|Early in The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki makes this statement about decision-making:
“There is no evidence that one can become expert in something as broad as decision-making, policy, or strategy…or perhaps even management. … Large groups of diverse individuals will make more intelligent decisions than even the most skilled decision-maker.”
The implication of this is that individual business executives, expert consultants, investment analysts, learned doctors and heads of state are not competent to make important decisions related to cognitive, coordination or cooperation problems, and should always defer to the collective wisdom of large diverse groups when such problems arise.
Surowiecki identifies five types of decisions that qualified (reasonably informed, diverse, independent) ‘crowds’ are especially competent at:
Crowds are not particularly good at imagining solutions to problems, or knowing which tools and methods to use to solve them ñ creative groups and individuals are better at these elements of decision-making.
Most decisions involve some aspects that are best done by a substantial diverse crowd, and other aspects that are best handled by small creative groups or individuals. The chart above right shows how these aspects could be combined to make an overall decision.
We make decisions based on a judgemental synthesis of what we ‘know’ intellectually, perceptually, emotionally, and intuitively. That knowledge may be direct, from personal experience, or indirect, from what we’ve read or been told by someone whose judgement we trust.
Indigenous peoples tend to make decisions more holistically, rather than biasing their decisions in favour of intellectual knowledge alone. They are more tentative in their judgements and try to allow more time for all knowledge, including that which is subconscious, to be considered and integrated. They will place great weight on the judgements of those they trust, but ultimately each individual will be trusted (given the authority) and expected (given the responsibility) to make any decision that affects them alone, without having to justify it to others. When the decision affects others, they will make the decision-making process a collective one, and will allow those who disagree with the decision to opt out of it (provided that does not adversely affect the welfare of others).
In today’s crowded and massively interdependent world, nearly every decision affects many people, and we rarely have either the responsibility or the authority for making decisions alone. And, as Surowiecki points out, when we do have the personal authority to make decisions for others (because of our position atop the hierarchy), we are likely to do so badly. So many important decisions either are, or should be, collective decisions.
If you have watched decisions being made by a collective, you can see how this process can go terribly wrong. A particular vulnerability of collectives is the all-too-human propensity to be grateful that someone else is taking on the difficult work of running the group and making the tough decisions. The politics of collective decision-making often comes down to the grabbing of authority and the shrugging off of responsibility, until the decisions end up being made by a small faction (or even an individual) willing to accept (most of) the responsibility for the decision as long as they have (substantially all of) the authority. Itís a copping-out process that allows the power-hungry and indifferent to collude and bully the remainder, and this invariably leads to sub-optimal decisions.
Collective decisions also tend to give greater weight to intellectual knowledge than perceptual, emotional, and intuitive knowledge, because of its perceived ‘objectivity’ (and hence simpler process of achieving understanding and agreement on its veracity). As a result, collective decisions, even those we have acceded to, often leave us feeling uneasy, since we feel (emotionally or intuitively, but in ways we can’t readily articulate) that the decision-making process was incomplete and flawed.
Nowhere is this prejudice for intellectual knowledge more evident than in the new field of “evidence-based decision-making’. Evidence (=what can be seen or understood easily) will not allow for the introduction of emotional or instinctive judgement, no matter how valid it may be. It can be applied tyrannically to overrule experience with the greater weight of ’empirical data’ and so-called ‘best practices’, even when the result may be catastrophic. It can also be applied helpfully to overrule pigheadedness and short-sightedness.
So, for example, the egomaniacal doctor who ‘knows’ that prescribing x is always the best solution for every patient can be reined in and made more responsible when ‘the evidence shows’ that y is usually a better prescription. But so too can the professional whose insight into individual differences may cause him/her to occasionally prescribe z because in a rare few other cases in his/her experience, with a certain combination of symptoms (too few to constitute substantive ‘evidence’), z proved to be a better answer.
You can be sure the lawyers will weigh in consistently on the side of treatment y, to the advantage of the patients of the egomaniacal doctor doling out x, and to the detriment of the patients of the wise doctor, patients for whom z is a better prescription. The result is that every patient with the general symptoms will get prescribed y, and will be unable to sue even if the doctor knew z or x would have been a better prescription. And every patient prescribed z or x will be able to sue their doctor, even if that was the best prescription in their individual case. We should all have learned by now that in complex (human and ecological) systems there are no best practices ñ every situation is different, and the ‘best practice’ for dealing with it is unique.
Evidence is, after all, a loaded word. What we call evidence is the data that we personally find useful in a particular context, and in complex systems we all have different contexts and perspectives, so we will never agree on what is appropriate evidence, or on what the evidence ‘means’. For example, when a conservative politician reads crime news, he sees ‘evidence’ supporting a decision for more law and order. The liberal considering the same data will see ‘evidence’ for a decision to improve social welfare, improve education and strengthen gun control.
