Monday, 5 May 2014

What lies ahead of the curve?

My ex-boss often spurred us underlings to ‘stay ahead of the curve’.

Sometimes this got misquoted as ‘stay ahead of the curb’, which has a marginally different meaning: the curb is the edge of a street, while a curve was the crest of a statistical distribution. One leads to traffic accidents, while the other led to alleged powers of prophecy, and a period of see-I-told-you-so opportunities. 

For a time, I took the saying at face value because, hey, even if I was wrong, at least I was first. But initial naivety aside, I think the deeper question is, ‘when does on run with the herd, and when does on stand against the herd?’


From another perspective, the question becomes whether the herd right or wrong about what lies ahead.  Media headlines tend to revolve around negative news, like riots and protests. Rioters clash with police, destroy property, or break out. Generally, bad things tend to get reported when herds are involved.
However, research suggests, what gets reported in the media is only a small fraction that misrepresents what doesn’t get reported. In other words, what gets reported isn’t a fair representation of what happens when crowds congregate. This isn’t a question of journalistic quality, but rather a disconnect from reality that is likely to happen when you try to condense 24 hours into ten 3-minute segments on a daily basis.

That’s approximately 2% of a day that gets broad media attention, of which the decision of what gets into that 2% is sometimes driven more by ratings than content, according to The Newsroom. Or according to the Press Freedom Index, that 2% is driven more by restrictions rather than releases of information.

But returning to the question of whether the herd is right or wrong raises two questions in my mind: 1) who is in the herd?  and 2) what is the herd saying?

I’m generally not a fan of herds of ideologically driven zealots, which includes well-educated and intelligent zealots. However, intelligence and experience and track record do play a part in whose opinion I’d give more weight. George Soros has a longer and more notable track record than Peter Schiff for instance. And if I had to choose a herd, I’d probably face in the same direction as Soros, all else remaining equal.  Listening to the herd is a matter of understanding the argument and the implications of what that argument entails.

Both questions has problems – the first borders on ad hominem fallacies and the second has the problem of overgeneralization, because herds are not Borg-like hive minds (at least not for long anyway) and teasing out what the herd is really saying is like trying to read the comments column on Youtube.

But they seem pretty fair questions to ask of any large group of people heading in a single direction.