly, is to get everyone to make their best judgment based on a diverse and large information pool but past that point ... "majority rules." Some people are going to go away unhappy.

Surowiecki writes extensively about when group decisions go off the rails. It's usually when a cascade of information, or a "herd" instinct, kicks in and the information base becomes too narrow. A "bubble" in other words. To my mind, the Anglosphere isn't immune to these problems (as Anglosphere history clearly shows) but indulgence of diverse opinion and trust in the 51% rule of "good enough" decision-making tends to keep the Anglosphere out of the "consensus of bad ideas" swamp most of the time. Or at least allows it to back out of the swamp with no one to blame but itself.

Posted by: James McCormick at December 20, 2005 11:54 PM

I haven't read Macfarlane's book, but Surowiecki's impressed me more for what he reported than for what he originated. The connection of the Anglosphere with Boyd's OODA Loop (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action) is apt. Democratic institutions and market economies are feedback mechanisms. The politician or the businessman see an opportunity in context, develop a strategy, and put it into action. Up to that point, all decision-making schemes are roughly equivalent.

Where the Anglosphere's institutions excel is the quality and timeliness of the information available about the results of previous actions, and the freedom to act on the information. If the politician sees his vote count or fundraising go south, it alerts him to a mistake he must correct. A businessman can quickly get information from price signals whether he did the right thing, and then be guided to do the next thing. It is the iterative process that is key, and the Anglosphere has developed methods of cycling quickly and accurately through the loop.

Posted by: Mitch at December 21, 2005 09:48 AM
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