Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Reading :: The Wisdom of Crowds

Originally posted: Tue, 17 Aug 2004 19:24:20

The Wisdom of Crowds

by James Surowiecki

I picked up this book partially because it touches on some themes that are common in the books I've been reading lately -- distributed cognition, the sociology of scientific knowledge, etc. -- and partially because Dan Drezner recommended it. (My wife tells me it was also discussed on NPR.) And indeed it does provide some interesting insight into the issue of group decision-making. But not quite in the vein I expected.

To understand why, here's the money quote -- which I lifted from the book's website but which echoes the message of the book:

Crowds are best when there's a right answer to a problem or a question. (I call these "cognition" problems.) If you have, for instance, a factual question, the best way to get a consistently good answer is to ask a group.

This focus on problems with "right answers" is what separates Surowiecki's book from folks like Latour and Machiavelli, and even distributed cognitionists such as Hutchins. Like Latour and Machiavelli, Surowiecki argues that "crowds" can often make better decisions than individuals, even if the individuals are not terribly well informed or intelligent; as long as their input is aggregated well, decision-making turns out to be far more accurate even than the experts'.

Now, to my mind, this thesis is severely flawed in that it is explicated by reference to problems whose answers can be retrospectively verified, typically with quantitative measures. Examples include guessing a heifer's weight, the coordinates of a lost submarine, or a political candidate's margin of victory. Surowiecki explicitly disallows the question of deliberation (though he sneaks it in through the back door) -- the focus is on aggregations of guesses, the closing in on an objective solution, not the forging of open-ended political settlements. "Choosing candidates and making policy in a democracy are not, in that sense, cognition problems and so we should not expect them to yield themselves to the wisdom of the crowd" (p.270). It's not surprising to find that Surowiecki was led to research this book through his examination of market behavior. But this is an entirely different kind of "crowd wisdom" than, say, Machiavelli's discussion of republican deliberation. In Machiavelli's view, a "crowd" in a republic will almost always make better decisions than a prince, not because more people are working on a cognitive problem, but because they introduce deliberation and moderation -- exactly what Surowiecki disallows. Even Hutchins' discussion of distributed cognition is less closed and less goal-oriented than Surowiecki's.

This book is valuable for discussing market economics and probability, as well as for providing an opening for discussions of distributed cognition. But given my particular research interests, I don't anticipate cracking it often.

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