Groupthink and the Wisdom of Crowds

Pollster Nate Silver wrote a series of analysis on the polling and data pertaining the recent election.  The most recent is There Really Was A Liberal Media Bubble:

The share of total exposure8 for the top five news sources9 climbed from roughly 25 percent a decade ago to around 35 percent last year, and has spiked to above 40 percent so far in 2017. While not a perfect measure10, this is one sign the digital age hasn’t necessarily democratized the news media. Instead, the most notable difference in Memeorandum sources between 2007 and 2017 is the decline of independent blogs; many of the most popular ones from the late ’aughts either folded or (like FiveThirtyEight) were bought by larger news organizations. Thus, blogs and local newspapers — two of the better checks on Northeast Corridor conventional wisdom run amok — have both had less of a say in the conversation.

All things considered, then, the conditions of political journalism are poor for crowd wisdom and ripe for groupthink. So … what to do about it, then?

Initiatives to increase decentralization would help, although they won’t necessarily be easy. Increased subscription revenues at newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post is an encouraging sign for journalism, but a revival of local and regional newspapers — or a more sustainable business model for independent blogs — would do more to reduce groupthink in the industry.

That leaves independence. 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.


An excellent read, and I encourage reading the other pieces he wrote analyzing the election.  This innate bias is more important than accuracy in forecasting elections; it is also key to the lack of confidence and respect of the larger media.

The Misleading and the Irrelevant

Wise investors learn to ignore the daily fluctuations and the daily stock market news. I am amused at the market reports at the end of the day explaining why the market went up or down.  It would have been much more useful to have divulged this insight before the market opened.

Our skills at analysis translates poorly into skills at prediction; we can see all the influencing factors that just occurred, but are blind to influences ahead of us.

This goes double for political news.  On the road, you quickly learn that for every ten minutes of new information there is another three hours of repetition and commentary. Most of these ground breaking, earth shattering, paradigm shifting stories end up becoming meaningless moments in the march of history. It is merely marketable noise feeding the co-dependent news junkies who use their outrage to project their self-worth to their bubble-mates.

Trying to get a handle on the political news and state of the union is a balance between the uninformed and the misinformed, between the misleading and the irrelevant.  It is time consuming to get complete information and usually not worth the effort because most of the stories pass quickly into the dustbin.

The number of news sources serves more to feed our bias than inform us. I confess than I enjoy reading some analysts and pundits who place the current stories in the context of larger ideas of history and economics. Otherwise I prefer the history books and biographies than bring a larger perspective. I would much rather read about the distinctions between the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt than how inappropriate Jeff Sessions’ meeting with the Russian ambassador was.

Our leaders trend to the pragmatism of electoral politics than the fundamentals of a successful democracy and economy.  When we ignore time honored principles in the selection of political solutions we end up creating the next problem rather than solving the last one.  These pragmatic solutions usually either add or institutionalize entitlements that become harder to remove.  The influence of the federal government expands though proxies into the local crevices of nonprofits, independent government contractors (oxymoron of the week), state and local government agencies, and tax dependents (home mortgage deductions).  Restoring sound principles into government that has created so many dependents will be very difficult, though we must still try.

We can tolerate several missteps of any elected official, if their governing principles remain sound, but the news is focused only on the missteps.

Gaslighting the Press

from Kevin Williamson at The National Review, The Press vs. the President

It is possible, if you are not mentally crippled, to hold your mind two non-exclusive ideas: Donald J. Trump stinks, and the press stinks. Trump’s spat with the press is a bloodless Iran–Iraq war, and I myself am cheering for (metaphorical) casualties. If you find yourself only able to focus on which party stinks worse, then you have adopted the pre-kindergarten “binary choice” rhetoric of the campaign, in which both Trump and Clinton supporters insisted that we must ignore the obvious character defects, financial shenanigans, lies, and foolishness of A or B on the theory that B or A is so much worse that we simply cannot acknowledge any shortcomings on the other side.

The tragedy of all this is that, yeah, we really could use an effective, active, and credible press right now. We have an active one five days out of the week, an effective one five days out of the month, and a credible one . . . not that often. My criticisms of Trump do not go so far as those who believe that he is a budding fascist dictator on the verge of building concentration camps, but if you really did believe that, wouldn’t you wish, at least a little, that the media hadn’t been exactly as hysterical when faced with the bland, anodyne visage of Mitt Romney? Or John McCain? You want to be taken seriously now after insisting that Dick Cheney was the new American Gestapo?

We deserve a better press, and a better president, too. If you are the sort of partisan who cannot entertain the possibility that both of these things may be true at the same time, then you ought to consider the possibility that you are one of the reasons why we do not have a better press or a better president.


The lack of confidence in the press came long before Trump, and is of their own making. This does not justify Trump’s alternative universe, but only highlights why we need a better press than we have. Rather than just express shock and outrage at Trump, perhaps they should self reflect how they lost the hearts of the voters. Just like the Democrats who can not see beyond Comey and Russian hacking for their loss, it is unlikely the media will recognize, much less pursue the change that will regain their credibility.

Trump is gaslighting the press, making them feel guilty for addressing his faults.

Cartoonish Hostility and Media Credibility

from Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist, 4 Recent Examples Show Why No One Trusts Media Coverage Of Trump

If the media can’t be trusted to fairly report on successful governors, genius Yale professors, or Martin Luther King III, they can’t be trusted to have the emotional distance, objective aims, respect, tolerance, journalistic skills, or sanity to cover Trump himself.

A strong media is required to hold politicians accountable and help preserve a functioning republic. Our media, who are swinging wildly from eight years of sycophancy into an era of cartoonish hostility, are in no position to hold anyone accountable. This is a crisis, and one that nearly everyone except those in the media establishment and the political movement they support seems to recognize.


An excellent but short list of media malfunctions.  Trump like every leader needs to be held accountable, but he has succeeded in holding them accountable as well. No one before him have ever attempted to do so.

An Illiberal Media

from Jonah Goldberg’s G-File at National Review

I agree with pretty much all of the right-wing criticism of the mainstream media these days, or at least the intelligent stuff, of which there has been plenty. What the MSM still fails to appreciate is the degree to which they’ve spent the last 40 years — at least — presenting news as unbiased and objective when it was in fact coated with, saturated in, and bent by all manner of confirmation biases, self-serving narratives, assumptions, and ideological priorities that leaned left. No, it wasn’t all “fake news” (man, am I exhausted by the ridiculous misuse of that term), at least not most of the time [insert outrage over Duranty’s Pulitzer, Janet Cooke’s and Steve Glass’s fabulations, and of course that time Dan Rather climbed the jackass tree only to hurl himself down, hitting every branch].

I would even go so far as to argue that most of the time liberal bias isn’t even deliberate. Maybe because I’ve been reading so much public-choice theory and psychology stuff of late, I tend to credit conspiracy theories less and groupthink more for the wayward state of the mainstream media (though Mark Hemingway makes a good point about Plowshares’ sub rosa complicity in pushing the Iran deal). Still, the more you get to know elite “objective” journalists, the more you can appreciate that they are trying to do it right. But it also becomes all the more obvious that they live in a social milieu where the borders between the Democratic party, liberal activism, and liberal experts are very, very fuzzy.

For instance, last week I wrote about that ridiculous article in the Washington Post accusing David Gelernter of being “anti-intellectual.” Much of the Post’s “reporting” hinged on a lengthy, catty quote from a member of the Union of Concern Scientists. As I noted, the Union of Concerned Scientists has always been a political operation. It’s a classic example of an outfit that liberal journalists invest with non-partisan authority so they can pass off partisan views as “science” or some other objective expertise.