The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 5, 2014

Group think, group stupidity and just plain groupies abound

By Nerissa Young

— This week, NPR asked listeners whether they think they are smarter than a CIA agent.

The Good Judgment Project, a three-year endeavor sponsored by psychologists and members of the intelligence community, has been testing the hypothesis whether ordinary people can do as well as the professionals at predicting world events.

Suburban Maryland pharmacist Elaine Rich has been classified as a super forecaster in the story filed by reporter Alix Spiegel. The 3,000 forecasters have considered questions such as a Syrian cease-fire agreement, a Ukrainian invasion, Venezuelan gas prices and the Middle East peace process.

Rich and her team guesstimate 30 percent better than intelligence officers who have the classified files. Rich’s preparation is to read the news and search Google.

Spiegel reported British statistician Francis Galton identified the concept of crowd wisdom in 1906. He asked 800 people at a fair to guess the weight of a dead ox. After the prize was awarded, he averaged all the guesses. The crowd was 1 pound off the actual weight.

In other words, small groups of really smart people are no better at guessing world events than the collective wisdom.

A small, insulated group can begin to agree on everything because there’s no maverick to bring fresh perspectives. That’s why their predictions become less accurate. That’s also why it’s difficult for government to stay close to the people it purportedly serves.

People really are smarter than they are given credit for.

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In the battle of denominations, the smart money is on the Baptists. Last weekend, the Baptists from Alderson Broaddus University drove into Buckhannon and started a small war with the Methodists at West Virginia Wesleyan.

It should be noted the mascot for the American Baptist-affiliated school is The Battlers. They proved it last Saturday night by sending half a dozen Wesleyan students to the hospital with injuries including a broken jaw and a knife wound, according to West Virginia MetroNews.

A spokesman for Wesleyan said it was all the Baptists’ fault when they crashed a Wesleyan frat party.

Two students face criminal charges in the melee and have been suspended by ABU, The Associated Press reported.

So much for Christian love when the ability to party is interfered with. This incident reflects quite poorly on both denominations in the state and Christians in general.

While college students will be college students and everyone sins from time to time, people with a grudge against religion and the church have plenty of ammunition to yell “hypocrite” and “I’m just as good as they are.”

In this case, they should hope to be better. One wonders whether this was a fight or just some ill-conceived attempt to act out Bible stories. Samson slew a bunch of Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, and Abraham picked up a knife to slay Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice.

Maybe they were reading one of those newfangled Bible translations and got confused.

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Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has put the skids on a proposed toll road on part of U.S. 460 in the state’s Tidewater region, The Washington Post reported this week.

The controversial construction project connecting Petersburg to Suffolk would be a four-lane toll road that runs parallel to the existing federal highway. It’s controversial because of the environmental impact, The Post reported.

Former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, who is facing corruption charges, promoted the highway in his home district as economic development and another hurricane evacuation route.

Critics say the traffic volume doesn’t justify the total $1.4 billion total price tag or the $250 million spent so far without a spade of dirt being moved.

If Virginia has that much highway money lying around, it ought to spend it on the truck lanes for Interstate 81 and remove the Russian roulette experience for its travelers.

It appears the only thing to be transported out of McDonnell’s U.S. 460 boondoggle is his gubernatorial legacy.

— Young is a Register-

Herald columnist. E-mail:

© Nerissa Young