Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Hélène Landemore's "Democratic Reason"

Hélène Landemore is assistant professor of political science at Yale University. She is the author of Hume: Probability and Reasonable Choice.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many, and reported the following:
On p. 99 I’m reaching the end of an example from the movie Twelve Angry Men that I use to illustrate the power of inclusive deliberation. If you remember, the jurors in the movie are deciding the case of a young Puerto Rican accused of murdering his father. Prior to the deliberation, all jurors minus one (juror number 8, played by Henry Fonda) are convinced that the kid is guilty. After all, there is an eye-witness and an impressive amount of evidence against him. By the end of the deliberative process, however, the jurors conclude, unanimously, that the kid should be acquitted. What has happened?

Here is how the first paragraph of p. 99 reads:
Deliberation also brought to the surface a fact that many in the group had noticed—the red marks on the sides of the nose of the witness—but did not know how to interpret or use. Deliberation provided the proper interpretation of that fact: that the witness wears glasses, is most likely nearsighted, and therefore her testimony cannot be trusted. Deliberation also allowed the group to weed out the good arguments from the bad. Once they reach the conclusion that the visual witness is nearsighted, the jurors ask themselves whether she was likely to be wearing her glasses while lying in bed. Even the most stubborn juror has to admit that the argument that she was not wearing her glasses is stronger than the argument that she was. Finally, deliberation in this example leads to a unanimous consensus on the “better” answer, namely the decision to consider the young convict “not guilty” given the doubts raised by deliberation.
Twelve Angry Men is often read as an illustration of the importance of dissident voices and as a celebration of the independently minded citizen who resists the conformism of the majority. My take is that dissent is just one part of the story. The other part is about the collective intelligence that emerges from the deliberative exchanges among these 12 jurors. The dissident juror, no matter how right his initial intuition was, would not have been able to save the day on his own. All 12 jurors mattered, in all their diversity, because it is only through the interplay between their various arguments and sometimes contradictory interpretations of the evidence--colored as those are by their personal history, socio-economic background, type of intelligence, etc., which contribute to shaping what I call “cognitive diversity”--that something like the truth can emerge and the right outcome come about. This happens despite the fact that, as is also the case in democratic debates, the protagonists are flawed human beings, neither very smart nor always properly motivated: one just wants to get done with it and go to a baseball game, one is a bigoted racist, one is biased by irrelevant fatherly emotions, etc.

Based on this argument about the properties of inclusive deliberation, the book makes the more general claim that democracy, understood as a collective decision-making procedure combining inclusive deliberation and majority rule, is “smarter” than less inclusive decision rules (i.e., dictatorship and oligarchy). When it comes to solving our collective problems, I argue, we are better off including all regular citizens in the decision-making process (or where unfeasible their accountable representatives) than having a small group of “experts” solve these problems for us.
Learn more about Democratic Reason at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue