How Wise Is the Crowd?

lego crowd

Remember the TV program Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? I’m not sure if it is still on the air, but one of the features was that a participant could use lifelines. He could call a person he thought might know the answer to a question. He could also ask the audience. The latter is all about what became known as the wisdom of crowds.

Years ago, when I was teaching at a university, I used the book The Wisdom of Crowds. The author is James Surowiecki who started the book in his “Financial Page” columns for The New Yorker. His main idea was that it went against the commonly held belief that we (Americans) generally don’t trust what the masses have to say. We don’t like groupthink. We think that things that are extremely popular (books, movies, music..) must somehow not be that great.  Are the great novels, the lasting literature the ones on the top of the bestseller lists? Not usually.

In the book, it says that the TV studio audience of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is correct 91% of the time. Surowiecki says that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”

According to the show’s rules, “The Contestant asks the studio audience which answer they believe is correct. Members of the studio audience indicate their choices by pressing the key on their keypad corresponding to the correct answer. The Contestant will receive the results of the studio audience vote.”

The contestant also has “Phone-A-Friend” where you call a pre-arranged friend.  Maybe you have a friend with expertise on that question. Compared to that 91% score from the audience, the “experts” guess correctly only 65% of the time.  Still, people often trust supposed experts. That makes the idea of the wisdom of the crowd somewhat counter-intuitive.

The book’s examples include problems that involve cognition, coordination, and cooperation in real situations, like driving in traffic, competing on game shows, maximizing stock market performance, voting, or designing an Internet search engine.

In general, he believes that a wise crowd’s “collective intelligence” will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, if they can meet certain conditions.

The crowd needs to have a diversity of opinions. It needs to get different information. Members need to be independent of members from one another so that one strong leader doesn’t dominate. You need decentralization so that errors are balanced by others. Finally, you need a good method for aggregating opinions so that all opinions are included in the decisions. On the TV show that is done with anonymous electronic voting.

I think those conditions for crowdsourcing answers and accessing the wisdom of crowds is a decent model for a working group. Would it work in a classroom? How about with a large group of family members? It might be difficult to get all those conditions in those other settings.

We have heard more than a few times in recent years when discussing Congress, the Senate, and the voting public that the Founding Fathers did not trust the crowd. James Madison and the Founders deliberately designed a government that would resist what they considered to be “mob rule.” The crowd was not wise at all.

“Madison’s reading convinced him that direct democracies—such as the assembly in Athens, where 6,000 citizens were required for a quorum—unleashed populist passions that overcame the cool, deliberative reason prized above all by Enlightenment thinkers. ‘In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason,’ he argued in The Federalist Papers, the essays he wrote (along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay) to build support for the ratification of the Constitution. ‘Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.’
…What would Madison make of American democracy today, an era in which Jacksonian populism looks restrained by comparison? Madison’s worst fears of mob rule have been realized—and the cooling mechanisms he designed to slow down the formation of impetuous majorities have broken.”


Photo by Snapwire on

Reflecting on this day of Thanksgiving, Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that we, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

For the book, On Gratitude, a number of writers took Emerson’s charge, listing some of the specific things that helped them in their writing career — things for which they are grateful.

In the book, Kurt Vonnegut said: “I’ve said it before: I write in the voice of a child. That makes me readable in high school. Simple sentences have always served me well. And I don’t use semicolons. It’s hard to read anyway, especially for high school kids. Also, I avoid irony. I don’t like people saying one thing and meaning the other. Simplicity and sincerity, two things I am grateful for.”

John Updike said: “I’m not a movie star or a rock star. I maybe get two or three letters a week out of the blue, for some reason, and as I’m an old guy now, most of the letters are kindly. They do keep you going. This is an unsponsored job. I don’t get paid without readers. So I appreciate that enduring fan base. It does keep me going. And for someone to take the time to say they like me. That’s a blessing.”

Joyce Carol Oates said: “I was only about eight years old when I first read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and when we’re very, very young almost anything that comes into our lives that’s special or unique or profound can have the effect of changing us … I virtually memorized most of Alice … That blend of the surreal and the nightmare of the quotidian have always stayed with me. My sense of reality has been conditioned by that book, certainly, and I am grateful for it.”

Jonathan Safran Foer said: “I’m grateful for anything that reminds me of what’s possible in this life. Books can do that. Films can do that. Music can do that. School can do that. It’s so easy to allow one day to simply follow into the next, but every once in a while we encounter something that shows us that anything is possible, that dramatic change is possible, that something new can be made, that laughter can be shared.”

Thinking About Infinity. Check My Math.

I have been thinking about infinity.

I was never good at math in school but I have always been fascinated by numbers. Here is what I have been running through my thoughts. Check my math.

infinity + 1 = infinity, which makes it seem like that 1 is a zero – no effect.

