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The Ignorance of the Crowd

In 1907,  Francis Galton asked participants at a county fair to estimate the weight of an ox. While most individuals guessed rather poorly, the median guess was within 1 percent of the ox’s true weight. It’s not a mysterious finding, as some people guess high and others guess low. When the group gets large, these cancel out and leave behind a better guess. Despite the simplicity, the implications are profound. Humans have the potential to make better choices when doing so collectively.

In the last few decades experimental and theoretical work has shown that collective wisdom is by no means guaranteed. The simple model demonstrated by Galton breaks down as soon as individuals begin to interact and share information. Whether or not the crowd is wise or foolish depends on the type of information individuals have, and is very sensitive to the network structure on which they interact. Unlike in Galton’s experiment, guesses can spread. A few loud, wrong individuals can be amplified and dominate the decision-making process.

More here – Scientific American



  1. Bill Miles says:

    Hi Chris.

    My lauded, and long dead, Grandmother is remembered for a few choice aphorisms she espoused. Some of these were beyond my understanding when she first told them to me as a young boy. However, with regard to crowds, there was one I finally worked out years later, after I realised that its origin was based around the time of the WWI (possibly WW2, but I think the former) and the ancient English-French distrust and hostility. It was “Fifty million Frenchman can’t be wrong”. As a youngster this was arcane to me. Why only Frenchmen? And then, later, I realised that this was a backhanded assertion that, indeed, fifty million Frenchmen could be wrong. And so, of course, can 50 million people of any nationality or persuasion. Or maybe even the whole human race, if one reflects on current projections.

  2. Bill Miles says:

    On a parallel, but related, vein you might be interested in the following.
    I will certainly be in the audience when Krauss and Dawkins visit next year.

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