Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Constructive competition

The theory that the US is more polarized than at anytime in the past is clearly false. I am even somewhat skeptical that the US is highly polarized. It appears to me that a tiny percentage of people at the far end of various spectrums are highly energized and emphasize, like the sneetches, their differences. For the great mass in the middle, the vector may or may not be important and, if important, they are open to evidence and resolution.

Whether I am correct or not about the generaly probity of most Americans other than those on the far fringes of emotional commitment, the following paper is an interesting contribution to the issue; The Wisdom of Polarized Crowds by Feng Shia, Misha Teplitskiyb, Eamon Duedec, and James A. Evans. The Abstract:
As political polarization in the United States continues to rise, the question of whether polarized individuals can fruitfully cooperate becomes pressing. Although diversity of individual perspectives typically leads to superior team performance on complex tasks, strong political perspectives have been associated with conflict, misinformation and a reluctance to engage with people and perspectives beyond one’s echo chamber. It is unclear whether self-selected teams of politically diverse individuals will create higher or lower quality outcomes. In this paper, we explore the effect of team political composition on performance through analysis of millions of edits to Wikipedia’s Political, Social Issues, and Science articles. We measure editors’ political alignments by their contributions to conservative versus liberal articles. A survey of editors validates that those who primarily edit liberal articles identify more strongly with the Democratic party and those who edit conservative ones with the Republican party. Our analysis then reveals that polarized teams—those consisting of a balanced set of politically diverse editors—create articles of higher quality than politically homogeneous teams. The effect appears most strongly in Wikipedia’s Political articles, but is also observed in Social Issues and even Science articles. Analysis of article “talk pages” reveals that politically polarized teams engage in longer, more constructive, competitive, and substantively focused but linguistically diverse debates than political moderates. More intense use of Wikipedia policies by politically diverse teams suggests institutional design principles to help unleash the power of politically polarized teams.
The finding seems entirely consistent with a classical world view - motivated but respectful competition between believers of different sorts leads to better quality outcomes.

What Wikipedia provides is a mechanism for exchanging opinions in structured way despite the passion of beliefs. Absent that mechanism (or of similar effect outside Wikipedia such as shared values or trust), polarization is indeed destructive and toxic. The problem seems not polarization per se; the problem seems to be a lack of respect for other views which precludes constructive competition.

That suggests, to me, that instead of bemoaning polarization, we ought to be finding ways to facilitate constructive competition.

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