04 07 11 - 20:20The wisdom of crowds has been a popular topic after a book by the same name came out, suggesting that humanity is a bottom-up self-organizing system that magically produces the right answer.
Like a group of delusional dunces, the people who buy such books clap their little hands and exclaim, "Oh, so it will all work out right after all!" -- without anyone's intervention, of course. Keep grazing, buying, breeding and basically, doing whatever you wanted to do before someone told you that maybe you were dooming us all.
As he walked through the exhibition that day, Galton came across a weight-judging competition. A fat ox had been selected and placed on display, and members of a gathering crowd were lining up to place wagers on the weight of the ox. (Or rather, they were placing wagers on what the weight of the ox would be after it had been âslaughtered and dressed.â) For sixpence, you could buy a stamped and numbered ticket, where you filled in your name, your address, and your estimate. The best guesses would receive prizes.
Eight hundred people tried their luck. They were a diverse lot. Many of them were butchers and farmers, who were presumably expert at judging the weight of livestock, but there were also quite a few people who had, as it were, no insider knowledge of cattle. âMany non-experts competed,â Galton wrote later in the scientific journal Nature, âlike those clerks and others who have no expert knowledge of horses, but who bet on races, guided by newspapers, friends, and their own fancies.â The analogy to a democracy, in which people of radically different abilities and interests each get one vote, had suggested itself to Galton immediately. âThe average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes,â he wrote.
Galton was interested in figuring out what the âaverage voterâ was capable of because he wanted to prove that the average voter was capable of very little. So he turned the competition into an im-promptu experiment. When the contest was over and the prizes had been awarded, Galton borrowed the tickets from the organizers and ran a series of statistical tests on them. Galton arranged the guesses (which totaled 787 in all, after he had to discard thirteen because they were illegible) in order from highest to lowest and graphed them to see if they would form a bell curve. Then, among other things, he added all the contestantsâ estimates, and calculated the mean of the groupâs guesses. That number represented, you could say, the collective wisdom of the Plymouth crowd. If the crowd were a single person, that was how much it would have guessed the ox weighed.
Galton undoubtedly thought that the average guess of the group would be way off the mark. After all, mix a few very smart people with some mediocre people and a lot of dumb people, and it seems likely youâd end up with a dumb answer. But Galton was wrong. The crowd had guessed that the ox, after it had been slaughtered and dressed, would weigh 1,197 pounds. After it had been slaughtered and dressed, the ox weighed 1,198 pounds. In other words, the crowdâs judgment was essentially perfect. Perhaps breeding did not mean so much after all. - AWC
Even though this is only one example, the modern twist to the story is clear: elitist visits fair, realizes that most people are right after all! Democracy wins; we are all saved!
But now the experiment has its second part.
If you gather a group of people, you can use their knowledge to determine averages and statistical optimum outcomes.
That is what happens, of course, if you impose a leadership situation where all are forced to focus on the same thing and produce an answer.
As Surowiecki explained, certain conditions must be met for crowd wisdom to emerge. Members of the crowd ought to have a variety of opinions, and to arrive at those opinions independently.
Take those away, and crowd intelligence fails, as evidenced in some market bubbles. Computer modeling of crowd behavior also hints at dynamics underlying crowd breakdowns, with he balance between information flow and diverse opinions becoming skewed. - Wired
This is in dramatic contrast to the happy prole-o-vision idea, which is always a simplistic fantasy based on the individual being eternally important and right.
In movies, it's the misfits joining together to overthrow the popular kids.
In economics and politics, it's the idea that a sweaty unwashed mob of selfish people somehow arrive at the best answer through self-interest.
In reality, it's that a mob can answer a question correctly -- if you average their responses. Much like how they fit into a bell curve, they cover a spread that centers statistically on a reasonable answer.
We don't see it working out so well in reality, but it's nice to dream.