Juries as Problem Solving Institutions

Series of interviews on Collective Problem Solving by Henry FarrellOver the last two years, a group of scholars from disciplines including political science, political theory, cognitive psychology, information science, statistics and computer science have met under the auspices of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance. The goal of these meetings has been to bring the insights of different disciplines to bear on fundamental problems of collective problem solving. How do we best solve collective problems? How should we study and think about collective intelligence? How can we apply insights to real world problems? A wide body of work leads us to believe that complex problems are most likely to be solved when people with different viewpoints and sets of skills come together. This means that we can expect that the science of collective problem solving too will be improved when people from diverse disciplinary perspectives work together to generate new insights on shared problems.

Political theorists are beginning to think in different ways about institutions such as juries. Here, the crucial insights will involve how these institutions can address the traditional concerns of political theory, such as justice and recognition, while also solving the complex problem of figuring out how best to resolve disputes, and establishing the guilt or innocence of parties in criminal cases.

Melissa Schwartzberg is an associate professor of political science at New York University, working on the political theory of democratic decision making. I asked her a series of questions about the jury as a problem-solving institution.

Henry: Are there any general ways for figuring out the kinds of issues that juries (based on random selection of citizens and some voting rule) are good at deciding on, and the issues that they might have problems with?

Melissa: This is a difficult question, in part because we don’t have unmediated access to the “true state of the world”: our evidence about jury competence essentially derives from the correlation of jury verdicts with what the judge would have rendered, but obviously that doesn’t mean that the judge was correct. One way around the question is to ask instead what, historically, have been the reasons why we would wish to assign judgment to laypersons: what the “jury of one’s peers” signifies. Placing a body of ordinary citizens between the state and the accused serves an important protective device, so the use of the jury is quite clearly not all about judgment. But there is a long history of thinking that juries have special access to local knowledge – the established norms, practices, and expectations of a community, but in early periods knowledge of the parties and the alleged crime – that helps to shed light on why we still think “vicinage” is important…..(More)”