What about infinity minus 1? It has to be less than infinity. Right? So, what is the answer?

infinity + infinity = infinity

But infinity – infinity = 0

Two things inspired this infinitely frustrating thought experiment. First, I watched the film A Trip to Infinity (on Netflix). This 2022 documentary explores the concept of infinity through interviews with mathematicians and physicists.

The second inspiration was the much lighter sitcom Young Sheldon. In a recent episode, the precocious and young genius Sheldon comes to doubt the existence of zero. He is tutoring his not-very-bright neighbor Billy in math. During the session, Billy naively asks how zero can simultaneously exist as something but be nothing. The question causes Sheldon to have a kind of existential crisis. He turns to the two professors he works with and they can’t really answer the question and have some mathematical doubts too. It’s not unlike the physicist and mathematicians in the infinity film who have answers about defining infinity but don’t really agree or even seem very confident.

Sheldon rejects religion and God which is very important to his very Christian mother. Somewhat incongruously, when Sheldon talks with Billy again, Billy suggests they just pretend zero exists. Sheldon interprets this as an act of faith and that restores him.

It’s not that you can’t find a definition of “infinity.” It is that which is boundless, endless, or larger than any natural number. The ancient Greeks discussed the philosophical nature of infinity. In the 17th century, we get the infinity symbol and infinitesimal calculus. Working in the foundations of calculus, it was unclear whether infinity could be considered as a number or magnitude and, if so, how this could be done.

By the end of the 19th century, people were studying infinite sets and infinite numbers, and infinity was clearly a mathematical concept. In physics and cosmology, whether the Universe is infinite is still an open question.

There is a section of the film that I rewatched and it still doesn’t make sense. One physicist says that if you place an apple in a box it will decay into mush and then dust. Then, it becomes microscopic particles and then it becomes one with the universe. Whoa. Give it enough time, and it will become an apple again. What?

I think the connection between the film and the TV episode is the futility of wrestling with paradoxes. You probably will end up accepting that with all of our knowledge we will likely never explain or comprehend the greater existential realities of the universe.

Aristotle said that the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Not that we shouldn’t think about these things. Just don’t expect an answer.

Playing With Time


Do you enjoy the game of turning the clocks back before bedtime and getting an “extra hour” of sleep as Daylight Savings Time (DST) ends? According to my Fitbit, I actually got less sleep last night than usual.

There is not much more to say about Daylight Savings Time that I haven’t already said, so read up if you missed those earlier posts. But this month, I have heard more squawking about DST than in past years. I saw that there are actually items on ballots for this week’s elections about getting rid of DST in some states. Congress would need to act to allow states to change since federal law doesn’t permit it. Only two states don’t observe DST – Hawaii and Arizona (though the Navajo Nation, which cuts through part of Arizona, does).

Moving ahead with clocks in spring is the game that seems to cause more problems psychologically and physiologically with people and their internal clocks. Honestly, I’ve never really felt any effect with the spring or fall changes. Maybe my internal clock is already screwed up.

What would it be like if we didn’t change our clocks twice a year?

If we were on Standard Time all year – which is what is most often proposed – we would probably notice it most during the summer. Without summertime DST, on the longest day of the year (June 21), the sun would rise at 4:11 a.m. and would set at 8:10 p.m. That’s early sunlight through your bedroom window. You might get nostalgic with those old DST later sunsets during summer.

What if we were on Daylight Saving Time year-round? You would notice it more during the winter months. On the shortest day of the year (December 21), the sun wouldn’t rise until 8:54 a.m. and would set at 5:20 p.m.

Halloween, Martians and Radio Terrorists

On Halloween back in 1938, Martians invaded the United States.

They did it in the form of a radio play. Orson Welles was behind this invasion and he used H.G. Well’s classic story, The War of the Worlds, as the blueprint.

I have written before about when the Martians landed in New Jersey that Halloween (October 30, 1938) but I had listened to an episode of Radiolab that told me more about not only the events of that day but about the similar events that have occurred since. (The episode unfortunately does not seem to be available anymore.)

The 1938 broadcast fooled over a million people when it originally aired. That includes regular folks listening to their radios, particularly in the area around Grover’s Mill, New Jersey where the Martians supposedly landed, but also the military, police and government officials.

The amazing thing I learned is that the broadcast was imitated a number of times since then in places like Santiago, Chile, Buffalo, New York and in a quite tragic fashion in Quito, Ecuador.

In this age of heightened security and alerts, it is strange to learn that when Orson Welles played his little Halloween stunt he was labeled by the FCC as a “radio terrorist.”

The audience’s reaction of panic and mass hysteria was more than Welles had expected, though he loved the attention. It certainly had something to do with the pre-WWII atmosphere of that time. Radiolab said that some reports in New Jersey that night were that Nazis had invaded.

