TND Digest: 15 July 2014




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In Forget the Wisdom of Crowds, MIT Technology Review discusses how crowd wisdom can go astray when the overall group is affected by bias; this fault can be overcome by focusing on the opinion of the more independent thinkers in the group.  By separating a group of people into those who had demonstrated greater and lesser susceptibility to outside influence, neuroscientists are able to measure the extent to which bias can affect judgement. The more independent people were less affected by the bias, and their combined estimate was more accurate than that of the less independent.  So while it may be that the collective opinion of a group of people can be better than that of a single expert, the collective opinion of the independently minded is better still. Editor’s consideration: MIT Technology Review only goes so far as to consider the potential of the “wisdom of the confident”, but perhaps the more interesting question would be to ask how much more accurate a further sub-group – those who are both independent and informed. Confidence alone can hardly be sufficient as a basis for achieving good decisions as confident does not always mean correct, but it allows a truer diversity of thought than is available in the larger more susceptible group, and that at least seems to be an improvement. 


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In Our Bees, Ourselves, Mark Winston (for The New York Times) discusses the collapse of honey bee colonies around the world and how we can treat it as a learning experience by considering that the same could happen to us.  The collapse of bee populations around the world over the last ten years is thought to result from a combination of different detrimental factors. Pesticides that on their own are benign can prove highly toxic to bees’ immune systems when mixed with other chemicals. Aside from the importance of bees to the pollination of the crops that we rely on for food, we have yet to adequately research the synergistic effects of these chemicals on humans health.


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In A Cascade of Failures, Paul C. Light (for The Brookings Institution) discusses examples of government failures, how they happened, and what can be done about them.  Light considers 41 important government failures that took place between 2001 and 2014, and highlights a recent “cascade of failure”. From various incidences he pinpoints characteristics, and from those discerns five categories of why government failed: policy, resource, structure, leadership, and culture. Taking into account the nature of those categories he argues that certain considerations must be taken into account if governments are to avoid similar “cascades of failure” in the future.

In Progressives Turn from Obama to Embrace Warren, Robert Costa (for The Washington Post) discusses how Senator Warren is benefiting from the “trepidation” felt by many democrats for President Obama and Hilary Clinton. Warren has been traveling and appearing at rallies on behalf of Senate candidates in a number of different states over the last year. The absence of Obama and Clinton on the senate campaign trail leaves Warren with a prime opening to voice her displeasure with the coziness between Washington and Wall Street. Apparently what she has to say continues to be enthusiastically received.

In Germany and the United States: Unprecedented Breach, Immanuel Wallerstein (for Al Jazeera America) discusses how Washington’s recent breaches of Germany’s trust risks a fundamental shift in Germany’s geopolitical affiliations.  Wallerstein considers two recent op-eds on the Germany/US relationship and argues that while many blame the NSA and Obama for the breakdown in relations, the main culprit is the US’s inelegant response to its loss of geopolitical power.  The result is that Berlin is increasingly finding the US to be an unreliable partner and so finds itself considering the feasibility of further establishing itself within the EU while building a stronger relationship with Russia.

In The State of the State, John Mickelthwait and Adrian Wooldridge (for Foreign Affairs) discuss how we are in a transition time and it is not clear whether the result will draw more from western liberal democracy or from newer forms of authoritarian rule. While modern free market democratic systems were founded on economic philosophy that upheld the state as being fundamentally important, nowadays government is held in low regard. The importance of the state in the building of a successful society has not escaped Chinese leaders who have been avidly reading all of the Western political philosophy they can find. But western cynics should take comfort that government can change a lot, and has done over the centuries on the impetus of social need. The question now though is who is in the better position to shape the current revolution.

In The Quiet Movement to Make Government Fail Less Often, David Leonhardt (for The New York Times) argues that we are honing our ability to figure out what works and what doesn’t in the face of systemic government failure. The low opinion that Americans have of government is perfectly reasonable, but in the face of failures is at least one ray of light – the development of experiments in ascertaining the effectiveness of programs so that resources can be allocated more efficiently. The movement is towards a “pay for success” philosophy of allocation. Rigorous evaluations can provide fodder for opposition, but perhaps in this case that might be a good thing.


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In Why Do Chinese Students Know Know More About Money Than Americans?, Emily Richmond (for The Atlantic) discusses the poor showing US students made in the OECD’s PISA tests on financial literacy. The results are in keeping with US students’ relatively poor results in math and reading. China’s Shanghai province posted the best results at more than a hundred points above the mean scores of Europe and the US. There is a strong drive in the US to remedy this, and programs are being started in various states to educate children in financial literacy. The OECD’s report considers inferences that can be made from the results and that might be helpful in increasing literacy where it is weak, but first policymakers need to figure out what they want their 15 year olds to know.