March 19, 2017 » 3:08 pm

The Not-So-Mystifying Power of Groupthink and Habits

My friend, Greg, recently sent me this excellent and troubling Nate Silver article, “There Really Was A Liberal Media Bubble,” on the 2016 presidential election. Silver references James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds and suggests that political journalists fail the first three of Surowiecki’s four conditions for wise crowds.

  1. Diversity of opinion (fail)
  2. Independence (fail)
  3. Decentralization (fail)
  4. Aggregation (succeed)

Many of Silver’s points hit very close to home, not just because I believe very strongly in the importance of a strong, independent media, but because improving our collective wisdom is my business, and many fields I work with — including my own — suffer from these exact same problems.

On diversity, for example, Silver points out that newsrooms are not only not diverse along race, gender, or political lines, but in how people think:

Although it’s harder to measure, I’d also argue that there’s a lack of diversity when it comes to skill sets and methods of thinking in political journalism. Publications such as Buzzfeed or (the now defunct) get a lot of shade from traditional journalists when they do things that challenge conventional journalistic paradigms. But a lot of traditional journalistic practices are done by rote or out of habit, such as routinely granting anonymity to staffers to discuss campaign strategy even when there isn’t much journalistic merit in it. Meanwhile, speaking from personal experience, I’ve found the reception of “data journalists” by traditional journalists to be unfriendly, although there have been exceptions.

On independence, Silver describes how the way journalism is practiced — particularly in this social media age — ends up acting as a massive echo chamber:

Crowds can be wise when people do a lot of thinking for themselves before coming together to exchange their views. But since at least the days of “The Boys on the Bus,” political journalism has suffered from a pack mentality. Events such as conventions and debates literally gather thousands of journalists together in the same room; attend one of these events, and you can almost smell the conventional wisdom being manufactured in real time. (Consider how a consensus formed that Romney won the first debate in 2012 when it had barely even started, for instance.) Social media — Twitter in particular — can amplify these information cascades, with a single tweet receiving hundreds of thousands of impressions and shaping the way entire issues are framed. As a result, it can be largely arbitrary which storylines gain traction and which ones don’t. What seems like a multiplicity of perspectives might just be one or two, duplicated many times over.

Of the three conditions where political journalism falls short, Silver thinks that independence may be the best starting point for improvement:

In some ways the best hope for a short-term fix might come from an attitudinal adjustment: Journalists should recalibrate themselves to be more skeptical of the consensus of their peers. That’s because a position that seems to have deep backing from the evidence may really just be a reflection from the echo chamber. You should be looking toward how much evidence there is for a particular position as opposed to how many people hold that position: Having 20 independent pieces of evidence that mostly point in the same direction might indeed reflect a powerful consensus, while having 20 like-minded people citing the same warmed-over evidence is much less powerful. Obviously this can be taken too far and in most fields, it’s foolish (and annoying) to constantly doubt the market or consensus view. But in a case like politics where the conventional wisdom can congeal so quickly — and yet has so often been wrong — a certain amount of contrarianism can go a long way.

Maybe he’s right. All I know is that “attitudinal adjustments” — shifting mindsets — is really hard. I was reminded of this by this article about Paul DePodesta and the ongoing challenge to get professional sports teams to take data seriously.

Basis of what DePodesta and Browns are attempting not new. Majority of NFL teams begrudgingly use analytics without fully embracing concept. Besides scouting and drafting, teams employ analytics to weigh trades, allot practice time, call plays (example: evolving mindset regarding fourth downs) and manage clock. What will differentiate DePodesta and Cleveland is extent to which Browns use data science to influence decision-making. DePodesta would like decisions to be informed by 60 percent data, 40 percent scouting. Present-day NFL is more 70 percent scouting and 30 percent data. DePodesta won’t just ponder scouts’ performance but question their very existence. Will likewise flip burden of proof on all football processes, models and systems. Objective data regarding, say, a player’s size and his performance metrics — example: Defensive ends must have arm length of at least 33 inches — will dictate decision-making. Football staff will then have to produce overwhelming subjective argument to overrule or disprove analytics. “It’s usually the other way around,” states member of AFC team’s analytics staff.

On the one hand, it’s incredible that this is still an issue in professional sports, 14 years after Moneyball was first published and several championships were won by analytics-driven franchises (including two “cursed” franchises, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, both led by data nerd Theo Epstein).

On the other hand, it’s a vivid reminder of how hard habits and groupthink are to break, even in a field where the incentives to be smarter than everyone else come in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars. If it’s this hard to shift mindsets in professional sports, I don’t even want to imagine how long it might take in journalism. It’s definitely helping me recalibrate my perspective about the mindsets I’m trying to shift in my own field.

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