My reactions to the small contremps about the private email list Ezra Klein runs as been vague amusement (gosh, aren’t I even lefty enough to join?) mixed with concern. Driving around today, I managed to think through the concern and wanted to try and put it into words to see how robust it really might be.
I think the first concern is the notion that checks and balances are being violated; the auditors are hanging out and sharing notes with the accounting department. And while that always happens some, when it happens in secret people get rightly concerned.
Policy folks are supposed to have their homework checked by journalists, who are in turn supposed to have their homework checked by bloggers. Each entity (the insiders, the critics, and the public) needs the other, and each should be acting to validate and check the work of the policymakers, who are the ones who pass laws enforced by people with guns.
When they are doing their homework together in secret, it raises a bunch of concerns. The first is groupthink.
Here’s a useful Google search result on groupthink:
[From] Janis, I. L. & Mann, L. (1977). Decision making: A psychological analysis of conflict, choice, and commitment.
Eight Main Symptoms of Group Think
- Illusion of Invulnerability: Members ignore obvious danger, take extreme risk, and are overly optimistic.
- Collective Rationalization: Members discredit and explain away warning contrary to group thinking.
- Illusion of Morality: Members believe their decisions are morally correct, ignoring the ethical consequences of their decisions.
- Excessive Stereotyping:The group constructs negative stereotypes of rivals outside the group.
- Pressure for Conformity: Members pressure any in the group who express arguments against the group’s stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, viewing such opposition as disloyalty.
- Self-Censorship: Members withhold their dissenting views and counter-arguments.
- Illusion of Unanimity: Members perceive falsely that everyone agrees with the group’s decision; silence is seen as consent.
- Mindguards: Some members appoint themselves to the role of protecting the group from adverse information that might threaten group complacency.
Groupthink is dangerous; it’s dangerous to the group itself as it’s credibility becomes questioned (will you read a liberal blogger or a journalist again soon without wondering if they are a member? Will you scan across multiple authors looking for commonalities, like Tom McGuire just did, and flag the points where there is remarkable consensus?
Digg, the community news aggregator and ranker has been struggling lately as news has come out about people paid to game it’s system, and it’s domination by cliques of high-mojo voters. Recently they made changes to make gaming harder – but they are still dominated by cliques:
Recent changes and restrictions made by Digg.com to encourage diversity in the range of users whose submissions reach the front page have had 2 profound results. Newer and less active users have seen their stories reach the front page, but the sources that are able to hit the front page have tightened.
Despite tens of thousands of submissions every week, the last seven days have shown that 46.6% of the Digg front page comes from 50 websites, according to data accumulated on di66.net.
Why is that a problem?? Because it puts Digg’s brand at risk:
Digg grew as a source for cutting edge, hard to find pieces of content, but over the years has shifted to the safety of “going with what works”. New sites are finding stronger exposure from social media websites like Reddit, StumbleUpon, and even Twitter where the strength of the content is a more important factor than the strength of the domain name.
How much damage will JournoList do to the brands of the writers involved? How much less seriously will we take what DeLong says because it is said – at lest in part – in defense of his position in the closed society of JournaList??
And finally how much damage will they do to American politics?
The quinntessial modern story of the damage of groupthink was the space shuttle Columbia disaster. The protective heat shield on the shuttle was damaged on liftoff, and while the astronauts went about their science mission in orbit, there was a brief flurry of debate on among engineers the ground about whether there was a problem or not. The flurry was brief, because it was immediately shut down.
Nonetheless, over the years foam strikes had come to be seen within NASA as an “in-family” problem, so familiar that even the most serious episodes seemed unthreatening and mundane. Douglas Osheroff, a normally good-humored Stanford physicist and Nobel laureate who joined the caib late, went around for months in a state of incredulity and dismay at what he was learning about NASA’s operational logic. He told me that the shuttle managers acted as if they thought the frequency of the foam strikes had somehow reduced the danger that the impacts posed. His point was not that the managers really believed this but that after more than a hundred successful flights they had come blithely to accept the risk. He said, “The excitement that only exists when there is danger was kind of gone – even though the danger was not gone.” And frankly, organizational and bureaucratic concerns weighed more heavily on the managers’ minds. The most pressing of those concerns were the new performance goals imposed by Sean O’Keefe, and a tight sequence of flights leading up to a drop-dead date of February 19, 2004, for the completion of the International Space Station’s “core.” O’Keefe had made it clear that meeting this deadline was a test, and that the very future of NASA’s human space-flight program was on the line.
It was at the end of a report given by a mid-ranking engineer named Don McCormack, who summarized the progress of an ad hoc engineering group, called the Debris Assessment Team, that had been formed at a still lower level to analyze the foam strike. The analysis was being done primarily by Boeing engineers, who had dusted off the soon to be notorious Crater model, primarily to predict damage to the underwing tile. McCormack reported that little was yet resolved, that the quality of the Crater as a predictor was being judged against the known damage on earlier flights, and that some work was being done to explore the options should the analysis conclude that the Columbia had been badly wounded. After a brief exchange Ham cut him short, saying, “And I’m really … I don’t think there is much we can do, so it’s not really a factor during the flight, since there is not much we can do about it.” She was making assumptions, of course, and they were later proved to be completely wrong, but primarily she was just being efficient, and moving the meeting along. After the accident, when the transcript and audiotapes emerged, those words were taken out of context, and used to portray Ham as a villainous and almost inhumanly callous person, which she certainly was not. In fact, she was married to an astronaut, and was as concerned as anyone about the safety of the shuttle crews. This was a dangerous business, and she knew it all too well. But like her boss, Ron Dittemore, with whom she discussed the Columbia foam strike several times, she was so immersed in the closed world of shuttle management that she simply did not elevate the event – this “in-family” thing – to the level of concerns requiring action. She was intellectually arrogant, perhaps, and as a manager she failed abysmally. But neither she nor the others of her rank had the slightest suspicion that the Columbia might actually go down.
The frustration is that some people on lower levels were actively worried about that possibility, and they understood clearly that not enough was known about the effects of the foam strike on the wing, but they expressed their concerns mostly to one another, and for good reason, because on the few occasions when they tried to alert the decision-makers, NASA’s management system overwhelmed them and allowed none of them to be heard. The question now, of course, is why.
To be somewhat melodramatic here, our Republic depends on the open argument and checks and balances among branches of government and the media as much as the lives of the Columbia astronauts depended on open discussion and frank consideration among the NASA team responsible for decisions.
The editors of the papers and new programs where the journalists involved in this work should be all over it. While the policy folks get a free ride from it, and the paid and amateur bloggers get a seat closer to the grown-up’s table, the journalist involved continue to bleed away the credibility the paid media need so very badly.
The members of the list continue to reassure us that their judgment woun’t be clouded, that the list is a place for free and open debate, that their ideas remain their own. Well, politicians who take bribes assert that they voted as they saw it, regardless of who gave them money. We should “trust their integrity”.
No we shouldn’t, and no we don’t.