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Diversity ‘enhances our collective potential’

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Scott Page

When solving problems, diverse groups of people outperform others because they become “stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly,” mathematical economist Scott Page says.

Photo: Joshua Clark

Scott Page likes to use the story of Galton’s steer — the average guess of an animal’s weight by 787 fairgoers proved remarkably accurate — to illustrate the power of diversity.

Page, a professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan, delivered the Chancellor’s Lecture Feb. 21 at the UIC Forum.

Borrowing the steer example from Jim Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds, he noted that at a 1906 exposition, the average guess of fairgoers was 1,197 pounds.

The steer’s actual weight: 1,198 pounds.

As individuals, the guessers didn’t do anywhere near as well, most missing by 55 or 60 pounds.

Describing himself as “a mathematical economist by training,” Page devised this formula: crowd error = average error - diversity.

“Interaction with people who are different from us enriches our lives and enhances our collective potential,” said Page, the author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies.

With another mathematical economist, Lu Hong of Loyola University Chicago, Page constructed a Diversity Trumps Ability Theorem.

It proposes that diverse groups of people outperform groups of “best” individuals at solving problems.

“The reason: the diverse groups got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly,” he said.

A reflection of this phenomenon is the statistic that the average number of authors of scientific papers has jumped from 1.3 in 1960 to 3.5 today, Page said.

Page was introduced by Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares, who underlined the diversity of UIC’s student population, noting that its 27,500 students have no racial or ethnic majority.

“The university is a microcosm of what the nation is becoming,” Allen-Meares said.


Photo: Joshua Clark

University of Michigan professor Scott Page (left), with UIC Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares and William Walden, special assistant to the provost for diversity. Page delivered a Chancellor’s Lecture highlighting the power of diversity last week at the UIC Forum.

Scott Page, Paula Allen-Meares, William Walden

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