January 20, 2005

Not consensus or compromise

I picked up again, a book I bought, started reading and put away. It is "The Wisdom of Crowds" by a New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki. It initially caught my attention because I believe the very ideas it tries to dispel. Surowiecki brings those up right away in the very first chapter, the Introduction. He quotes philosophers and historians who uphold the notion that crowds are incapable of wise judgment. Henry David Thoreau, an American author and philosopher is quoted: " The mass never comes up to the standard of its best member, but on the contrary degrades itself to a level with the lowest."Friedriech Nietzshe is quoted: "Madness is the exception in individual but the rule in groups". But my favorite quote is by Thomas Carlyle an English author and historian of the 18th century: "I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance". And he is right, mathematically it doesn't add up...So as James Surowiecki makes his case for the wisdom of crowds, putting forth example after example of point on, smart, collective judgments, I will place the Thomas Carlyle quote on my bookmark at the head of every page, to remind myself to read and assimilate critically. This practice is even more so necessary, because James Surowiecki is very convincing. His book is very well structured and balanced, studded with examples from a broad range of disciplines such as sociological studies, investment markets, political polls, gambling and historical anecdotes. It is easy to be swept away into a sort of religious awe at the "miracle" of average "bondedly rational" (term by Herbert Simon) folk arriving at an accurate prediction. The truth is, and James Surowiecki makes it an important point of his hypothesis, there are a few criteria which a crowd needs to meet in order to become wise. They are: "diversity, independence and particular kind of decentralization."
It makes one wonder, the democratic election process encompasses the entire population of a country. Taking the United States as an example, the voting group is definitely diverse and decentralized, but is it independent? I suspect it isn't independent of thought, due to the mass media messages and broadcasts which are sponsored by corporations with specific political agendas. The fact that GW Bush is being inaugurated tonight as President for a second term, ranks as one of the lower scores for the wisdom of crowds. However, Mr. Surowiecki emphasizes that group decisions pertaining to "matters of general interest will, Over Time, be intellectually superior to the isolated individual." So, there is hope for the Democratic process as it is sure, Over Time, to correct its course. I'll end with a quote from the book, which I firmly believe is true and can be extrapolated to encompass many areas of human interaction:
    "Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise."

Regardless of a problem at hand, the best way, the only way, is to fight it out.