Collective Wisdom

by Henry Farrell on September 20, 2011

Via “Kevin Drum”:, a piece by Ed Yong “which argues”:

bq. Whatever it’s called, the principle is the same: a group of people can often arrive at more accurate answers and better decisions than individuals acting alone. There are many examples, from counting beans in a jar, to guessing the weight of an ox, to the Ask The Audience option in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? But all of these examples are somewhat artificial, because they involve decisions that are made in a social vacuum. Indeed, James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, argued that wise crowds are ones where “people’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.” That rarely happens. From votes in elections, to votes on social media sites, people see what others around them are doing or intend to do. We actively seek out what others are saying, and we have a natural tendency to emulate successful and prominent individuals. So what happens to the wisdom of the crowd when the crowd talks to one another?

bq. … You can insert your own modern case study here, but perhaps this study ends up being less about the wisdom of the crowd than a testament to the value of expertise. Maybe the real trick to exploiting the wisdom of the crowd is to recognise the most knowledgeable individuals within it.

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Two weeks ago I made a post that was as comprehensively misunderstood, relative to my intent, as anything I have written in quite a while. So let me try again. I meant to assert the following:

1) Sometimes Republicans (conservatives) make loud, radical, extreme ‘philosophical’ claims they don’t really mean. Democrats (liberals), on the other hand, don’t ever really do this.

I was interpreted by some as asserting the following:

2) Invariably, whenever Republicans (conservatives) seem to say something crazy or radical, they don’t mean it. They are always moderates about everything. In fact, they are liberals. We can ignore any appearances to the contrary.

Well, I for sure didn’t mean 2. Crikey.

In general, the way to keep 1 clear of 2 is by applications of ‘some’, and appropriate cognates. (I’m saying that sometimes Republicans/conservatives do something that Democrats/liberals never do, not that Republicans/conservatives never don’t do this thing that Democrats/liberals never do.) It may be that my original post was insufficiently slathered with ‘some’. For present post purposes, if I should ever seem to be saying 2), add ‘some’ until it turns into some variant on 1). On we go. [click to continue…]

… is set out over the fold. I’m confident readers who take a little time to think about it will realise it’s far superior to existing policy, and to any alternative proposed so far.

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