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June 13, 2007

"The Wisdom of Crowds" and Iraq

In the The Wisdom of Crowds, Surowiecki relates a couple of experiments illustrating the importance of diversity and independence in group decision making. In Solomon Asch's classic experiment, three individuals were asked say whether one of two lines on a sheet of paper was bigger, equally sized, or or smaller than another. The catch was, the first two respondents were plants, both of whom gave a clearly wrong answer. But in 70 percent of cases, the third respondent changed his answer, at least once, to match that of the group. Interviewed later, they hadn't thought their eyes were wrong, but they'd assumed safety in numbers. What added information, after all, did they possess that would leave them with a right answer while everyone else floundered? "Groupthink," writes Surowiecki, "works not so much by censoring dissent as by making dissent seem somehow improbable."

Later on, Surowiecki gives an example of an information cascade, in which a few visible individuals get bad information, or reach bad conclusions, in a public and early way. Assume two Chinese restaurants, one clearly better than the other, neither well-known to diners. If the first five dinner customers think they have reliable information that the worse restaurant is actually superior, they'll take their seats there. And if all the other diners see a little crowd in the worse restaurant and empty tables in the better establishment, they'll go into the worse restaurant. They'll assume, in other words, that the crowd is acting off good information, and they will be wrong.

Matt reminded me of this with his point that it wasn't that the experts who got the Iraq War wrong, but that "all the experts the Democratic Party leadership listened to were wrong [about Iraq]." We've had discussions over whether the progressive national security apparatus, the Democratic Party, the media, or some other force bears the brunt of the responsibility for convincing a sizable portion of Democrats to support the Iraq War. It's all of the above -- none are separable, as they all relied on the pressures and signals coming from one another.

A few hyper influential types -- Holbrooke, say, and Ken Pollack, and Tony Blair -- came to the wrong conclusion early on, and their decisions, based, as they supposedly were, on more and better information than the rest of us had, were enormously influential. Many who trusted them assumed, like with the early diners in the Chinese restaurant, that they must be in support for a reason, and so they fell in line. There's your information cascade. And once a critical mass of influentials were for the Iraq War, other influentials with more qualms either quieted their doubts or simply reversed them. It's hard to stand outside the group, particularly when you don't see where your information or expertise differ. If everyone else sees a small line, are you sure you're seeing a long one? And given that the pro-war perspective was broadly considered the safe political choice, and no one was going to get fired for saying what all the other consultants and advisors were saying (but they may well get fired for counseling opposition to a popular and successful war), the failures of our experts -- and thus, in cascade, our politicians, pundits, and many of ourselves -- look almost inevitable. No more excusable, but utterly predictable.

June 13, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

You might look for characteristics common to all or most points of failure. Lots of the people to whom you point came up as part of the the Clinton crowd, whether they were political types, policy types, or media types.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Jun 13, 2007 10:51:58 AM

I don't think any of this was accidental. Blair knew people would trust him, and knew he was relying on faulty information. He chose to be dishonest, and those of you who chose to follow him not only listened to him thinking he was honest, most of you refused to listen to the rest of us and went 'lalalalalala' like spoiled children.

Posted by: soullite | Jun 13, 2007 10:56:19 AM

Perhaps, but I know many in the policy community who did not reach the flawed conclusions, despite the wisdom of crowds. The common demoninator among them seems to be substantial experience in DC (they know from experience the consensus is often wrong), not being affiliated with a candidate or office holder (don't have to reflect the views of the person paying you), willingness to take a principled position in the face of a fairly strong contrary consensus (political courage, not in great abundance around here), and unafraid of potential career harm for taking contrary positions (helps if you are established and financially secure). Many, such as Ezra and others who otherwise identify with the progressive left, found themselves on the other side of this issue, for some or all the above reasons.

Posted by: dmh | Jun 13, 2007 11:00:19 AM

Predictable is right.

