On Monday afternoon, approximately 40 students and faculty met for the second lecture of a series focused on diversity, equity and inclusion in the College of Engineering at the Cooley Building. Professor Scott Page, a Leonid Hurwicz collegiate professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan and author of “The Diversity Bonus” and “The Model Thinker,” discussed the need for diversity when completing complex tasks and how this can improve collective performance.
Page began by stating that it is estimated by 2050, the United States will be a majority-minority country. He also argued the combination of inequality, lack of inclusion and the changing demographics of the nation could potentially cost the country up to two trillion dollars. Page said promoting diversity is the right thing to do and it benefits everyone.
“To cope with complexity, we need diversity,” Page said.
Page referenced former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his role in the 2003 court case Gratz v. Bollinger, which upheld affirmative action in the University admissions process.
Page said according to Scalia there was no problem because the school had to decide whether to admit excellent students or diverse students, creating a trade-off. He argued, however, that in some sense, Scalia was wrong.
“If we bring people together that are diverse … we are going to get better outcomes,” Page said. “Scalia was right on simple tasks. But once the problem becomes so complex … that no one person can do it, what you want is ability and diversity.”
Page presented the diversity prediction theorem, which he created. The theorem states that to find the “crowd error,” the diversity of the crowd must be subtracted from the average error in a prediction.
The conclusion of this theorem, Page said, is that to achieve smaller crowd error, it is necessary to have both large average errors as well as larger diversity. Therefore, smarter crowds are achieved through large diversity.
“If the problem before you is so hard that you are not going to get it right, you really should be listening to other people, especially people that think differently than you, even if they are not as accurate,” Page said.
As an example, Page presented the economic forecasts created by the European Union from 1969 to 2009. In total, there are 28,000 forecasts by professional economists meant to predict issues such as inflation, unemployment, growth and other economic situations. Upon analyzing the data, Page found it clear that the error of the forecast decreases once more economists begin to work together. It continues to decrease until there are eight professional economists and then it remains stable.
Another example Page presented was how the methods for academic research have changed over time. In the 1960s, most academic papers were written by one or two people. Now, most are written by more than five. This demonstrates that teams have become more popular, and are now the norm.
Rackham student Uriah Israel said she found the studies Page used interesting as examples of how diversity improves performance.
“I think it’s really interesting that there is quantitative evidence that shows how diversity is important,” Israel said. “It’s no longer only qualitative.”
Page also described how people used to determine one’s impact in a group based on a certain characteristic of a person such as race, gender or ethnicity. Now, people are viewed as a bundle with multiple unique aspects.
“The lived experience is very different based on who you are, and that doesn’t take into account that everyone filters things in different ways,” Page said. “There are huge group effects. If you put people in a room with diverse people, they actually think harder and get tired faster.”
Page concluded by stating there is much work to be done. He then took questions from the audience.
Rackham student Agnes Resto said she was interested in how Page views diversity and his thoughts on the importance of making oneself diverse through experience.
“Thinking about diversity is very interesting,” Resto said. “It is interesting to think about how that affects our performance. I really liked what he said about as an individual trying to be diverse — because PhD students work individually — so it is very important to know how to use diversity as an individual by expanding your toolbox.”