Wisdom of the crowd
Join us in forecasting geopolitics.
Today’s Not in Dispatches is a special edition about geopolitics and crowds - but also a call for you to join our team in forecasting geopolitical events.
Bread and circuses.
Understanding crowds is essential to understanding politics.
In democratic systems, crowds elect governments and throw them out. But crowds can also cause democracy’s decay or even death. As the historian Will Durant put it, “the crowd so love flattery, it is so ‘hungry for honey’, that at last the wiliest and most unscrupulous flatterer, calling himself the ‘protector of the people’ rises to supreme power”.
Twentieth-century totalitarianism was enabled by crowds.
Fascists, Nazis and communists all came to power whipping up the emotions of crowds. But Hannah Arendt thought that “what prepares men for totalitarian domination” is not the crowd itself but when “the fact of loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience”.
A sobering thought given the “loneliness epidemic” reported in many Western democratic societies and the surplus of unscrupulous flatterers vying for the crowd’s attention, online and off.
Yet autocracies inherently abhor a crowd.
While crowds may peacefully bring autocrats to power, they can also violently remove them. Authoritarian states monitor crowds, limit their gatherings and fear the maidan (the Persian word for public square, most famous for its use in Ukraine). For some autocrats, like Vladimir Putin, fear of a local uprising not only drives them to turn the screws locally but also to support fellow autocrats and whip-up crowds in democratic adversaries - to create conditions for them to elect a like-minded “protector of the people”.
Crowds are often seen as mad.
They encourage a herd mentality. Individual morality can be forgotten in the throng. And collective courage can lead people to violence.
Bystanders can watch, tolerate and egg-on the typically intolerable. And in economics, investors fuelled by the “irrational exuberance” of envy, can go on buying sprees, driving up asset prices and causing bubbles - which eventually pop.
Two thousand heads are better than one.
But crowds can also be wise.
The Good Judgment Project, an endeavour in crowd-based forecasting based on a rich scientific literature pioneered by UPenn academic Philip Tetlock, has shown that a gathering of diverse people, given the right tools and conditions, can predict the unfolding of international events with a startling degree of accuracy.
And often much better than experts.
In one study, group forecasters were 30% more accurate in forecasting geopolitical events than intelligence analysts with access to classified information. Given the diversity of expert forecasts about geopolitics, it may be wiser to listen to those of a crowd.
And what better crowd to go to for advice than the readers of Geopolitical Dispatch?
Become a GD forecaster.
We’ve previously expressed some scepticism on so-called ‘superforecasting’ and in our own work generally find that structured analytic techniques and scenario planning to be more reliable tools in mapping an inherently unpredictable future.
Yet used judiciously, and using the smartest minds in the room, we think it can have a role in how we think about change and try to quantify the generally unquantifiable.
That is why we are starting today to include polls in our Saturday Not in Dispatches column. So that we can benefit from your judgement. And so that you (singular) can benefit from your (plural) wisdom.
Each email will include a question asking you to make predictions about geopolitical events. We will design the questions according to best practice on topics we think matter to business. We will keep the polls open for a week so that you can go in and change your answers should your views evolve. And then we will publish them the following week.
We encourage you not only to give your best guess but also to debate the question in the comments section. Not just because debate is fun, but because the academic literature shows that when groups of people debate geopolitical questions among themselves the predictive value of the collective answer increases.
In other words, the more readers answer, the better the results. The more readers debate, the better the result.
And so we would also encourage you to share this post with your networks - ideally posting on social media with the button below - to increase the size of the crowd and hence the accuracy of the geopolitical forecasts that you will exclusively receive.
Let’s start by forecasting some important questions about one of the most important topics in geopolitics today - the direction of US-China relations:
We hope you are enjoying Geopolitical Dispatch.
Michael, Cameron, Damien, Yuen Yi, Andrea, and Kim.