The power of the hive mind

When are groups better than individuals at solving problems? When is collective intelligence better than individual intelligence? It’s a question that has long interested me, partly because of personal experience. Some group and committee work has been stimulating and fruitful (for example, being a member of Competition Commission inquiry groups), some dull and producing only group-think. I had a hunch that bringing together people from different professional disciplines and walks of life was a positive (even if only economists, lawyers, accountants, business executive), when they shared a common goal. This seemed to be confirmed by a marvellous book,

, by Scott Page, about the importance of diversity for good decision-making.

I’ve just been reading another interesting book, this time about the broader collective intelligence enabled by the internet. It’s

by Michael Nielsen, a quantum computing pioneer. He too notes the power of people pooling their information and perspectives, with the internet as a driver of networked discovery (although another factor must be just that as the body of discovery grows ever-larger, the proportion that can be known by any individual grows ever-smaller).

The book is focused on science rather than business or economics, and in particular on the tension between the genuine collaboration taking place in a few scientific projects (one example is Galaxy Zoo, exploring the universe using volunteers, and the Polymath Project) and the career and financial imperatives on scientists to keep their results secret. His frustration at the scientific community’s failure to take advantage of the massive potential offered by collaboration via the internet leaps off the page. He writes:

“Network science is being strongly inhibited by a closed scientific culture that chiefly values contributions in the form of scientific papers. Knowledge shared in non-standard media isn’t valued by scientists regardless of its intrinsic value, and so scientists are reluctant to work in such media.” (p182)

He also flags up in passing the issue about the frequent imperative either to commercialize results or to keep them secret for the benefit of commercial funders.

The situation in economics is different in interesting ways. Promotion in the university system still hinges on publishing papers in the right journals. But economists have lots of other job prospects, or additional income from consulting if they are academics, so their external reputation is important as well as their academic status. This is perhaps why an active part of the discussion about economic research takes place online, thanks to its now-standard publication as a working paper before formal publication in a journal, and also via blogs. What’s more, non-academics can take part in a debate about economics (or other social sciences or the humanities), whereas university-based science is too hard for most non-academics. This suggests that changing university career structures will be important for opening up science – incentives really matter. Both the sciences and economics would benefit from ‘official’ acknowledgement in promotion structures of a wider range of journals and other evidence of success (including teaching!).

Nielsen hopes to achieve his “goal of lighting an almighty fire under the scientific community.” I hope he succeeds. A lot of the scientists I know would share his strong commitment to open access research. Moreover, big science is funded by taxpayers. While governments do want to see some research deliver new businesses and economic growth, and therefore the intellectual property tightly held, they will surely want the rest – certainly the basic science – made widely available. His book is well worth a read by anyone interested in these important issues of openness – which the internet is forcing to the top of the agenda in many domains – and diversity.

[amazon_image id=”0691148902″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science[/amazon_image]

Here are some other reviews – Scientific American blog, THES, The Financial Times.


2 thoughts on “The power of the hive mind

  1. As much as I like the idea of “changing university career structures” to open up economics to a wider audience, I fear that cutting edge research would suffer from that. Whenever researchers explain their work to the public, they spend less time on improving their projects ahead.

    However, many people do great in explaining current economic research to an interested audience.

    • Hi Lars, I wasn’t thinking of incentives to communicate with the wider audience so much as incentives to do research in a more open way (including a wider array of journals on the ‘approved’ list) and incentives to teach. Besides, as I said, economics already seems a more open discussion than the natural sciences, judging from Nielsen’s book. We will always need popularisers in their own category (thank goodness!)

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