The fallacy of collective brainpower

I was 12 or 13 years old when I came across “The crowd”.  It was in Greek and must have belonged to one of my many intellectual cousins.  The subtitle reads “a study of the popular mind” and I couldn’t put it down.  We were guests at my aunt’s house and I read it all before we left.   No matter it was written in the late 19th century; this was fresh and relevant!   While other kids listened to Simon LeBon of Duran Duran, I thought of Gustave LeBon’s amazingly relevant book.  Had never seen it again until recently when I got a copy in English.   And I juxtaposed it with “the Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki written more than a hundred years later and full of examples about Wikipedia and crowdsourcing and how 100 bricklayers can make a better decision than a consultant that gets paid 20,000 per hour.

But Gustave was right.  I grew up checking his conclusions against my reality.  I could see it at my school.  When enough kids get together, they turn into animals.   I could see it across the street in the early 80’s, as Andreas Papandreou, that master of deception, spoke with simple slogans while stealing billions.  When you get enough people together, they lose their capacity for critical thinking, they “go down several rungs in terms of civilization” as he says.  There is no sense of personal responsibility.  Simple slogans, repeated again and again.  Music, images, emotion.  There is no wisdom in this sort of crowd.

I love what companies like Google are doing with our collective data.     I gladly give them access to almost everything I think and do in exchange for their amazing tools.  They make my life much much better.  Yet it is clear that this is not the product of evolution in our civilisation, nor the inevitable course in technology developing.  It is a fortunate respite from a kind dictator.   All these great ideas about the collective wisdom we could develop with technology depend on a kind central hub allowing them to work.  Or, as Surowiecki puts it, we need independence of opinion, decentralization and diversity before we even get to the matter of aggregation.

Our current tech boom is to a large extent an acceptance of failure.   Companies that establish massive followings define the terms, give away stuff and up the ante in terms of infrastructure.    You reward them by buying their stock.  Or by making small companies whose sole aim is to be bought out by the giants.  In the words of LeBon ” every civilisation is the outcome of a small number of fundamental ideas that are very rarely renewed. (…) At the present day the great fundamental ideas which were the mainstay of our fathers are tottering more and more. They have lost all solidity, and at the same time the institutions resting upon them are severely shaken.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Goebbels needed in Brussels to change the flag

“The European flag consists of 12 golden stars in a circle on a blue background. The stars symbolise the ideals of unity, solidarity and harmony among the peoples of Europe.

The number of stars has nothing to do with the number of member countries, though the circle is a symbol of unity.”

That is all you get when trying to discover what the flag is about from the official site.    Contrast it to your nation of choice’s story.   You probably have several versions of your country’s flag as it developed, rich in history and people, wonderful colorful fairytales connected to your past.   You probably know this information by heart because you learnt it at school.   You probably have some emotional response to your flag.

To anyone in communications or branding, what the European Union is doing is suicidal.   While there is much talk about “nation branding” and what individual countries do to themselves or to each other regarding negative press, nobody seems to care about the Union itself.   This goes against millenia of wisdom concerning economic and cultural development.   According to a summary:

“Images of the EU are split:
positive images:

the EU as “strategic opportunity” for the partner countries; a trade giant; a
supporter of multilateralism (or at least multipolarism); a model of regional integration; and
a possible counterbalance to US hegemony, a protector of the environment;
negative images:

an actor whose policy is severely influenced by its own security or
economic concerns; a neo-liberal actor in its external relations; and a protectionist power
(CAP).  EU’s self-representation as a solidaristic actor is called into question. Moreover:
 Little evidence of the EU being widely seen as a “normative power” exporting
universal values of democracy and human rights.
 No evidence of the EU being widely regarded as a social model to be imitated.
 No public reward for EU’s development cooperation policy”

The current global economic crisis is focusing on the European Union for good reason; it is easy!   Any single sovereign country can deal with an external attack.   But in Brussels they decide by…committee.   In the worse sense of the phrase.   According to Nicholas Moussis in “Access to European Union law, economics, policies” “…the edifice of the European Union is divided horizontally in floors. The floor of the common market was built on the basement of the customs union. Apart from the four fundamental freedoms (free movement of goods, persons, services and capital), the common market floor consists of numerous horizontal and vertical compartments, which contain the common policies…”

At least this author is trying to make it understandable.   Because moving from separate countries to any other system is something which citizens of Europe have not quite perceived yet.   The task is made harder by politicians in every country using the EU as a scapegoat for their political problems.   They used to point to some neighbor or other threat when they needed to rally up support; now they just point to Brussels.

