Author Archive: Erich Vieth
Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.
This past weekend, I was discussing the nature of explanations with some relatives. I argued that to explain anything completely, one would have to explain absolutely everything, given the need for context in a complete explanation and given the inter-connectedness of all that we know. Many explanations falling short of explaining everything work, at least on a local level, because on a local/pragmatic level an explanation is merely a description that makes us feel good.
Today, I came across a quote by Carl Sagan that relates to the above:
As Christopher Hedges has written, war is exciting and carries its own meaning, regardless of the flimsy excuses that politicians bandy about.
The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those who have the least meaning in their lives, the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of young who live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war’s appeal.
I’ve previously written about the power of how we frame war; how is it that human slaughter can be seen as glamorous? Oscar Wilde also touches on this issue of how we frame war:
As long as we uncritically bandy about horribly vague phrases like “Support the Troops,” we will not expose America’s needless wars for what they are.
Glenn Greenwald’s advice to independent journalists: Ruffle feathers and “develop true expertise on a finite number of subjects.” Glenn Greenwald took time to do a walk and talk interview with Luke Rudkowski. The two discussed the next 4 years with Obama, the lack of criticism of the Obama and journalism tips.
At Edge.org, Thomas W. Malone explains that in order to have a smart group of people you need more than a bunch of smart individuals.
We thought that there might be such a factor, but that it would really just be essentially the intelligence of the individual people in the group. What we found was that the average and the maximum intelligence of the individual group members was correlated, but only moderately correlated, with the collective intelligence of the group as a whole.
If it’s not just putting a bunch of smart people in a group that makes the group smart, what is it? . . . . [T]hree factors . . . were significantly correlated with the collective intelligence of the group.
The first was the average social perceptiveness of the group members. We measured social perceptiveness in this case using a test developed essentially to measure autism. It’s called the “Reading the Mind and the Eyes Test”. It works by letting people look at pictures of other people’s eyes and try to guess what emotions those people are feeling. People who are good at that work well in groups. When you have a group with a bunch of people like that, the group as a whole is more intelligent.
The second factor we found was the evenness of conversational turn taking. In other words, groups where one person dominated the conversation were, on average, less intelligent than groups where the speaking was more evenly distributed among the different group members.
Finally, and most surprisingly to us, we found that the collective intelligence of the group was significantly correlated with the percentage of women in the group. More women were correlated with a more intelligent group. Interestingly, this last result is not just a diversity result. It’s not just saying that you need groups with some men and some women. It looks like that it’s a more or less linear trend. That is, more women are better all the way up to all women. It is also important to realize that this gender effect is largely statistically mediated by the social perceptiveness effect. In other words, it was known before we did our work that women on average scored higher on this measure of social perceptiveness than men.
. . . The most intelligent person is not the one who’s best at doing any specific task, but it’s the one who’s best at picking up new things quickly. That’s essentially the definition we used for defining intelligence at the level of groups as well. We said that a group is intelligent if it’s able to perform well on a wide range of different tasks. It was actually performance that we were looking at.
When I read Malone’s comment about the importance of social perceptiveness, I thought about many of the unproductive groups of which I’ve been a part. Quite often there are a couple people who dominate the talking, people who lack this perceptiveness. The result is that a lot of the quieter folks, many of them with heads full of ideas, never get a chance to talk.
Why is Malone focused on group intelligence?
[W]e want to understand how the world works, and in particular, how the world of groups of people and computers work together. How human societies and human networks work. Second, we want to help businesses, governments and other kinds of organizations know how to work better themselves. How can we create more intelligent organizations, more intelligent businesses, more intelligent governments, more intelligent societies? . . . [W]e are trying to understand how our whole world and society is evolving in a way that I think is making us more collectively intelligent.
Now I suspect that I’m about to over-extend Malone’s findings, but I do suspect that the national conversations we have are subject to these principles too. Two things that we sorely lack when “discussing” national issues as a nation are social perceptiveness and turn taking. What we actually have are a few loud-mouthed players, enabled by big money. They run roughshod over most of us, and they use their wealth to hog the national media. When this happens, it doesn’t matter that there are lots of smart people in this country, because they aren’t getting an opportunity to function as part of a group. As Amy Goodman often says, national conversations should occur at the equivalent of a big table, with all of us having a seat at the table. Throw in the relative lack of women’s voices in that conversation, and we are far from that ideal, for the reasons pointed out by Malone.