Last night I was privileged to hear a lecture by Dr. Scott Page, who, if you're not familiar with him, is a professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan. His speech was all about how diversity is critical to the success of a business, indeed, he wrote a book about it, presenting a mathematical theorem arguing that, especially in the field of making predictions, the more diverse a group, the less crowd error there is. This got me thinking--there's a lesson for the GOP (and perhaps, the Dems and bipartisanship as a whole) in the making here.
So, join me as I attempt to recreate his argument and tune it toward politics. In doing this, I also hope to prove the importance of the netroots, why Obama was brilliant in picking Leon Panetta, the importance of a variety of people entering politics rather than just the most privileged (i.e., why a career politician like Jim Tedisco might not be as good a choice as a political newbie like Scott Murphy), and the importance of an active, constructive bipartisan effort. Oh, and how we might work to fix the financial crisis. High hopes, huh?
First of all, let me say that I am not a math person in the slightest. As such, I will to make this as readable as possible, and any errors I present here are mine, not Dr. Page's. The book, incidentally, is The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. I've just begun it, so I'm not an expert yet.
Let's begin with the basic ideas behind Dr. Page's argument. We will begin with an example, quoted from Dr. Page's book (pg. 179, in case you're interested):
In 1906, Francis Galton analyzed predictions of the weight of a young steer by attendees of the West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition. The average (mean) of 787 contestants' estimates of the weight was 1,197 pounds. The actual weight of the steer was 1,198 pounds.
Now, Page isn't arguing that all you have to do to be right is to get 787 people in a room and have them guess something. His argument, in terms of making accurate predictions, is that having a diverse crowd making your predictions is key. If everyone at the Exhibition was a stablehand, for instance, the prediction might not have been as good. Instead, you have stablehands and farm owners and ranchers and poultry farmers and everyone else who came, each with their own perspective. Even though everyone isn't an expert on weighing steers, the average of all answers, inaccurate and accurate alike, yielded a dead-on prediction. Page expresses his finding as "The Diversity Prediction Theorem":
Collective Error=Average Individual Error-Prediction Diversity
As I understand it, what this means is that each individual person is bound to be wrong by some margin, large or small. How wrong they are is going to be different from person to person. It is the diversity of the group that offsets this. Every person makes their predictions using what they know, meaning that the collective (that is, the average) prediction is going to benefit from everyone's individual knowledge and experience, offset those who bring the wrong information to the table, and come up with a prediction that is closer to the correct answer than everyone's individual guess could be.
Still with me? Yes? No? Here's another example (I'll try to be quick--feel free to skip this if you follow me. I'll let you know when it's safe to come out.)
Page doesn't like online IQ tests. As he said last night, they tend to place his IQ in the thin band between 80 and 225. One of the questions it mentions he finds odd is the "fill in the number sequence problem". For example, we have:
1 4 9 16 __ 36
This sequence even I, no master of math, can figure out. The square of 1 is 1. The square of 2 is 4, the square of 3 is 9, and so on, making the missing number 25. Here's another.
1 2 3 5 __ 13
This is a little harder, but some here might do the subtraction necessary to realize that this is part of the Fibonacci Sequence. Subtract 13 from 8, you get 5, subtract 3 from 5, you get 2. Thus, the missing number is 8.
The third example is where it gets interesting:
1 2 6 __ 1806
I didn't know what to do with this. Nobody at the dinner last night knew what to do with this. Page told us that he presented this problem at a dinner for the International Monetary Fund, and none of them knew what to do with this. However, Page says that when he presented this to an inner-city school in New York, 4 of the kids knew the answer to this!
The answer, especially for those of you who love Douglas Adams, is 42. Why?
Well, in the two sequences so far, we've done multiplication (a number times itself), we've done subtraction. Why not both?
Each number differs from the number after it by an amount equal to its square 1=2-1^2, and 2=6-2^2. This idea seems cute, but it doesn't seem as though it will get us to 1806. And yet, it does. Using this rule, the next number would be 42, 6=42-6^2, and the number after 42 would be, (guess what) 1806.
