“The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations”, published in 2004, is a book by James Surowiecki. It discusses, often using anecdotes, that under certain conditions, crowds of people make better decisions than experts. In how far can we (mis)construe this as further proving the democratic doctrine?
“The opening anecdote relates Francis Galton's surprise that the crowd at a county fair accurately guessed the weight of an ox when their individual guesses were averaged (the average was closer to the ox's true butchered weight than the estimates of most crowd members, and also closer than any of the separate estimates made by cattle experts).” Source: Wisdom of Crowds on Wikipedia
Another anecdote: Looking at wind speeds and prevailing ocean currents, experts disagreed widely on where a lost ship was located. However, letting a bunch of people with some minimum expertise each independently estimate the position, the average over all these predictions missed the ship by a mere 300 yards!
Is ‘crowd-wisdom’ the scientific underpinning of democracy, the proof of that ‘we the people’ are superior, the falsification of that the masses are too dumb to rule themselves? The vital two conditions for crowd-wisdom to emerge are:
1) Different opinions arise rather independently on the basis of unbiased information, without for example the participants being influenced by the group dynamics in which they are easily caught up in if not carefully isolated from each other.
2) The majority of the participants are knowledgeable about the issue, semi-experts, and not complete novices.
Some people will be quick to point out that the influence of media, lobbying, and even just free running crowd dynamics annihilate the first condition, independence. Moreover, the low education level, especially concerning science, means that voters are naïve novices in our ever more technical and increasingly complex world. This negates the second crucial condition, sufficient knowledge. In a very insightful piece, The Broken Contract, George Packer points out that the current problems in America are largely due to the US democracy going from parties with a sort of cadre structure still in the seventies to an “open democracy” of a society atomized into television viewers. Translated: Crowd yes, expertise no; crowd wisdom without the wisdom.
However, such is relative; there is no absolute metric, and those that fight for the democratic doctrine may equally insist on the exact opposite: The informing “free press” ensures that the people are semi-experts on everything relevant. FOX balanced news is education – just ask FOX about it.
There is no fundamental insight to be gained from digging in on any one side. A lame middle way ‘compromise’ is often the worst, accomplishing none of the good and all of the bad from both sides. The questions here on Alpha Meme are as always on the next level: What can the rational, future oriented system learn? What may even opposing sides agree upon and thus perhaps constitute a viable path that can be walked together?
One aspect is obvious from The Wisdom of Crowds’ second crucial condition necessary for crowd-wisdom being more than a justification of lynch-mobs: The more expert knowledge is shared among the crowds, the better for crowd-wisdom!
PhD’s for Janitors – Paradise or dangerous as Hell?
Numerous posts and comments here on Science2.0 are about that science pumps out huge numbers of PhD’s who end up as taxi drivers, janitors, waiting tables, and so on. Something is suboptimal for sure, but how is it that on a science site, the implied solution is to educate less? Germany has cut a whole year from high school education and is busy dismantling its universities’ academic culture. Can such be a solution to anybody who leans towards The Wisdom of Crowds as supporting their democratic doctrine?
Imagine taxi drivers having a PhD and being able to engage in enlightening conversations with their customers, some of them janitors with Master degrees, all in a political system which necessitates wise (read: knowledgeable) crowds. Unemployment is answered with keeping people longer in education, shortening work hours for those who take courses and clearly prove progress (no community college style slacking in a holding pattern but education).
What is bad about educated taxi drivers? Well, for one, they are unhappy if education triggers entitlement! They threaten stability if the democratic doctrine is just a story the necessarily deceived believe in, the canon fodder, the workers, 51% of voters. Education today is indeed reproducing an entitled feeling class. PhD’s count as sore losers when not ending up tenured or making millions; graduation is openly sold as translating into monetary advantage. Education is evolutionarily stabilized to fulfill precisely that reproductive role. Can crowd-wisdom supported democracy or dare say communism smoothly emerge from such at all?
Westerners still hope that their oligarchies are on the right path while also realizing that they are going ever deeper into a crisis that is largely countered by mere denialism. Ever more people think that perhaps something like the recently enormously successful Chinese system of party internal consensus-democracy may be the necessary benevolent tyranny that allows to first reform education so that crowd wisdom at large can arise in the first place.
Crowd-wisdom may only be stable if education changes from “something that is going to get you more money” to something interesting that helps you deal with life, something you will be glad to know for the rest of your life that is additionally important for society (because of the wisdom of crowds, because of ‘not killing your neighbor over simple misunderstandings’, etc.).
China tried to hammer social consciousness, that one learns for society rather than money, into its pupils and students for many years. This largely failed just as much as Sunday school. It may be possible in theory, but not like the Chinese did it! The Chinese are almost 100% money craving, name-brand addicted consumers; university students are no better than the rest. Speaking of crowd-wisdom, with the overall population basically uneducated, still 80 percent not having finished secondary school, we can be glad that there is no Western type democracy in China, because ethnic nationalism would blow the thing into pieces, which is partially of course what Western power brokers secretly hope for when they export their kind of ‘viral’ democracy.
“A graduate from a three-year automotive program at Hebei province's Jiaotong Vocational and Technical College, Yan has been working as a car repairman. He lives in a dormitory on the west side of Beijing with six others and pulls in about 2,500 yuan ($390) a month. "How can I say I'm satisfied? Even after five years, I know my income will be basically the same as my friends who didn't study after high school," said Yan.” Source: Yahoo
See the problem? Yan had the opportunity to study for several years, which alone is so fortunate (assuming something interesting is taught) that he may as well be fine with getting less than those that went to work straight after school. However, education in Yan’s eyes, and that may well be an objective perspective given “Jiaotong Vocational and Technical College”, is a waste of time.
The Wisdom of Crowds’ second crucial condition suggests that the more expert knowledge is shared among the crowds, the better for crowd wisdom!
This seems to be an important aspect worth considering in any type of social system, regardless whether Western or say the Chinese one. The main difference between Western and Chinese democracies is that the systems have different failure rates in successfully selecting knowledgeable people into the arenas where voting actually counts. In terms of ensuring crowd-wisdom, both systems are far from ideal. As mentioned, George Packer points out that America is getting worse precisely regarding this aspect, and it is certainly intriguing that a basically conservative US-American would talk about missing cadres in political parties.
Simply demanding more education is useless – you cannot possibly pump yet more knowledge into us poor apes. What to teach and how are the more important questions. Do you think that a solid basis in Zen Buddhism would create nicer, more rational humans, or is such forced onto the masses only going to end up in religious zealots? All religions do have forms of meditation and other goodies in them, but none of them, not even Buddhism, has ever successfully prevented their believers from turning it into mind numbing rituals that are the very opposite of enlightening. And where even is the indication that very rational and 'truly knowledgeable' people, if such exists, care about anything but their own happiness? Who has proven rather than claimed that your happiness is part of mine?
So what can we agree on?
Wisdom of crowds and democracy are closely related. I think we can all agree on this. The less wisdom of crowds is possible, the less democracy is possible! (Read this sentence again – it has two or even three interpretations that are perhaps all correct – this is what “the next level” means). I do not see that the knowledge of this very fact collides with most envisioned types of system; it is not even the type of knowledge that undermines pseudo-democracies shaping and feeding the selective perception of the masses. Should we then not all agree on teaching this knowledge?