Journalists and the perils of the over-optimistic herd

The international affairs scholar Walter Laqueur (left) has been asking himself why so many commentators – who might in his view have known better – were proved wrong in assuming that the Egyptian revolutionaries of Tahrir Square would usher in age in Arab countries of democratic tolerance and European rights. Whether or not you accept his view of Egypt, his speculation about why these mistake are made has something interesting to say about crowdsourcing and collective judgement.

Laqueur begins by going back to another glaring example of over-optimism (which happens to have long fascinated me): inflating the prospects for the integration of Europe and the imminent triumph of the continent’s superior economic and social model. He gives a few examples of overblown hyperbole about how the 21st century would be Europe’s era and asks why the evidence that this might not happen was so often overlooked. This resonated with me since I’ve had experience in the past of trying to persuade American audiences that uniting Europe might not turn out to be as straightforward as many politicians in Europe claimed. I can still remember lecturing at a college in Vermont in 1989 (just weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall as it happened) and telling a sceptical-looking audience that the unification of Europe wasn’t going to be like assembling the united states in America. My audience looked very grumpy and disappointed.

Then Laqueur looks at rosy-eyed predictions about what future elections would bring in Egypt, noting that very few journalists reporting the revolution in Egypt went beyond Cairo (and some never beyond Tahrir Square). A trip outside the capital might have revealed that support for a secular revolution was very limited and that while there might be competition between different variations of Islamic politics, the new Egypt was going not going to be secular and more “western”. The odds, he says, were stacked against a tolerant, plural, secular outcome from the start.

I’m less interested in whether Laqueur’s Egyptian pessimism is correct than in the conclusions he draws about punditry:

“Classical decision theory (that people usually react rationally) seems often to lose out to desirability bias in our thinking about foreign affairs. In the case of Europe, it has meant underrating the power of nationalism and exaggerating the willingness to surrender sovereign rights as well as the general feeling of listlessness that has affected the continent. In the case of developments in the Arab world, it has meant mistaking the dissatisfaction with the status quo for an overwhelming embrace of the universalism of liberty and democracy—as Western observers interpreted the events they witnessed and ignored the strength of the Islamists and of nationalism itself.”

The instinct to be part of a crowd also clouds the judgement: writers think that it is “better to be mistaken in the right company than be prematurely right in the wrong company.”

Crowdsourcing new facts has been shown to be very effective, providing what’s pooled can be properly verified. But crowdsourcing judgements can easily be herd behaviour. A journalist in a crowd should always ask: do I really belong here?

 

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