Again, the IMF couldn't figure this out, but four different high school math students could. They've been doing plenty of multiplication and subtraction. No idea why the IMF couldn't. I guess they're a little busy.
OK, MATH-HATERS! You can come out now! It's safe.
Here's MiscellanyMan's Conclusion #1: We need more than career politicians in Washington, or in any government, state, city, county, etc. A few aren't bad, as their perspective and ideas add as much diversity as somebody else. But we need more than just them. Thus, you can make the argument for NY-20, that there are plenty of career politicians representing us in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans. Is one more (Tedisco) really going to help us, or should we look to add another useful perspective (Murphy)?
More from Page now. His big message at the dinner last night was that ability and diversity are equally important. Look at the example above. Presumably, the members of the IMF are better at most complex math problems than high schoolers. But when one is stumped, they all are. They all have similar enough perspectives that they couldn't figure it out. The high schoolers in that room were only there for three reasons: Where they live (that's why they're at that school), what their age is (why their in that grade), and which hour math class they're in. Otherwise, they could be black, hispanic, white, straight, gay, lower class, middle class, who knows. They have a diverse array of perspectives, and were able to figure it out.
Why should Congress be any different?
MiscellanyMan's Conclusion #2: If the GOP keeps forcing lockstep party discipline, they will remain sunk. Now, most of us here already knew that, but isn't it nice to know that there's some math behind it? (If you want more, go grab Page's book--there's a nice big chapter titled "The Empirical Evidence". I haven't gotten through it yet, but I'm reading my way toward it.
Another point Page made last night is that a variety of ideas is crucial to problem solving. He made the point with a number of visuals I can't reproduce as well in text form, but I shall at least try.
Let's say you have some people tasked with a difficult problem. If it was an easy problem, after all, anyone could do it, and you wouldn't need experts in that field. So we have a difficult problem, and we have some experts.
Now, lets say we take the five best people in this field. For purposes of our example, they each have three skills to bring to bear on this issue. I'll label them using letters of the alphabet. The closer that skill is to A, the more applicable and useful that skill is to the field in question. Let's meet the experts.
Expert 1: ABC
Expert 2: ACD
Expert 3: ABD
Expert 4: BDE
Expert 5: ACE
Now, we also have a pack of random people from various other fields. Maybe some are related to our field of choice, but not all are. Let's meet our Random People:
Random 1: AEH
Random 2: BFG
Random 3: ADR
Random 4: BCJ
Random 5: IL
Now, these five experts are proficient in the main skills that make up this field. If you had to pick one person to do everything, you'd probably pick Expert 1, as he's got skills A, B, and C, which are the three best. But, if you wanted a committee to try to tackle this problem, would you really get more information if you repeated the same skills over and over as we have in our panel of experts? I mean, experts 1 and 4 have all the skills experts 2, 3, and 5 have. Do we need them too? Maybe a little redundancy doesn't hurt, but do we need all 5? Probably not.
But look at the random people. They're not going to be any better! Some of them don't even have three skills (and yes, Page did use IL in his example, and yes, he did make a jab at the state that produced Blago and Burris when he pointed this out). But what if, in a case such as the horrific implosion of the financial markets, skill I or skill G brings us the best answer to the problem? Think of all the inventions out there that were discovered purely on accident. Page was asked during the quick Q&A that evening what he thought about the diversity of Obama's appointments, and Page praised him for picking an economic team that had economists, economic historians, and experts in other areas of economics. He also said that you could do more.
MiscellanyMan's Thought Experiment on it's way to a Conclusion #3: Let's pretend that we need to reform the CIA. Now, the CIA is a conglomeration of all sorts of talents. There are analysts, agents, commanding officers bureaucrats, etc. But, they all have some similarities. They often compete with the NSA, FBI, foreign intelligence agencies, etc., and maybe don't always work nicely with such groups. Some, though not all, might decide that torture is a great idea. Then they might decide it would be really nice if they didn't get into too much trouble for thinking as they did about torture. Now, we could appoint a CIA chair who has been part of the problem all along. We could appoint a person who maybe has been out of the intelligence community for a while, but worked in it back in his youth. Both might approach the problem in the same way, though, even if their hands weren't personally crafting the torture policy. It's skills ABC vs. ABD vs. BDE all over again.
