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some crowds are not so stupid

Mencken said:

“ Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”

However,

“[Surowiecki’s] thesis is that society is able to get along from day to day [New York Times: nominal registration required] because people exercise a kind of rationality as a group that allows them (or us, rather) to handle three kinds of problems. Surowiecki defines the first as cognition problems: questions that have ''definitive'' or factual solutions. If you ask a group of people to estimate how many jelly beans are in a jar, for example, the average of their answers is likely to be much more accurate than any given individual's guess. This seems counterintuitive, but there is a considerable body of experimental evidence to support it. Aside from tests involving college sophomores, there are data from ''Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?'' [...].”

As counterintuitive as it sounds, however, the mathematics work so long as Surowiecki's three key criteria - independence, diversity, and decentralization - are satisfied. "If you ask a large enough group," he says, "to make a prediction or estimate a probability," the errors they make cancel each other out. "Subtract the error, and you're left with the information." In this fashion, the TV studio audience of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," guessed the right answer to questions 91 percent of the time, torching the "experts," who guessed the right answer only 65 percent of the time.”

The wisdom of crowds by J. Surowiecki

The Wisdom of Crowds
by James Surowiecki, May 2004, Doubleday Books, hbk 0385503865

$17.46 [amazon.com] / £13.20 [amazon.co.uk]


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