Friday, December 16, 2011

The Vital Antecedent

Continuing the theme of the objective gathering and interpretation of data concerned with human nature, there is a story this morning on the BBC News Web site relating the recent publication of some fascinating results from Princeton:

Uninformed individuals are vital for achieving a democratic consensus, according to a study in the journal Science.

The researchers say that they dilute the influence of minority factions who would otherwise dominate everyone else.

This is because they tend to side with and embolden the numerical majority.

The findings challenge the commonly held idea that an outspoken minority can manipulate uncommitted voters.

"We show that when the uninformed participate, the group can come to a majority decision even in the face of a powerful minority," said lead author Iain Couzin, from Princeton University.

"They prevent deadlock and fragmentation because the strength of an opinion no longer matters - it comes down to numbers. You can imagine this being a good or bad thing.

"Either way, a certain number of uninformed individuals keep that minority from dictating or complicating the behaviour of the group."

Having not yet read the full article, I am not in a position to dispute Couzin’s findings;  but I think it is important to emphasize the significance of the antecedent in the first sentence of his quoted remarks.  The problem is not a question of how the uninformed vote but of whether they vote at all.

Among those countries that govern on the basis of democratic elections, voter turnout in the United States has a reputation for being pathetically low, if not the lowest of the sample set.  This sets the proper context for the observations of Donald Saari, Professor of Mathematics and Economics and the University of California at Irvine, towards the end of the BBC piece.  Saari sees an arc progressing from minority domination to pluralism to a “noisy” electoral process;  and such an arc makes perfect sense in the absence of any “force of stabilizing inertia,” which is basically how Couzin sees uninformed voters.

Ironically, the need for such stabilizing inertia was made painfully apparent by another BBC News report this morning.  This one concerns the small group that calls itself the “Florida Family Association;”  but the name is a cover for a virulent anti-Muslim agenda.  While this group has been good at distancing itself from Klan-like acts of violence, such as the burning of a mosque in Jacksonville in May of 2010, the BBC report makes it clear that they are doing a good job of making their voice heard, no matter how small their numbers may be.  I suspect that a lot of political eyes are now on Florida to see just how effective that voice will be in the coming year of our next Presidential election.

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