In the broadcast, Welles plays the role of a Princeton professor of astronomy who is called on as an expert.

I would assume that an audience today listening to the original broadcast would not be fooled by its corniness. It mixes “real” radio music and talk with the radio play and that was why listeners were taken in by it. The news breaks – which were a fairly new radio thing – get more frequent until they become all that we hear.

Of course, anyone in 1938 could have turned to another station and discovered that no one else was reporting news of an invasion by Martians. But most people didn’t change the channel.

Welles on the air

Some people after the broadcast suggested that it was all planned by Welles, but that is like planning a viral video. It just doesn’t work that way. If you are a conspiracy theory fan, you’ll like this Wikipedia report:

“It has been suggested that War of the Worlds was a psychological warfare experiment. In the 1999 documentary, Masters of the Universe: The Secret Birth of the Federal Reserve, writer Daniel Hopsicker claims the Rockefeller Foundation funded the broadcast, studied the panic, and compiled a report available to a few. A variation has the Radio Project and the Rockefeller Foundation as conspirators. In a theatrical trailer for his film F For Fake, Welles joked about such theories, jesting that the broadcast indeed “had secret sponsors.”

The Martian “landing site” now has a monument in Van Nest Park in West Windsor Township, New Jersey.

I actually drove to the “Martian landing site” near Princeton. I didn’t expect to see Martians, but I was hoping for a few UFO conspiracy people to have a conversation with – but it was deserted.

Go ahead and listen to the War of the Worlds original radio broadcast and you will probably be amused and a bit bored. That is how I reacted to hearing it years ago. And that is why I was so interested in the Radiolab show that took it further.

Could it happen again? Could more modern audiences be fooled? In 1949, Radio Quito did the play in a version for their Ecuadorian listeners and it was taken quite seriously and resulted in a riot that burned down the radio station and killed at least seven people.

I think the story of how people reacted to news of a “cylindrical meteorite” landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey is a fascinating study in psychology. When that meteorite unscrews and a tentacled Martian comes out and blasts the crowd with a heat ray, all hell breaks loose.

Why Martians? They were well established as the lines to worry about in the science fiction of the 1940s and 50s.

In the program, police, firefighters, and the NJ state militia get involved, Martial law is declared in Jersey. The Martians get out their tripod machines and soldiers, citizens, power stations, transportation, and buildings fall before them.

The “Secretary of the Interior” advises the nation and there are reports of cylinders falling all across the country. Tripods cross the Hudson River and attack New York City. A reporter atop the CBS building in NYC is knocked out by some strange gas. Then we hear a ham radio operator (How did he get on the CBS bandwidth?) calling, “2X2L calling CQ. Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there…. anyone?”

After a station identification, the announcer reminded listeners that this was all a story. But by then people must have been packing and heading outside. My parents, who lived through it and listened to it live, told me that people in our hometown of Irvington, NJ headed for the South Orange Mountains. People reported smelling poison gas. There were reports of flashes of light – ray guns – in the distance.

If you hung in there for the end of the original program, you got the same ending as in H.G Wells’ original The War of the Worlds novel. The Martians were defeated not by our weapons, but by our own “alien” germs and bacteria that killed them off. Orson Welles told listeners for the third time after the play that the show was just a Halloween story, but the damage (or fun) was already done.

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Vacation Time

Is your vacation time totally separated from your work time? Photo by Mateusz Dach on

This weekend blog has been my weekend escape. It’s not a vacation. I take vacations I tend to queue up some posts here so that I don’t seem to be on vacation.

My mechanic and his wife were closing the shop for a week. I asked them where they were going. They said that they might go to the Jersey shore for a few days. Nothing big. When they returned, I asked again. They did three days at the shore, took their grandkids to the zoo, and got some “things done around the house.” The latter sounds like “work.”

I was reading that Americans are terrible at taking time for vacations. Workers lose their vacation days, trade them for other benefits, and when they take time off it is often like the couple above – staycations and working vacations. Almost half of the employees surveyed worked an hour a day while on vacation last year.

The United States has no federal paid vacation policy. It is one of only a handful of countries without guaranteed paid annual leave. In 1910, President William Howard Taft said two weeks off was not enough for people to protect their “health and constitution.” How much did he suggest? Two or three months.

In the European Union, workers receive a minimum of four weeks of paid holidays annually. France guarantees 30 days of paid annual leave, and Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland have set the minimum at four weeks of paid annual leave.

But if Americans aren’t even using the days they do get (two weeks is still pretty standard), what would happen if they got more time off?

What reasons do workers give for having unused vacation days? Sadly, some felt they couldn’t adequately disconnect from work while on vacation. Some say they can’t feel relaxed or connect with loved ones at home. Some thought time off would bring up negative outcomes, such as feeling stressed or having financial burdens.

Working during your time off? Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva on