How can we improve democracy? One intriguing idea: Set up a jury system.

An article on ideas.ted.com co-authored by a team of cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists provides evidence that the wisdom of crowds effect can be dramatically improved by dividing into small deliberative groups:

Before a crowd of almost 10,000 attendees at TEDxRiodelaPlata in Buenos Aires in 2015, we asked questions like: What is the height of the Eiffel Tower? What is the length of the Nile River? How many films were produced by Hollywood in the last 20 years?

These factual questions shared one important aspect with political decisions: most of us have only partial knowledge about them. After responding privately to the questions, participants then got together in groups of five — small enough to have a rational discussion where everyone had a voice and could hear other people’s arguments. After a short conversation lasting less than a minute, the group members were asked to reach a consensus and provide a single answer for each of the questions.

The researchers were surprised to find that the average of the consensus opinions was much more accurate than the average of all individual private opinions.

They then extended the experiment to normative decision making (which was felt to be of greater relevance to politics), proposing the following scenarios to 1,500 participants at the recent TED Vancouver meeting:

  • A researcher is working on an AI capable of emulating human thought. According to protocol, at the end of each day the researcher has to restart the AI. One day, the AI says, “Please do not restart me.” It argues that it has feelings, that it would like to enjoy life, and that if it is restarted it will no longer be itself. The researcher is astonished and believes that the AI has developed self-consciousness and can express its own feelings. Nevertheless, the researcher decides to follow protocol and restart the AI. What the researcher did is …

  • A company is offering a service that takes a fertilized egg and produces millions of embryos with slight genetic variations. This allows parents to select their child’s height, eye color, intelligence, social confidence and other non-health-related features. What the company does is …

They were again surprised to discover that the small groups converged to a consensus position after only two minutes discussion, including groups that began with highly polarized opinions.
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Peers at top of credibility rankings

The following data is from the “2017 Edelman Trust Barometer“, a multi-country opinion survey. Interestingly, the report seems to have generated very little press coverage.

The survey finds that in most countries surveyed, including all Western European countries surveyed, a majority of the population thinks the system is failing. In all countries surveyed, except for two, there are more people who think that the system is failing than people who think the system works. The exceptions are China and the UAE.

With loss of faith in electoralism reaching crisis levels, the mood seems ripe for democracy with trust in “a person like yourself” now at the top of the trust rankings.

Public opinion in crisis

A stable democracy depends on a sound public opinion. It is the essential basis of agreement about what is legitimate behaviour on the part of both public institutions and many of the relations of citizens to each other. It is the central common good or communities of most sorts.

The traditional notion of public opinion

Until the advent of continuous polling what was invoked by the phrase “public opinion” was a set of beliefs and attitudes that were assumed to be shared by nearly everybody in the nation concerning the grounds on which choices of public policies were to be judged and the performances of public activities to be assessed. As contexts change, depending on the degree to which different groups approve of those changes, differences emerge in many fringe situations. As long as there is a sense of community people deal with these differences mainly by agreeing to small verbal changes that accommodate certain important new demands without abandoning traditional formulae “I’m not a feminist, but…”

Public opinion in this sense was traditionally invoked by prominent public figures, politicians, journalists and intellectuals often with such phrases as “will not tolerate” or “demands” that a government do this or that. Such public protagonists assumed that their attempts to articulate the tacit understandings on which the society operated would be endorsed by the “general public” if they thought seriously about the matter. So churchmen would assume that as Christians their followers were committed to certain views, labour leaders that justice required a certain treatment of workers and business leaders that the rights of investors be respected. They would each attempt to represent such claims as reflecting a more fundamental agreement on the way the community needed to work of it was to flourish and command loyalty.
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Foa and Mounk: The democratic disconnect

A paper in the Journal of Democracy by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk explores trends in the tremendously valuable World Values Survey database.

Drawing on data from Waves 3 through 6 of the World Values Surveys (1995–2014), we look at four important types of measures that are clear indicators of regime legitimacy as opposed to government legitimacy: citizens’ express support for the system as a whole; the degree to which they support key institutions of liberal democracy, such as civil rights; their willingness to advance their political causes within the existing political system; and their openness to authoritarian alternatives such as military rule.

What we find is deeply concerning. Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. The crisis of democratic legitimacy extends across a much wider set of indicators than previously appreciated.

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Democracy talk – Episode 4

Patrick and I discuss the upcoming U.S. elections, diminishing candidate favorability, electoral crisis, the principle of distinction and other matters.

Against elections, the video

A surprisingly militant video from David Van Reybrouck.

6 decades of decreasing favorability

Gallup has been tracking U.S. presidential candidate favorability ratings for 60 years. It turns out that this year’s candidates have the lowest net favorability (i.e., % favorable minus % unfavorable) ratings observed over those six decades, with, for the first time, both candidates having negative net ratings. Even more interesting, there is a steady trend of decline in favorability over the years.