The Wisdom of Ignoring Crowds

Ed Yong writes this week about various examples of crowds making better collective guesses than individuals: counting beans in a jar, guessing the weight of an ox, or the Ask The Audience option in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? And he notes a problem:

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?

Long story short, it fails completely. This is why I’ve always been skeptical of the whole wisdom of crowds thing. You can make up all sorts of contrived situations where it works, but there aren’t very many examples from real life where people don’t communicate in one form or another and form feedback loops. We’re a social species, and lots of communication is very much the norm, not the exception.

Is the crowd doomed to groupthink? Not quite. King found that he could steer them back towards a wiser guess by giving them the current best guess….But King’s study still reflects an artificial situation, because he knew beforehand what the right answer was and could provide the crowd with the closest guess. Real crowds rarely, if ever, have that luxury….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.

Well, sure, and that’s what most of us do on issues that are anywhere outside our own sphere of expertise — which is to say, most of them. Unfortunately, in practice most of us choose to follow experts who already agree with us. After all, track records are pretty hard to know in the best of cases, and in real life, where we seldom even agree on what constitutes being right in the first place, it’s just about impossible. Sadly, neither the wisdom of crowds nor reliance on the best experts provides much of a shortcut for getting things right.

Via Andrew Sullivan.