I’ve been thinking lately about how we make decisions, or let others make them for us, about important matters such as building more nuclear power plants and where, or whether and how growth should go forward, or how to manage finite resources such as water supplies.

Many aspects of these decisions are governed by elected representatives, either directly or indirectly. Directly through laws they enact, and sometimes indirectly through appointments to various governmental agencies and boards.

Perhaps simplistically, but as an introduction, Wikipedia begins the discussion of Groupthink this way:

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints. Antecedent factors such as group cohesiveness, structural faults, and situational context play into the likelihood of whether or not groupthink will impact the decision-making process …

Certainly, most bodies of people, brought together by dint of common interests of one type or another, can work best if people are collegial and respectful of others’ opinions. But the idea of Groupthink is that the necessity of getting along ought not prevent carefully examining operating assumptions, or uncovering and examining countervailing ideas.

How do we counter the potential negative aspects of Groupthink? One way, built into many of these agencies’ and boards’ processes, is to have public comment, which allows insertion of different views into the various frays. (Public comments don’t necessarily affect outcomes, and often are just ways for people to vent, but they can be effective, especially when they shed new light on matters, or help people understand certain facts or see their assumptions from new vantage points.)

Being as absolutely certain of the facts is a really good way to help counter Groupthink. One group of facts that can often affect environmental decisions is the regulations that apply. Nowadays, with the internet and computing power for doing document searches, it is more possible than ever before to check the written regulations, without having to phone up a regulator or checking with an attorney. So that’s one way.

Another is to be certain that a variety of independent experts with the appropriate technical expertise have been brought into discussions. By independent, I mean experts who have no stake in the game, nor have had one in the past. Hard to find, perhaps.

And yet another way to counter Groupthink is to be really sure to consult the right local people with influence. These people might be local academics, fat-cats, thin-cats, neighbors, side-walk philosophers, colleagues, spouses and others who can help make sure that critical assumptions are being carefully analyzed.

If I keep this up, I might overly agree with myself, so I should stop here.


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