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.”

Simple Wisdom

On another blog of mine I had been posting a series of short pieces of simple wisdom. That blog began as “Evenings in Paradelle” and I intended it to be shorter weekday posts while this blog are the longer Weekends in Paradelle posts. That blog became One Page Schoolhouse and has occasional posts that I hope inform readers.

Some of those short posts included Zen koans, quotations, and aphorisms. (I don’t see quotes and aphorisms as the same thing.) Some of the posts were migrated to this blog.)

An aphorism (literally “distinction” or “definition”, from the Greek) is an original thought, spoken or written in a “laconic” and memorable form.

The Aphorisms of Hippocrates is one of the earliest collections which includes aphorisms like this one:

 “Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting,
experience misleading, judgment difficult.”

There are aphoristic collections (AKA wisdom literature) such as the Sutra literature of India, the Biblical Ecclesiastes, and in the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Robert A. Heinlein, Blaise Pascal, and Oscar Wilde. There are anthologies like the Oxford Book of Aphorisms.

There is even an anthology of Ifferisms – aphorisms that begin with the word “If.” Some samples:

“If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”  
– The Bible (Matthew 15:14)

“If we have not peace within ourselves, it is vain to seek it from outward sources.” 
– François de la Rochefoucauld

“If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how.”  
–  Friedrich Nietzsche

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”   
– Scottish Proverb

“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”  
–  Booker T. Washington

Some examples, like those below gleaned from a Wikipedia entry, do seem indistinguishable from the kinds of quotes you find in quote books and on posters and bookmarks.

Good art seems ancient to its contemporaries, and modern to their descendants.
— Plutarch

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

That which does not destroy us makes us stronger.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

It is not uncommon to commiserate with a stranger’s misfortune, but it takes a really fine nature to appreciate a friend’s success.
— Oscar Wilde

No good deed goes unpunished.
— It said Clare Boothe Luce but I’m pretty sure it was Tacitus

It is better to be hated for what one is, than loved for what one is not.
— André Gide

I’m going to add my own spin on the definition of aphorism. When you pull a clever line out of essay, poem, novel or other work, that’s a quotation. When someone sits down and writes an original short, memorable line that makes sense when you read it but it makes even more sense when you read it again and think about it, that is an aphorism.

I am going to nominate here some aphorisms written by James Richardson. He is an acquaintance. (A quaint phrase for someone who you can’t call a friend because you don’t know them that well, but have met and know better than many of your Facebook and Twitter “friends.”)

I could add a list of them here, but they are not best consumed in handfuls. To me, the best of them are like Western koans.

If you view a kōan as an “unanswerable” question, then you may not even want to seek an answer – but people DO answer koans. Rather than see them as unanswerable or even meaningless, look for an answer. Don’t get hung up on the “correct” answer because that is a dead-end. Koans do have some traditional recorded answers” (kenjō), but don’t be fooled into believing that they are anything more than additional questions.

Richardson’s aphorisms are not usually questions, so they don’t have answers. They are quotable. They require additional thought and explication.

Here are four of Jim’s aphorisms. Consume slowly.

The road reaches every place, the shortcut only one.

Shadows are harshest when there is only one lamp.

Each lock makes two prisons.

All stones are broken stones.

You can find more of James Richardson’s aphorisms in:
Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms  
Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays  
Life as Viewed in a Mirror: a Bok of Poems and Aphorisms

Also worth a read is Jim’s By the Numbers which was a National Book Award Finalist. 

Personal Philosophy

I wrote elsewhere yesterday about personal koans, but I am still thinking about them this morning.

Koans are a fundamental part of Zen Buddhism. They are short teachable moments in the form of a story, dialogue, question, or statement. They are rarely clear in meaning at first reading, and that is part of their point. Take them as a starting point for personal inquiry and see where they lead. I have been posting some on the other Paradelle blog.

But now I am thinking more about your own personal ones. They probably shouldn’t be labeled koans at all. These bits of personal wisdom might well be a quotation from another person or part of someone’s writing (fiction or non-fiction).

I have a notebook full of quotes I have collected over the years. Not all of them are ones I would consider part of my personal philosophy. Some are funny. Some are beautiful strings of words.

Then again, maybe those ARE part of my philosophy. Like those teaching koans, the idea is to engage the mind and not worry about finding the answer.

That other post when inspired by something I read on Tricycle about using open-ended questions as a kind of koan. (from a book by Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel called The Power of an Open Question.)

As I turn through my book of quotes, I find a few that do contain part of my personal philosophy. Maybe my philosophy grew partly from encountering the words, but more often it seems that I find a quote that states something I already believe, but in a way that I haven’t verbalized myself.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” is one by Anaïs Nin that seems to me to be true for probably all of us.

And I see a Zen koan quality to Yogi Berra saying, “How can you think and hit at the same time?”  A beautiful lesson in being in the moment. It was something my one son needed to learn in both baseball and football. He would overthink situations. Of course, it applies in other non-sporting situations too.  Sometimes, he who hesitates IS lost.

It’s probably not useful for me to just reprint a long list of my favorite quotes. And it probably would be more useful to me if I sat down and tried to write out my own philosophy instead of looking for it in the words of others.

That’s the really difficult task.

I think of Robert Frost saying “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”  And that makes me think of  “And so it goes…” from Kurt Vonnegut and that leads me to his other line “Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”

Can you sum up everything you’ve learned so far in a line or two?

The Power of an Open Question: The Buddha's Path to Freedom
The Power of an Open Question: The Buddha’s Path to Freedom

The Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koans
The Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koans