ignorance,  politics

Blair, crowds and Iraq

(I'm finding some old posts I didn't get around to finishing, so hence not as current as it could be).

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Suriowecki argues
that often the ‘dumb’ crowd makes smarter decisions than the informed experts. This has been taken to mean that the mob is always smart, which we know isn't true. But what is interesting to me is the reason why Suriowecki's examples work. I think it's because the crowd operates with less information, and there are times when this is actually beneficial (although usually one wants more information).

Let us take an important example in recent history – the decision to
invade Iraq.
In the UK
there was widespread opposition to the war. While the majority still backed the
war, a lot of this can be attributed to a kind of patriotic tick, the
opposition was almost unprecedented. On February 15th 2003, nearly a
million people marched in protest in London
, the
largest demonstration ever in the UK. Why were so many people opposed
to it? The interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan had not met with
anything like this level of opposition. It certainly wasn’t because the
protestors supported Saddam Hussein. And although it is impossible to ascertain
now, since those protestors will have the benefit of hindsight, my guess is
that if you had asked people on the day they wouldn’t have proposed the lack of
a proper plan for reconstruction as their main concern.

If we give Tony Blair and George Bush a generous
interpretation and take Blair’s word that he acted in the best interest of
the country, it is worth considering why the decision to go to war was made in
the face of such strong unpopularity. Regardless of what you may think of the
initial decision the war has proven to be a disaster from a political and
humanitarian perspective, and few would argue that it wasn’t a mistake now. So
on that day in February when the streets of London were packed with protestors, we might
imagine Tony Blair watching the events on television and asking himself the
question ‘yes, but what would they do if they had all the information I had?’
It turns out this was the wrong question to ask, and from Suriowecki’s
perspective what he should have asked himself is ‘what do they know that I

Blair had an excess of information, while the crowd,
deprived of all the intelligence reports he was privy to, had been forced to
see the salient features of the war, and had instinctively judged it to be
'wrong'. As I have said I don’t think many people would have articulated it as
such, but the features they picked up on were: the predetermination of the
invasion (ie that the US had decided to invade regardless of what the weapons
investigators found); that there was no strong evidence for weapons of mass
destruction (Hans Blix was being marginalised); the unseemly haste with which
the invasion seemed to be progressing; and that the justification for the war
seemed mixed (the moral argument for removing Hussein came later).

With these
pieces of evidence the crowd had, rightly as it turns out, made the judgement
that it was a bad war. But Blair was unable, or unwilling, to detect these main
features amongst all the other information he possessed. Even if he
acknowledged them, the presence of so much other intelligence made it difficult
to correctly prioritise them. In fact they turned out to be the key elements,
and were the reasons why the post-war reconstruction was so ill-judged. In
short, Blair suffered from a deficit of ignorance, which enabled the crowd,
lacking the vast quantity of (meaningless) intelligence to isolate the significant
factors in the build up to the war.

If you accept this argument (and there are an awful lot of other political factors which may mean you don't) then it raises the interesting question – 'is a little ignorance sometimes a good thing?'.



  • BlairSupporter

    A “little ignorance”?
    In matters of major decision-making, NO, never. In any case, the British press, the main distributors of this “ignorance” had an abundance of it. And Blair, the decision-maker, probably had enough of his own without being hammered for trying to cope with the theirs.
    There was ONE main reason some people (not the majority until much later when the insurgents upped the anti and daily massacred their own) the British press. On both sides, and for different reasons – anti-war peace lovers/anti-Blair Tories – the British press played on the reasons NOT to trust Blair. The “lies”, “toadying” etc were all fed into the British collective memory.
    In fact the press were wrong – as usual – and Blair was right.
    Iraq will be a beacon of democracy in the Middle East before we can say “book me a package holiday”. It has already turned the corner.
    When the press and public have limited, often distorted facts available, they play on those few points for all they’re worth. Then we forget the rest of the complexities of decision-making.
    Never trust your gut instincts in matters of war. Especially if you aren’t the one whose head is on the line.
    Politicians’ heads ARE. That’s why we elect them.

  • Guy

    Interesting argument. It’s counter-intuitive (we always assume we need to be as informed as possible before making decisions) even while it seems to be an argument in favour of intuition itself.
    Aside from this paradox(?), here are my two cents (open questions really):
    (1) We are already in, I think, an age of information overload. If we follow the “Wisdom of Crowds” argument, how are we ever going to be able to make decisions again? Selective ignorance? – but won’t that require information or understanding of a different kind? – to quote Thomas Pynchon: “Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person’s mental map. It has contours and coherence, and […] rules of operation as well. So as a corollary to […] what we know, maybe we should add getting familiar with our ignorance […]” Doesn’t the argument put an easily-accessible wealth of information (ie. The Internet) in a bad light? Are we losing sight of the bigger picture?
    (2) I was a teenager when the protests against the Iraq War were happening and I was a small part of the anti-war movement. I didn’t have much information – just bits and pieces I’d picked up from IndyMedia and the like – but I thought I could see certain parallels between it and other things which I didn’t trust. Now I’m a bit more aware of what’s going on (or so I like to think), and I don’t think those parallels necessarily hold true but I’m glad I went with my instinct. Yet people a generation or two older than me would say that I didn’t have life experience and therefore didn’t know what I was talking about… I don’t think my ideas when I was younger were wrong (far from it). Does experience bring with it an excess of information/associations so that things are no longer so clear?
    I’m not saying I agree with the argument, just that these are the kinds of questions that I see coming out of it. FWIW 🙂

  • Phil Greaney

    Thanks – this really got me thinking, especially as I am reading Surowiecki at the moment (along with Wikinomics and so on). I’ve responded with a blog post here: http://greaneynet.com/blogs/?p=200
    In short, I feel certain of the power of the crowd but I don’t think it should depend upon instinct, induction and I’m against the idea of the crowd as naively in touch with the truth.
    Anyway, have a look, be one of only three people to comment on my new blog (one of which is me!).
    See you – now, how about that book?

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