Or, we appoint, say, Leon Panetta. The CIA is full of those basic CIA skills, after all. But maybe, when it comes to picking a leader, we don't, to reuse the phrase, want more of the same. We shouldn't remove everyone from the agency (really, we shouldn't), but that doesn't mean that we can't have someone on top who can take the info he's given and look at it in an entirely different light.
MiscellanyMan's Conclusion Lightning Round!
Conclusion #4: Maybe it wouldn't hurt to get a few more voices and perspectives outside of the world of finance as we move forwards. Jon Stewart, for instance. Lord knows there seems to be a lot his fake-news skills bring to the world of real news.
Conclusion #5: This is why the netroots is so critical. By getting everyone, and I mean everyone involved, we can create a group so diverse, so varied in perspectives, that our collective error will be much much smaller than the errors we no doubt make on our own. We might even, say, win lots of elections in '06 and '08.
Conclusion #6: Re-read Conclusion #2. Consider what the GOP has done since '08, on the stimulus, on the omnibus, on everything. Re-read your favorite quotes from Limbaugh, Boehner, McConnell, Steele, Cantor, etc. Of these, Steele is the one who probably fits the least. How was his job security doing again?
Conclusion #7: We may complain about the DLC, Blue Dogs, Lieberman, etc. I know I don't always agree with them. But, I'm going to say this: Maybe it's good they're there. Not just to fill seats and keep our majority, either.
Now, I'm sure some of you won't agree with #7. You might not also agree with the incoming conclusion #8, that bipartisanship is really important. REALLY important.
Before you send comments my way, however, let me clarify one thing I didn't tell you in the example above with the experts vs. the random people.
There was a proviso Dr. Page added concerning the experts and the random people, and that is that everyone in both groups
must be smart.
Don't start deriding the intelligence of your favorite target yet. Here's my point, and, in turn, what I think Page means.
In order to be a part of the problem-solving process, you have to be willing to work to solve the problem. If you're not, it doesn't matter if you have skills ABC or XYZ. Now, the GOP wants to solve the problem of their party's identity, they're just clueless how to do so. Whatever skill/letter of the alphabet they need, nobody in leadership has it. However, I'm pretty sure that they could solve their problem by pursuing an active, constructive effort toward bipartisanship. Now, in the short run, they don't stand to gain much, or so it seems. Many times, during the discussion of the stimulus, I read something like "The GOP doesn't stand to gain anything from helping pass the stimulus--Obama and the Dems will just get all the credit, so of course they're going to oppose it". This isn't necessarily wrong--I myself have said it a number of times while debating politics with people. But what the GOP could have done is say No for reasons other than for the sake of opposition. They could turn off party discipline, let the members vote their minds, call the Whips away from looking over Cao's shoulders, and be constructive.
I don't think they'd get any credit for doing this. Not a lot, at least. And I don't think they should do it just to make the lives of Dems in government easier. But if they did, the Republican's image would, I believe improve. Maybe not this month, or this year, but at some point, the public might say "You know, those Republicans, they've been all right" and some people might start voting for them again. The GOP would need to reconsider their policy priorities as they do this, of course, but anything is better than the shouting and redundancy that's been going on for the last several years.
So, here's MiscellanyMan's Conclusion #8: If we want our government to have the lowest collective error, we need to include everyone. The more diverse our government, the better. Dems, Republicans, Independents. Maybe get some other parties in the mix? If Page is right, it will mean better governance. And that's what we're all here for, right?
Now, all we have to do is set up the big spinning hypno-disks and convince the rest of the country that this is what we need.
MiscellanyMan's Conclusion #9: Wow, that's easier said than done.