Triumph of the Masses

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At the annual west of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition in the fall of 1906, a British scientist named Francis Galton became interested in a weight-judging competition: 800 fairgoers (a diverse group that included butchers, farmers, clerks, housewives, townspeople, smart people, dumb people, average people) tried to guess what a particular ox would weigh after having been slaughtered and dressed. The correct answer was exactly 1,198 lbs. After the judges awarded their prize, Galton borrowed all the entry tickets, did some arithmetic to get the mean of the fairgoers' guesses and found that their collective estimate was ... 1,197 lbs.

The random gathering of people turned out to be an unexpected collective genius at ox-weight appraisal. Starting with this anecdote, James Surowiecki, financial columnist for the New Yorker, builds a fascinating case, summed up in his title and subtitle: The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations (Doubleday; 296 pages).

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Surowiecki's thesis posits an uncanny and generally unconscious collective intelligence working not by top-down diktat but rather in dynamic arrangements of what the economist Friedrich Hayek called "spontaneous order." Surowiecki cites the giant flock of starlings evading a predatory hawk. From the outside, the cloud of birds seems to move in obedience to one mind. In fact, Surowiecki writes, each starling is acting on its own, following four simple rules: "1) stay as close to the middle as possible; 2) stay 2 to 3 body lengths away from your neighbor; 3) do not bump into any other starling; 4) if a hawk dives at you, get out of the way." The result is safety, and a magical, organic coherence of motion — unconscious "wisdom."

The old paradigm on this subject equates crowds with mindless mobs (the bigger the mob, the dumber and more dangerous)--think of lemmings or the Gadarene swine that Jesus sent off the cliff. The old paradigm, no doubt elitist and authoritarian, cherishes the brilliant individual (Leonardo da Vinci or Isaac Newton, who reinvented the universe while hiding from the plague in a country house).

The new paradigm, as formulated by Surowiecki, states that hoi polloi (the many) are weirdly smart and effective, even when a lot of them, as individuals, are average, or below, in their intelligence or their experience with the subject at hand. Surowiecki's sometimes Panglossian view sees a sort of invisible hand shaping the motions and outcomes of group phenomena.

The adventures of an idea should be entertaining. The Wisdom of Crowds is a circus of oddments and behavioral studies — for example, of big-city pedestrian flow (an unconscious art form) and highway traffic snarls (caused by hiccups of human reaction time--"a single driver who's too ready to hit the brakes can slow down an entire highway"). Surowiecki describes a 1958 experiment in which a group of law students from New Haven, Conn., were asked to consider this scenario: You have to meet someone in New York City but don't know where to meet him or when. You cannot talk to the other person ahead of time. Where do you go, and when? The collective wisdom overwhelmingly answered: the Grand Central Terminal information booth, at noon. (Surowiecki admits, "If you put pairs of people from Manchuria down in the middle of New York City and told them to meet each other, it's unlikely any of them would manage to meet. But the fact that the shared reality is cultural makes it no less real.")

Common sense sticks, to some extent, with the old paradigm. A lot of things endorsed by the starlings (reality TV, politicians, best-selling books) are so moronic that they practically disprove Darwin. But Surowiecki does not claim collective perfection, only the effectiveness of a diversity of individual intelligences — like those hundreds of scientists at labs all over the world who, without overall supervision but sharing their data, succeeded in isolating the SARS virus in only a matter of weeks. The Wisdom of Crowds is a subtly intelligent book that's fun to argue with: if it becomes a best seller, that will of course confirm the author's thesis.