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Our mission is to foster the improvement of New Zealand's democratic system and encourage the use of direct democracy through the

Veto, Citizens' Initiated and Recall referendum.


Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Wisdom of Crowds

I highly recommend this book for addition to your bookshelf. Certainly an argument to highlight the weaknesses of Representative Democracy.

Surowiecki begins his book by relating a story about British scientist Francis Galton who in 1906 attended a country fair. Galton had won renown - and notoriety - for his work on statistics and the science of heredity. He was a man obsessed with the measurement of physical and mental qualities and breeding. The gene pool mattered to Galton because he believed only a very few people had the characteristics necessary to keep societies healthy.

At the fair Galton, who came across a weight-judging competition of a fat ox, had a breakthrough experience and one that would change for ever the attitude of research and crowd psychology. People were lining up to place wagers on what the weight of the ox would be after it had been slaughtered and dressed. About 800 people tried their luck. They were a diverse lot and while there were some butchers and farmers who presumably had a level of expertise at judging the weight of livestock, many had no insider knowledge of cattle.

Galton was interested in figuring out what the 'average voter' was capable of because he wanted to prove that the average voter was capable of very little. So he turned the competition into an impromptu experiment. When the contest was over and the prizes awarded, Galton borrowed the tickets from the organisers and ran a series of statistical tests on them. Galton arranged the guesses (787) in order from highest to lowest and graphed them to see if they would form a bell curve. Then, among other things, he added all the contestants' estimates and calculated the mean of the group's guesses. That number represented, you could say, the collective wisdom of the crowd and if the crowd was a single person, that was how much it would have guessed the ox weighed. Galton undoubtedly thought the average guess of the group would be way off the mark because after all, mix a few very smart people with some mediocre people and a lot of dumb people and it seems likely you'd end up with a dumb answer.

But Galton was wrong. The crowd guessed the ox would weigh 1197 pounds after it had been slaughtered and dressed. After it had been slaughtered and dressed the ox weighed 1198 pounds. In other words, the crowd's judgement was essentially perfect.
Galton wrote later: "The result seems more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgement than might have been expected." That was, to say the least, an understatement says Surowiecki who then expresses the simple, but powerful, truth that is at the heart of his book - under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.
Obviously we can't review in detail the whole book here but you should understand that crowds at test matches, rallies etc are capable of getting it right and so are the voters at the polls.

Surowiecki's last chapter Democracy: Dreams of the Common Good talks about deliberative polling and deliberative democracy and poses the question 'what do voters think democracy is for?'.

He then goes on to say politicians want, above all, to be re-elected and therefore vote not in the way that they think is best for the electorate but for what they think has the best chance of winning over the voters; pork-barrel politics and paying special attention to the interests of powerful lobbies.
It seems strange then to think that the way to do politics well is to distance yourself as much as possible from citizens' everyday lives. In the same way a healthy market needs the constant flow of localised information that it gets from prices, a healthy democracy needs the constant flow of information it gets from people's votes. Wisdom of Crowds is at least thought provoking, at best a blueprint for a dramatic change to democracy.


Maxim said...

The arguement for the importance of knowing what is the "common sense" articulated in a historic context, great stuff.
One is tempted to ask what the difference is between guessing what the weight of an OX will be and the outcome of any given political decision. It is all a bit of guess work with a few "fine orators" having convinced the rest of us suckers they are good guessers and faster side steppers when the inevitable manure hits the ventilator.

We have developed a tool for determining the common sense and it is very cheap to produce and easy to use.

A sample can be seen and is beginning to do its work here,

Steve Baron said...

It's not the difference between guessing the weight of an Ox and voting in an election. What this author has highlighted, with numerous examples, is how the general public can be far more wise than an intelligent few. It also points out how much so called experts overestimate their ability. This has been proven with numerous studies by highly credentialed researchers. To understand it more you really need to read the book. It does highlight to me one of the main arguments against binding referendums... elitism. You see I'm smart enough to make intelligent decisions, I just don't know about you! After all no one is more intelligent than me? Surely?

Anonymous said...


I'd say rampant EGO and the mind numbing effects of the disease of separation is what gets in the way of Binding referendum and a true Democracy evolving to honour our comunal technical levels of achievement. I'd go further and say Constant "application of the worm" to all political debate by our chosen debating team in Wellington would be the first step to learning how to live in a democratic political environment where all are supported to gain the wisdom of informed participation where the will of the people is assessed by public input to all decision making and there is NO reason why this is not done other than the choice to do it. We are all children of the Earth and we interact together and have a co-creative impact. So Conscious Co Creation in a Universe filled with purpose is the only wise way to move forward (IMHO). When we going to wake up is the logical next question.

I would guess that right about now there would be many who would support scientists looking at alternative ways to interact with the living dynamic of Earths Weather and Crust activity? Just in case there was some Wisdom that leads to Harmony available!!!

Time to Know what being ONE is all about coming up folks.