#5PAPERS – Week 5

by Nivek K Thompson

  1. Reference to the Article 

Landemore, H. E. (2012). Why the Many Are Smarter thatn the Few and Why it Matters. Journal of Public Deliberation, 8(1), 1-14.

  1. What attracted me to this Article?

I’ve had Helene’s book for some time but haven’t read much of it and I want to know the ‘guts’ of her argument. Plus I need to know a bit more about the theory around the ‘wisdom of crowds’ for a work related purpose – so this paper helps me in both with my PhD and my work.

  1. What is it about? (Problem / Purpose / Research Questions)

Landemore’s paper addresses the tension, particularly in relation to democracy, between the idea that people as a group (can) make better decisions than individuals and the opposite view that sees group decision-making as equating to ‘mob rule’.

  1. Where does this come from? (Literature / Theoretical Framework)

She pulls together literature from multiple fields: democracy, history, psychology and cognitive sciences to support her argument.

  1. What did they do? (Methodology & Method)

As mentioned above she reviews takes a cross-disciplinary perspective drawing diverse strands of research together and considering how this research applies in a democratic setting.

  1. What did they learn? (Results / Discussion)

Landemore outlines research that demonstrates that, in problem solving situations, cognitive diversity has a greater impact on the quality of the outcome (decision made) than does the individual intelligence of members of the group. She notes that in other situations, where a decision is being made by aggregation rather than deliberation, both individual ability and cognitive diversity matter equally. She links these two decision-making scenarios with two possible aspects of democratic decision-making i.e. ‘a deliberative phase where problems are identified and solutions proposed, followed by a voting phase, where majority rule is used as a way to determine which of the proposed options is the best one.’ p.6 She calls the outcome of this combination ‘democratic reason’.

Because in both decision-making scenarios cognitive diversity matters as much or more than individual intelligence she argues that ‘if the choice is between making the decision-making more participatory or reducing the pool of decision-makers to a handful of the “best and brightest,” the safer bet is, counter-intuitively no doubt, to go with the numbers.’ p.6 Her view is that increasing the quantity of people will automatically increase the cognitive diversity. And yet she posits that if the aim were to increase the intelligence in a group it would reduce the cognitive diversity because the people would likely come from similar backgrounds.

In addressing a counter argument i.e. that there are practical limitations to the number of people (and hence the level of cognitive diversity) who can deliberate together, Landemore has a novel response – instead of electing representatives to make decisions use a lottery to select our representatives, an approach which delivers cognitive diversity rather than higher levels of individual intelligence in these representatives.

She recognises that the research on cognitive diversity could be seen as simply another justification for democracy, adding to the existing ones of equality, justice, consent etc. nonetheless she argues that collective intelligence adds value by

  • demonstrating that whilst it may not have been chosen for this reason democratic decision-making has practical (epistemic) as well as theoretical (normative) value
  • providing a ‘theoretical umbrella’ for the various studies which demonstrate an empirical link between democracy and other goods such as development, peace, famine avoidance and human rights and
  • allowing us to challenge the claims, arising from public opinion research, that the people are incompetent and ignorant.

Landemore highlights that using the concept of collective intelligence to support democracy removes the cleavage between deliberative democrats and aggregative ones because this concept identifies value in both forms of decision-making. Although she suggests that aggregation here refers to aggregation of judgements and predications rather than interests and preferences (as in the current model of voting). And it directly contests the view that decision-making should be made by political elites or experts because ‘all things equal otherwise the group will generally know better across the board.’ p.10

Her overall conclusion is that, if the selection of representative is intended to address the problem of scale, and we accept that collective intelligence is best delivered through cognitive diversity, then random selection of representatives is a better model than the current election of representatives. In addition, even under the current model of representative democracy ‘where feasible collective decision-making should be more inclusive and participatory than it currently is.’ p.10

  1. What did I learn?

The tension between the different views on group decision-making aligns with the broad vs. narrow view of democracy – where the broad view is about democracy being rule by the people and the narrow view being about elected representatives i.e. elites being the best people to make decisions.

I like her rationale for selecting political representatives by sortition (random selection / lottery) – I haven’t come across this epistemic argument before (most of the ones I’ve read appear to be based more on how un-representative our current representatives are!).

In regard to her secondary conclusion about increasing the amount of collective decision-making I sense that this could result in ‘window dressing’ without any real change in how democracy operates. Can you really get the benefit of this aspect of collective intelligence whilst maintaining the ‘old school’ approach to the election of representatives?

From other readings I’m interested in an associated issue i.e. what topics are groups of citizens “allowed” to use their cognitive diversity to resolve? And why doesn’t the concept of citizens deciding what to deliberate on get more attention (maybe it does and I simply haven’t come across it yet?). Is the use of groups of citizens totally instrumental i.e. only done when elites see value in ‘out sourcing’ particular challenges or is it about real democratic change and empowerment of citizens i.e. a new approach to democracy?