Posted by: Korha | Jun 13, 2007 11:02:01 AM

Weren't Zbigniew Brzezinski and Al Gore against the war from the start? Those seem like pretty credible, well-credentialed Democrats with long records of being ahead of the curve on some very big issues. If I saw them sitting alone at a restaurant, while the other one was crowded with the likes of Bill Kristol and Richard Perle, I'd be inclined to take the path less travelled.

Posted by: robsalk | Jun 13, 2007 11:03:19 AM

Another way of looking at this is to ask whether a "progressive national security apparatus" (if that entity truly is progressive) needs to develop methods to reduce the penalty for voicing divergent opinions. A lot of us on the outside thought this was an emperor-has-no-clothes thing: prima facie war was a bad idea, but nobody who was anybody was willing to say it. We now know that "experts" didn't have any secret information that changed the prima facie case, but they all felt it was better not to risk their careers rather than try to prevent an immoral war that had the potential to harm the county for decades to come.

Question: were some of these "progressives" among those who felt it was appropriate to denigrate those who did have the guts to say what was right.

Posted by: tinman | Jun 13, 2007 11:05:16 AM

Put another way: the 90s were a period in which the neolibs won (properly, to my mind) certain arguments within the Dem party. But there are various species of neolibs, inc. DLC-Clintonista neolibs and WM neolibs. Kaus claims that two out of eighty WM neolibs supported the Iraq war. Query whether "the public" chose the wrong set of neolibs to follow.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Jun 13, 2007 12:25:54 PM

This was one of the main/most basic grounds on which I opposed going to war - whatever the merits of such a decision, it seemed blindingly obvious that the threatening storm of a decision, so to speak, had virtually no connection to any such merits and was largely an uninformed/irrational product of groupthink.

The post also sorta gets us back to the fact that most of the folks are still pontificating, with no obvious penalty (of reputation) even in the absence of obvious rethinking.

Posted by: Dan S. | Jun 13, 2007 12:30:36 PM

Misstatement:

You wrote:"And once a critical mass of influentials were against the Iraq War, other influentials with more qualms either quieted their doubts or simply reversed them."

I think you meant "supported", or "were for" not "were against".

"And given that the pro-war perspective was broadly considered the safe political choice..."
So true, but to my mind on of the saddest commentaries on today's political life in America.

Posted by: zed | Jun 13, 2007 12:46:18 PM

oops... "one of the saddest"

Posted by: zed | Jun 13, 2007 12:47:42 PM

The politicians were not in error: a majority of experts told them that Iraq was disarmed, and therefore safe to attack. The only problem, and it turned out to be a small one, was to sell the war to the public. Well, if there's a one-sided slaughter to be had, the American people will believe pretty much anything, won't they?

What nobody could have predicted is that the Iraqis would resist the American theft of their country so fiercely. Oh, sorry, I forgot I'm talking to liberals. I meant to say, who could have forseen that the Iraqis would so foolishly squander the great gift of freedom that America has given them?

Posted by: RLaing | Jun 13, 2007 1:52:47 PM

Groupthink is also a problem with current feelings about Iraq, which are far from well examined.

Your analysis doesn't consistently distinguish accepting the intelligence from accepting the war, which were two very different things. I figured the intelligence was probably correct, but it didn't matter; it wasn't a proper cause for invasion.

The politicians were not in error: a majority of experts told them that Iraq was disarmed, and therefore safe to attack.

The intelligence error wasn't in regard to whether Iraq was safe to attack, but whether there were weapons of mass destruction.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 13, 2007 2:29:38 PM

What RLaing (nice handle) said.

The DC Establishment was not "wrong." The wanted Iraq, a permanent military presence in Iraq. They still do, will want it 10-20 years from now, and as far as I can tell, are likely to be able to manage it. They probably thought it would be easier, and after 6 years, feel comfortable putting distance between themselves & Bush. They are now free to say it was a bad idea all along, since we are not leaving.

