When it comes to getting the smartest output from a group, diversity trumps ability. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Having too many clever men around Ed Miliband is making the Labour Party stupider

The Labour leader is surrounded by brainboxes, but they’re all clever in the same way – their lack of diversity makes the whole group stupider.

The Guardian recently reported on just how narrow a church the Labour Party has become. Most of its candidates for key seats are Westminster insiders, the alumni of think tanks, political consultancies, and MP’s offices. A party that once drew its political talent from across society is now dominated by Ollies.

Commentary on this finding has focused, understandably, on the widening gap between our governing class and the people they rule. But there’s another reason to regret it: it’s making the Labour Party stupider.

This is somewhat counter-intuitive. Ollie and his peers may be the spawn of a small social gene pool, but few would accuse them of being dim. Quite the opposite: a typical career path might include a degree from Cambridge, perhaps taking in a year at Harvard, then a job at a think tank, writing fiendishly complex papers on welfare reform and advising the government of Latvia on transport policy. These are brainboxes, not dunces.

But to assume that a lot of clever people adds up to a clever group is to neglect a phenomenon well established by social scientists: the more similar the members of a group think, the lower the group’s collective intelligence.

This is known as the principle of “cognitive diversity”, and it is a key and sometimes neglected precondition of “the wisdom of crowds”. Collective wisdom isn’t a mere property of numbers; it arises out of the fizz and clash of different mindsets. A group of averagely intelligent people who think differently from each other will be cleverer than a group of highly intelligent people who think the same. Diversity trumps ability.

Whether it’s in political parties, juries, or boardrooms, groups of humans tend to make better decisions, and to be better at solving problems, when composed of individuals who see the world differently from each other. An engineer will approach the same problem very differently from a businesswoman or an artist. All of them may come up with good but limited or partial answers. But when their different and conflicting perspectives are brought together, the right solution is more likely to be discovered.

In his book The Difference, Scott Page, from the University of Michigan, explains that different people deploy different “cognitive toolboxes”: skills, rules of thumb, mental models. The greater the variety of toolboxes, the more tools are brought to bear on the problem at hand, and the more likely it is that a good answer will be found.

The political scientist Hélène Landemore, of Yale University, argues brilliantly in her book Democratic Reason that a democracy will usually reason its way towards good decisions, not despite, but because of the fact that its citizens have very different levels of education and information. In her view, democracy is not just fairer than other systems of governance, but smarter, because it harnesses the power of cognitive diversity to scale.

Assemble a bunch of brainy people who all think the same and you are as likely to generate groupthink as insight. The first major collective decision of the famously clever minds surrounding President Kennedy resulted in a botched invasion of Cuba. The journalist David Halberstam said of the group which led America deeper into Vietnam: “They were brilliant, and they were fools.”

Cognitive diversity shouldn’t be confused with cultural diversity, which is related but not the same. Looked at on the basis of gender and ethnicity, Labour has recruited an impressive mix of candidates. But if they all think the same way they won’t help the party make better decisions. (Of course, cultural diversity is important for other reasons.)

Conversely, the people gathered at Bletchley Park during World War II did not exactly constitute a rainbow of gender and ethnic identities. But they did think differently: they included mathematicians, linguists and classical scholars. Between them, they cracked a pretty tough problem.

The benefits of cognitive diversity apply with special force to the smaller group surrounding a political leader. In his memoir, A Journey, Tony Blair describes what it was like to have Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson at his side. Campbell was brassy, aggressive and direct, while Mandelson was calculating and subtle.

They were difficult to manage, because they rarely agreed and often fought, and a leader in search of a more harmonious team might have dropped one or the other. But that would have been foolish, for “in tandem they were as formidable a political force as can be imagined”. In a deliciously vivid metaphor, Blair imagines them breaking into a fortress:

Peter would slip into the castle through a secret passageway and, by nimble footwork and sharp and incisive thrusts of the rapier, cleave his way through to the throne room. Meanwhile, Alastair would be a very large oak battering ram destroying the castle gates, and neither boiling pitch nor reinforced doors would keep him out.

Blair’s inner circle, which also included characters like Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Anji Hunter and Robin Cook, was highly fractious. But there is no doubt that it was cognitively diverse, and his leadership the stronger for it.

Today, neither of the main party leaders cultivate cognitive diversity in their teams. Cameron generally prefers the company of people who think and talk like him, while Ed Miliband, a clever and reasonable man, and a political insider to his core, surrounds himself with clever and reasonable political insiders. Both leaders are blessed with teams that like each other and eschew infighting. But a happy team isn’t necessarily a winning team.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Ollie. It’s just that his talents need to be combined with those of people whose idea of hell is a think tank seminar. He and Malcolm Tucker make each other smarter.

Ian Leslie is the author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (Quercus, £10.99)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

GETTY
Show Hide image

North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.