From a communicational point of view it is amazing.   We would assume that when you give a handout, you will demand some sort of media attention.   If I am bailing out French farmers, the least they can do is put up an EU flag.   Even better they should commit to some cultural change towards European integration.   Somehow the EU managed to squander its capital (economic and in terms of good will) without getting anything in return.   A feat only possible by a committee!   In any other human-to-human interaction there would have been more.   If the United States were set up as a “melting pot of cultures”, the European Union is set up as a feudal parody.   Immigrants entering the US learn about its constitution.   In Europe we can’t even manage that.

The film industry is a great example.   A variety of Euroinitiatives concerning film making, film distribution and other cultural aspects of film and the results?   Absolutely nothing.   On average, European don’t watch more locally produced content, nor is European film thriving abroad.   We are neither helping Europeans become more aware of their cultural heritage nor telling the rest of the world anything about us.   And of course we are nowhere near making it a viable business in any of the country – members.   For the size of the internal media consumption market and the depth of talent in this field it is a simply amazing feat of incompetence.

So now we need a Goebbels.   I don’t care who runs the ECB, I want to know who is in charge of propaganda.

Machiavellian media realpolitik, iPhone radiation and Tiger Woods

A fancy way of a pessimist saying “I’m not a pessimist, I am just facing the facts” as expressed by Machiavelli 500 years ago:  “…how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation.”

When the fuss over possible health side effects from the use of mobile phones started, it instantly reminded me of something.  Tobacco industry tactics!  For every seed of doubt regarding possible negative side effects from the use of mobile phones, bulldozers of studies and committees instantly appeared to say the opposite.  To a layman they seemed “scientific enough”.  “Doctor” so and so talked, “certain scientists” were quoted, “reputable statistics” were thrown in for good measure.

It seems I was not the only one seeing a pattern.  In their excellent recent book “Merchants of Doubt,”  science historians Naomi Oreskes  and Erik Conway take apart many scientific issues and the way in which “think tanks” muddled the evidence in the media.   (An excellent summary of how think tanks influence Green Politics here.)  They start in 1953 with a case book analysis of how the tobacco industry did it.  Then all sorts of other issues, from acid rain,  global warming to the ozone hole, get analysed.  Oreskes, a scientist herself, started seeing the pattern when her work as an oceanographer made the media portrayal of global warming seem completely inconsistent with her understanding of the ‘facts’.

You have two main tools and they are the same whether you are defending mobile phones or your reputation in the school playground:  1. Spread disinformation and 2. Stick to your story (especially those parts which seem to have appeal in the broader audience even when it is absolutely crystal clear that it complete nonsense.  Confusing the public in this way is guaranteed to gain you ten or twenty years of whatever product or idea you want to sell.  Like it did with the tobacco industry.

As a spin doctor I am fascinated by this topic.  I also wish that there was a sequel looking at the media more carefully.  For sure, journalists carry a huge part of the blame as they don’t do their homework properly.  Much of the disinformation would be debunked instantly if they did even elementary double checking of the sources.  If a thousand scientists say one thing and one think tank another, you had better triple check who is funding the think tank!  Journalists often fall into the media trap of trying to simplify arguments and present them as straightforward oppositions.   The topic also demands a second take to more carefully look at the differences between issues where the science was crystal clear, like the ozone, and others where it was not, like acid rain.  (A triumph of the opposite kind as regulation was passed despite this!)

It is also interesting to follow up on the media assumptions regarding scientists (they are all socialists!) and the environmental movement (sandal wearing hippies) in a time when it has become a much more complex public issue.  Portraying any view as “radical” usually pushes people to take the middle road.  In pricing we call it the Goldilocks effect, in cognitive psychology  it is the bias of aversion to extremes.  If just one State decides to make mobile phone makers prominently feature SAR figures (radiation from mobile phones) they must be “extreme”.  In a time of greater social responsibility and with companies and products having more and more to do with scientific discoveries, fully understanding the relative truths is of vital importance.  Just like companies pulled away from Tiger Woods after the scandal, you really don’t want to be associated with what proves to be bad science propaganda.  Yet even (or especially) big corporations are climbing on various cause bandwagons without fully understanding the risks.

There is a crucial difference:  unlike illicit affairs or spats with prostitutes, bad (pseudo) science is in the public domain.  There are well established rules to publication and pecking orders of status amongst them.  For good reason. It is not that a lone scientist can’t be right some times, even when the entire planet says otherwise.  But if that lone scientist is also the one who claimed that second hand smoking doesn’t do damage, CFCs don’t damage the ozone layer and that acid rain is good for certain crops…well you get the picture!