The best sort of evidence is first-hand observation, since the context is harder to omit or misconstrue, but even it must be filtered through our personal worldviews, worldviews that are inherently subjective and biased. And sometimes that’s a good thing: unemotional, insensitive, unintuitive decisions can be colossally bad ones.
Stories are the best second-hand evidence, but we all know how subversive they can be, by selective omission and emphasis. As for lesser evidence, lies, damned lies and statistics, as they say. You can make the numbers say whatever you want them to say.
So there are six major obstacles that interfere with our ability to make good collective decisions:
The solution, as with most complex problems, is to discover and follow good working models. Open Space and its invitation process can help address the problem of exclusion. So can simple humility: find the politician and the doctor and the planner who consult genuinely with those affected by their decisions before they are made. My experience has been that informed groups with good facilitators can minimize political interference.
Only good critical thinking skills, and patience, can begin to overcome our most dangerous personal biases: Things are the way they are for a reason, and we are oh so quick to judge and oversimplify what that reason is. Knowing people who do think holistically (hard to find in the corporate world, alas) can help you acquire this capacity yourself, reducing your bias toward ‘objective’, rational knowledge.
Getting out of your house and office and seeing things first hand will increase your appreciation of the complexity of issues and your insistence on creating a context of understanding before jumping to conclusions (and decisions). So will learning to tell better stories. And the only solution for improving your consensus-building competence is practice. I know a dozen people who seem to be able to achieve remarkable consensus, but only two of them (both women) do so genuinely, and it’s a skill that did not come easily (the other ten are just great at sweeping differences under the rug, which inevitably resurface later with greater virulence).
So, like motherhood and apple pie, Evidence-Based Decision-Making is a great idea. But what evidence, according to whose interpretation, arrived at how, in what context, assessed through what decision-making process,and including whom?
The devil, as always, is in the details.
CollapsniksAlbert Bates (US)
Andrew Nikiforuk (CA)
Carolyn Baker (US)*
Catherine Ingram (US)
Chris Hedges (US)
Dahr Jamail (US)
Dean Spillane-Walker (US)*
Derrick Jensen (US)
Dougald & Paul (IE/SE)*
Gail Tverberg (US)
Guy McPherson (US)
Janaia & Robin (US)*
Jem Bendell (UK)
Michael Dowd (US)*
Nate Hagens (US)
Paul Heft (US)*
Post Carbon Inst. (US)
Richard Heinberg (US)
Robert Jensen (US)
Roy Scranton (US)
Sam Mitchell (US)
Tim Watkins (UK)
Umair Haque (UK)
William Rees (CA)
Archive by Category
My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2023)
--- My Best 200 Posts, 2003-22 by category, from newest to oldest ---
Hope — On the Balance of Probabilities
The Caste War for the Dregs
Recuperation, Accommodation, Resilience
How Do We Teach the Critical Skills
Collapse Not Apocalypse
'Making Sense of the World' Reading List
Notes From the Rising Dark
What is Exponential Decay
Collapse: Slowly Then Suddenly
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Making Sense of Who We Are
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Requiem for a Species
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
If We Had a Better Story...
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Hard Part is Finding People Who Care
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
A Short History of Progress
The Boiling Frog
Our Culture / Ourselves:
A CoVid-19 Recap
What It Means to be Human
A Culture Built on Wrong Models
Our Unique Capacity for Hatred
Not Meant to Govern Each Other
The Humanist Trap
Amazing What People Get Used To
My Reluctant Misanthropy
The Dawn of Everything
Why Misinformation Doesn't Work
The Lab-Leak Hypothesis
The Right to Die
CoVid-19: Go for Zero
The Process of Self-Organization
The Tragic Spread of Misinformation
A Better Way to Work
The Needs of the Moment
Ask Yourself This
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
May I Ask a Question?
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
Learning From Nature
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
Making Sense of Scents
An Age of Wonder
The Truth About Ukraine
The Supply Chain Problem
The Promise of Dialogue
Too Dumb to Take Care of Ourselves
Republicans Slide Into Fascism
All the Things I Was Wrong About
Several Short Sentences About Sharks
How Change Happens
What's the Best Possible Outcome?
The Perpetual Growth Machine
We Make Zero
How Long We've Been Around (graphic)
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
Loren Eiseley, in Verse
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self, and Free Will:
No Free Will, No Freedom
The Other Side of 'No Me'
This Body Takes Me For a Walk
The Only One Who Really Knew Me
No Free Will — Fightin' Words
The Paradox of the Self
A Radical Non-Duality FAQ
What We Think We Know
Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark
Healing From Ourselves
The Entanglement Hypothesis
Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
How Our Bodies Sense the World
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
Mindful Wanderings (Reflections) (Archive)
A Prayer to No One
Frogs' Hollow (Short Story)
We Do What We Do (Poem)
Negative Assertions (Poem)
Reminder (Short Story)
A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
Under No Illusions (Short Story)
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
My Other Sites
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons License.