The problem is much bigger than errors in judgement. The question is why did Holbrooke etc come to that decision, a question that hasn't really been addressed yet, even in the left blogosphere. This post isn't it. They are not idiots in groupthink.

Some of the parts of the 60s counterculture that liberals dislike were based on an understanding that the protests weren't just about Vietnam, that without structural, institutional change there would just be another Vietnam down the line. Empire is what America is and what America does. Whether it was a good idea to invade Iraq or is a good idea to attack Iran or Venezuela is simply asking the wrong questions, and won't stop the wars.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 13, 2007 2:30:26 PM

Bullshit. The reason why many Democrats supported the war was because they didn't want to appear weak. Democrats are always afriad of appearing weak on national security, and nothing has changed. As Fareed Zakaria wrote recently, "Though Democrats sound more sensible on many of these issues, the party remains consumed by the fear that it will not come across as tough. Its presidential candidates vie with one another to prove that they are going to be just as macho and militant as the fiercest Republican."

I can't remember who said it, but there is a quote that says we ascribe reason and logic to the decisions made by historical figures and never stop to think there was no reason at all why they did what they did, or that it was just incompetence. It's hyperrationalization, the tendency of thoughtful people to think that there is a reason for every event and action, one that can be understood and studied. I despise with an endless fountain of hatred those who led the U.S. into this war, but I have always felt that the lack of coherent thought, positions and statements over time by major Dems concerning the war is very simply a product of people who, in the end, based their decision on what they thought was good politics rather than what they thought was good policy.

This has been a recurring critique of Kerry and H. Clinton, Edwards et. al., and it's devastating because it's true.

I keep hearing good things about the Surowekie book, but I tried to read it and felt its analyses could have led to quite different conclusions or that the conclusions were wrong. The first anecdote of how the average of all the people guessing the weight of the cattle was closer than any of the experts (or some such thing, I don't remember it exactly) struck me as being completely irrelevant to the point he was trying to make. It was anecdotal, for one. And so what? Does this story mean the sum total of crowds are smarter than experts? I think it's interesting that the guy who coined the term wikipedia eventually left the Wikipedia project because he felt only experts should post or that there should be a traditional review process.

Posted by: Mitch Schindler | Jun 13, 2007 7:03:04 PM

I have always felt that the lack of coherent thought, positions and statements over time by major Dems concerning the war is very simply a product of people who, in the end, based their decision on what they thought was good politics rather than what they thought was good policy.

Or failed to try hard enough to distinguish the two. That still applies to current Democratic thinking about Iraq, which is no more coherent than before, but which is still conveniently tracking the polls.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 13, 2007 8:14:34 PM

With all due respect, this line of argument is a bunch of CYA hooey. There were half a million people in the streets in New York 18 months after 9/11 protesting the war before it started. 2 million people in London. Bush ignored them, the media ignored them, Democratic consultants ignored them, the foreign policy establishment ignored them. But they were there. Worldwide, it's been called the largest protest in human history. But it doesn't even merit a footnote in this sad exculpatory discussion.

There were lots of progressives against the war from the start, just not many in positions of power and influence. But I'll posit this: if you were progressive and knew anything about foreign policy, you were against the war. If you were for the war from the start, you were either (a) not progressive, or (b) sadly misinformed about the history of U.S. foreign policy and the likely consequences of an invasion, or (c) both.

Posted by: yave begnet | Jun 13, 2007 11:33:10 PM

I'm a Deomocrat. And none of the lies ever had me support the Iraq war.
Sorry. The fact is we never supported it even if our elected officials agreed to let Bush cut his own throat.
And that is exactly what Yes votes represented.
This has been a Beltway misrepresentation for years - that a Democrat voted yes made them as responsible for invading Iraq as Bush and the Repubs.
No. It meant you stole the office of president...if the facts warrant to do so go ahead.
The facts did not warrant him to do so and he pluked America.

Posted by: whizid | Jun 13, 2007 11:49:18 PM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 8, 2007 9:28:32 AM

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