Cognitive democracy from crooked timber

by Carl Dyke

I’m sort of pleased with myself about this post’s title, because it’s about a draft article on “Cognitive Democracy” at Crooked Timber. The joke, which after all leads and animates that site, is Kant’s remark that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Yet the article is about using democracy to generate solutions to complex problems, i.e. straight things out of crooked timber. Consistent with their thesis they have asked for reader commentary on this draft, so I hereby suggest everyone reading here go on over and add your perspective to the mix.

For present purposes I’m struck by a point the authors, Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi, make about how democracy works / needs to work. They premise by arguing that democracy is superior to markets and hierarchies in locating best-possible solutions to complex problems, for two main reasons: 1.) democracy provides the framework for including the widest diversity of perspectives, thus better “exploring the space of possibilities” and guaranteeing against even experts’ individual or corporate tendencies to lock in on sub-optimal local solutions; and 2.) democracy levels distorting power relations so all perspectives are equally weighted. They also defend this liberal sort of democracy against a more utopian, in their view, virtuous general-will style republicanism by pointing out that there is no need to correct for narrow interests and confirmation bias on this account, since the whole point is to bring a diversity of such cognitive localisms to bear on the problem. People should be expected and even encouraged to give full vent to their partisanship, producing the best possible arguments for their position and letting the democratic process sort out the best possible solution. So far, so Federalist Papers if I remember my undergrad PoliSci aright.

Henry and Cosma argue that the critical mechanism of democratic process so constituted is ability and willingness to recognize and accept better arguments when we see them. They quote Mercier and Sperber (2011):

When one is alone or with people who hold similar views, one’s arguments will not be critically evaluated. This is when the confirmation bias is most likely to lead to poor outcomes. However, when reasoning is used in a more felicitous context, that is, in arguments among people who disagree but have a common interest in the truth, the confirmation bias contributes to an efficient form of division of cognitive labor. When a group has to solve a problem, it is much more efficient if each individual looks mostly for arguments supporting a given solution. They can then present these arguments to the group, to be tested by the other members. This method will work as long as people can be swayed by good arguments, and the results reviewed … show that this is generally the case. This joint dialogic approach is much more efficient than one where each individual on his or her own has to examine all possible solutions carefully (p. 65).

Ohhhhh, so we have to actually listen to each other, and maybe even modify our views accordingly. Dang. Lots to think about here.

Btw I must admit, like and perhaps unlike other fine scholars recently under discussion here at DV, that I have not finished reading the article, which strikes me about half-way through as a wonky think-piece dressed up with convenient citations. It’s not that I don’t agree with it or think it’s well done, it just seems to me like yet another optional rationalization of democracy, of which there are centuries-worth to choose from. It’s good enough to be your favorite and fits this context better than most, but I’m not sure it would convince a partisan of markets or hierarchy that democracy is the optimal solution yet. But Henry and Cosma are terrifically smart and may eventually (in this piece or later ones) get to something more compelling than the ‘some studies seem to show’ approach. I would very much like that, and will update in the comments accordingly as I continue reading, because I also prefer democracy and find it a little embarrassing that all I have is habits and rationalizations to account for this.

UPDATE: Cosma’s new post (also mentioned and quoted below in the comments), part of the Crooked Timber online seminar on Red Plenty, is an altogether more satisfying piece of analysis. The dynamic interpenetration of democracy, hierarchies and markets is fully in view here and the relative constraints and affordances of each in regimes perhaps inevitably far from optimization is directly thematized. How that earlier piece makes sense to Cosma given what he has to say here is not clear to me, and the disconnect has not so far been noted in the (otherwise mostly useful) commentary either. Maybe it’s ok to say things about Soviet planning and capitalist quasi-markets it’s not ok to say about our utopian dreamworlds, or maybe I’m just not smart enough to get the rhetoric of this project’s development. In any event, I confidently recommend this new post as not at all a waste of time.

7 Comments to “Cognitive democracy from crooked timber”

  1. Is there a reason your link goes to a book entitled “Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam”?

  2. Yikes! Fixed. That’s what I get for doing three things at once. Thanks for the catch, Puzzled!

  3. Well, the problem with rationalizations of democracy is that they’re all basically exercises in idealtypical masturbation. If this were the fourteenth century I’m sure we would all find Aquinas on law and rulership very satisfying and convincing.

  4. I didn’t read the whole thing yet, but it strikes me right away that it seems like a mistake to try and think of markets and the state as separate things.

  5. I didn’t read very carefully because the preachy Habermasianism started really getting to me. I think the main reason that the argument in the article “feels right” is that democracy never gets defined in the piece well enough to be anything more than a collection of civics-class platitudes, so nothing immediately jumps out as wrong. The comparison with markets and hierarchies doesn’t do enough work for them either–primarily because, as you say, there’s all kinds of interpenetration going on between those models, but also because I don’t think any of the people they’re arguing against see the three as mutually exclusive.

    These kinds of pieces remind me of discussions you run into on anarchist sites, where people are trying to imagine what kind of social system would work best in a stateless world. At a certain point most of these discussions stop being about serious questions and gradually veer off into adolescent world building (…and, and, there’ll be village elders to provide a symbolic locus for community traditions! and we’ll have potlatches instead of market exchange!)

  6. And a pony! But not just any pony, the BEST pony as determined by exhaustive dialogic deliberation!

    I worry sometimes that the attack reflexes drilled in by a lifetime of ‘critical thinking’ kick in too quick for me to properly appreciate things before I throw them on the bad pile. But those reflexes are also an essential defense against time sucking in a world overflowing with competing claimants for our scarce attention, especially if we’re trying to stay out of the silos and keep up with multidisciplinary developments. (Now that I’ve read more of the relevant intertext, I’m wondering if this is some of what was going on in the famous case recently under discussion.) Anyhoo it’s nice to have my snappy judgments confirmed.

    I do like about the piece that it sets up pragmatic problem-solving as the goal rather than ‘justice’ or some other fantasy-generating abstraction. I also like that Cosma in particular is fully immersed in the complexity agenda. The problem is that both those dimensions seem to be thin overlays on, as you say Greg, the usual Habermasian preaching. I’m also struck by the performative irony that this piece appears at Crooked Timber, where commenters with views outside a narrow liberal band are instantly jumped and uncomprehendingly beaten into dogmatic submission. I suppose this would be the partisanship phase of the process, but one wonders where the inter-ideological dialogue and deliberation is actually supposed to happen if not at a site that recommends this as the ideal.

  7. In contrast here’s Cosma from a different, dramatically better post, on the problems of constructing a socialist planned economy a la Soviet Union (context – the online seminar CT is doing on Red Plenty):

    There are many institutions which try to reconcile or adjust divergent values. This is a problem of social choice, and subject to all the usual pathologies and paradoxes of social choice. There is no universally satisfactory mechanism for making such choices. One could imagine democratic debate and voting over plans, but the sheer complexity of plans, once again, makes it very hard for members of the demos to make up their minds about competing plans, or how plans might be changed. Every citizen is put in the position of the solitary planner, except that they must listen to each other.

    Isn’t that refreshing? Where was that in all that other yay democracy gobbledygook?

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