Had it with the hive mind?  Dedicated to debunking the creepy notion that crowds are smart?  Ready to get your “digital Maoism” groove on and positively humiliate “the idea that the collective is all-wise?”  Sick and tired of Internet gurus grabbing unearned mind share with fashionable constructs like algorithmic authority, which appear to suggest that the many can be more reliable than the few?

I want to help you make your debunker post the best it can possibly be because you are brave. It takes bravery to go against the new collectivites, a “triumphalist and intolerant cult that doesn’t like to be asked questions.” Just by landng here, you have, I feel, made a statement. You have declared yourself ready to doubt–by rights to reject–the rancid claim called wisdom of crowds and strike a blow for tradition and the individual talent. This is a great statement! But you need to know what to reject when you’re rejecting “technologists who believe that wisdom emerges from vast crowds, rather than from distinct, individual human beings.” You need to be informed.

For if you are not the Maoists will stomp the straw out of you. They are very disciplined.

The claim that crowds are wise comes from a 2004 book by James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. The author is not in fact a technologist, or much of a Maoist, but a business journalist for the New Yorker. Yet he does say that crowds can be wise, so if anyone ever needed to be stomped debunked it’s him, the phrase launcher.

Now when you draft your “I am skeptical…” post, be sure to look carefully at the part in his book (it’s p. 22) where he specifies “the conditions that a group needs to be smart.” Actually, you don’t even have to read the book. The number one hit on a Google search for “wisdom of the crowd” is the Wikipedia entry on the concept; it has a helpful section, “four elements required to form a wise crowd.” They are:

Diversity of opinion: Each person should have private information even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.

Independence: People’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.

Decentralization: People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.

Aggregation: Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.

In other words, all crowds aren’t wise, according the source code for the phrase, “the wisdom of crowds.” Just those that are characterized by a diversity of views, independent thinkers, a distributed and decentralized population, and effective means for aggregating the votes or decisions of individuals. Only when these four conditions are met is there any sort of claim about crowd wisdom available for us to debunk, but please… don’t let this stop you. Remember: you are brave. You are informed… right?

Elsewhere, Surowiecki further qualifies his statement that crowds can be wise.  For example, he says, “Crowds are best when there’s a right answer to a problem or a question,” like who is going to win the election.  Other kinds of questions, not so good.  He is very interested in situations where crowd judgment goes disastrously wrong, like financial bubbles, indicating that he hasn’t lost all his faculties.

Bottom line: you definitely can, and for the love of Einstein should, accuse Surowiecki of being an uncritical crowd worshipper, the spreader of a dangerously deluded and utopian meme. Just keep these subtle complications in mind!  As a wise man once said, “Sometimes loosely structured collective activities yield continuous improvements and sometimes they don’t.”  Indeed: Surowiecki himself says the crowd isn’t strong on cultural questions.  To wit:

Collective wisdom is a good way of coming up with an answer when there is a right or wrong answer (in a kind of Platonic sense) to the question. Which horse is most likely to win this race? What percentage of the vote will George W. Bush get? What will the box-office grosses of “Shrek the Third” be? What are the chances of an outbreak of avian flue in Indonesia in 2008? These are all questions that there is, in some sense, a true answer to (even if we won’t know that answer until much later or perhaps not ever). I’m not sure, though, that the same can be said about a question like: Which movie is better?

Let’s wrap this up. You need to know what to reject when you’re rejecting the idea that the collective is all-wise. Consulting the source code for the idea, we find that crowds are not inherently wise at all. Rather, they are wise when…. there’s a right answer to the question, when the question isn’t a matter of taste or cultural quality, when there is diversity of opinion and independence of mind among group members, when there are specialists who can draw on local knowledge, and when there’s “a way of summarizing people’s opinions into one collective verdict.”  Also, crowds can be blind and stupid, and there’s no point in denying that.

A rickety structure indeed. Now sail forth and knock it down.

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