There are so many reasons to despair about human diversity. There’s Iraq, Kenya, the immigration debate, the research of Robert Putnam. It seems that, in tragic example after tragic example, humans react to diversity by splintering into tribalisms, regressing to an Us vs. Them mentality.
So that’s why The Difference, a new science book by Scott Page, is so uplifting. The basic premise of the book is simple: when it comes to group achievement, diversity often trumps ability. To prove his point, Page draws on a variety of data, from the anecdotal to the experimental. But much of the book is actually about computer models of diversity. (Page’s other book is called “Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life”.) The mathematical details of these simulations are numbingly complex, but their basic protocol is rather simple. Page typically begins with some sort of difficult abstract problem. (For the purposes of the simulation, the exact nature of the problem is irrelevant.) Page then populates his simulation with different kinds of “problem-solvers”. Sometimes, he fills the simulation with a select sample of the top individual performers, or what Page refers to “the best and the brightest”. (These performers are all talented, but they are all talented in the same way. Think of a group composed entirely of people with high math SAT scores.) Other simulations are filled with a randomly selected group of individuals, each of whom possesses a slightly different set of problem solving “tools”. Such a random selection process ensures diversity, even if the diversity comes at the expense of talent.
When Page first started running his problem-solving model, he assumed that individual ability would trump group heterogeneity. But Page soon discovered that, at least in his simulation, the more diverse group almost always performed better than the “smarter” group. The best and the brightest would often get stuck at the same place, so that the problem became impossible. The randomly selected group, however, had a diverse cognitive tool kit, which allowed it to overcome such apparent obstacles. “Progress depends as much on our collective differences as it does on our individual IQ scores,” Page writes.
Of course, this is just a model, a hypothetical abstraction running on a mainframe. And yet, it’s still a nice affirmation of a civic ideal.