National Intelligence - Dilbert Blog

National Intelligence

I wonder if a country as a whole can have intelligence. And if so, can that intelligence be increased?

I’m not talking about average test scores in schools, or average IQ levels. Those things are important, but they are only part of the picture. I’m talking about how effectively a nation as a whole can make decisions and navigate its position in the world. For example, China has a political system that seems to produce intelligent decisions. You might criticize China’s leadership for being heartless and brutal, but that’s a separate discussion. If you consider how effectively they pursue their country’s interests, their national intelligence seems quite high.

The United States, on the other hand, produces laws and foreign policy that don’t always seem to be the result of intelligence or even good intentions. Our actions are a weird stew of religion, politics and randomness. A sentence you never hear in America is “I wonder what the smart people think we should do.”

I was thinking about National Intelligence (NQ) in relation to the debate on health care. It seems that most American voters have a strong opinion on the topic while perhaps 1% of the public fully understand the issue. So whose job is it to educate voters?

It certainly isn’t the government’s job to educate voters. Our system is designed to make candidates compete for votes, and the most effective way to compete is by appealing to emotion and ignorance. The last thing a politician wants is to be labeled professorial. That’s the same as boring.

It’s not the job of news organizations to educate voters either. The point of the news is to inform citizens of what is new and noteworthy. It wouldn’t be practical for the press to do a complete history and context for every news item.

In our system, citizens are expected to self-educate. That probably made sense when issues were simpler. But in today’s world, that would be like expecting people to become doctors and lawyers just by doing some reading in their free time. It’s unrealistic.

Our only real hope is the Internet. Recently I stumbled across a site – http://Diffen.com – that allows users to create their own comparisons of any two things. It’s generally used for simple comparisons such as the differences between two models of cell phones. But I was struck by the power of putting information in a handy grid so you can compare things line by line. It’s a great way to simplify complicated issues.

Diffen.com probably isn’t the answer for educating voters, but it makes me optimistic that a solution is possible. The problem, as I see it, is that there isn’t any profit in educating the public, so private industry is unlikely to wade in. That leaves us with the government, and the government isn’t equipped to educate voters because we expect leaders to be opinionated, not objective. It’s never a good idea to trust the cat to guard the canary.

So I put the question to you, my brilliant readers. Suppose you start with a website funded by private donations from a variety of citizens, with a mandate to operate independently, and your task is to find a way to populate the site with unbiased and useful information on public policy. What system could you devise to guarantee that the information is unbiased and, importantly, it appears that way to all observers?

I will seed this discussion by suggesting that the Diffen.com model of a customizable, side-by-side comparison is a good start for most topics. But you also need a way to rank the importance of each dimension of the discussion. And you need an easy way to view dissenting opinions on each “fact” in the matrix.

The genius of capitalism and democracy is that both systems embrace the destructive forces of competition and self-interest and channel them in a positive direction. Something similar needs to be done with information. What we need is a Founding Father or Mother who can find a way for arguments and information to compete in a way that kills the weak ideas and leaves only the strong.

Any ideas?