Send in the clowns

Posted: Oct 13, 2004 12:00 AM

I have discovered the solution to liberal media bias. What mainstream journalism needs are more stupid people.

Conservative critics of the journo-industrial complex might dismiss this advice as merely adding more jelly-beans to the jar. Liberal journalists would regard it as absurd, because surely it is their genius that makes them special. Why would the temple want any - much less, more - stupid priests?

Well, it turns out that having a few stupid people in the group makes the group smarter. I've long suspected this, but I found confirmation in James Surowiecki's new book, "The Wisdom of Crowds."

It works like this. Groups of experts tend to reinforce their own views, particularly because experts believe in the authority of experts, causing them to defer to the super-expert in the group. Stupid people are, to put it bluntly, too stupid to defer to smart people. Remember the story about the truck that got jammed in the tunnel because it was too tall? All the experts were stumped. But some kid yelled, "Let the air out of the tires," saving the day. This is essentially the moral of the fable of "The Emperor's New Clothes." Substitute kids with morons and you get the same thing.

We've all been in meetings where the token idiot says something absurd and everyone reflexively groans. But then someone says, "Wait a second, Lothar may be on to something." The utility of the muttonhead is that he's too dim to cotton on to the groupthink and therefore is more likely to raise unconventional ideas.

This, according to Surowiecki, is the value of diversity within groups. He doesn't dwell on the need for stupid people per se, but he's fairly persuasive that even the "smartest" groups of experts are often outsmarted by more diverse groups that boast members with far less impressive credentials. For example, Scott Page, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, ran a series of computer models pitting all-smart groups of agents against other groups of more diverse agents ranging from not-so-smart to smart. The group with the lower average intelligence was almost always better at solving problems than the smarter one.

The bulk of the Wisdom of Crowds is a defense of the collective intelligence of markets and the like (Surowiecki is a financial columnist for The New Yorker). But the example of media bias struck a chord with me from the beginning. I've never bought the more conspiratorial conservative theories about liberal media bias. I agree that it exists, I just don't think it's nearly as deliberate and conscious as some on the right think. Most liberal journalists I've known truly believe they are consummate professionals. And for that reason alone, a lot of biased coverage has to be the result of something other than deliberate plotting. That something else is liberal groupthink.

For example, my guess is that Dan Rather truly believes he fell for those forged documents because he was just trying to get a scoop. But no one at CBS raised the necessary objections because they were all eager to nail Bush. No one - not even an idiot - said, "Hey maybe we should take an extra week to make sure these things are real." Not even after their own consultants said the documents were iffier than a new "Rollecks" watch. If the target had been a Democrat, the usual safeguards would have kicked in.

Now, the argument in favor of hiring stupid people applies even more strongly to hiring conservatives, especially since so many liberals can't tell the difference. Ever since John Stuart Mill called the Tories "the Stupid Party," liberals have convinced themselves that conservatives are dangerously dimwitted. This is nonsense, of course. But it's now clear that even if it were true, journalistic organizations seeking excellence would be smart to hire a few dumb right-wingers. After all, so many of the stupid mistakes made by CBS could have been spotted by the lowliest conservative intern if his or her opinion had been solicited.

Diversity, according to Surowiecki, "takes away, or at least weakens, some of the most destructive characteristics of group decision making." Conservatives are particularly well-suited to this sort of thing because we are far more inclined to say, "That's not a good idea," about just about anything.

Now, some of the more obtuse - er, I mean, brilliant - liberals might be flummoxed as to how a conservative could be arguing for diversity. Aren't conservatives against diversity? Of course not. We're against the silly ideology that says you've achieved diversity when you have a room full of people who all look different but think alike. Bill Clinton's cabinet may have looked like America, but it thought like a bunch of Ivy League liberal lawyers.

For decades, the mandarins of network news and elite newspapers have defined intelligence and wisdom as agreement with their own positions. There's no arguing with that sort of arrogance. But if these guys were smart, they'd hire dumb.

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