Competence of Crowds

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Martin Hash
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Competence of Crowds

Post by Martin Hash » Thu Aug 08, 2019 1:54 pm

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There’s an incorrect impression that crowds are smarter than any individual person; it comes from the 2004 book, “Wisdom of Crowds.” What the book says is interesting but it’s a lot of words and complexity for a simple idea; that is, among a crowd of people there’s usually an expert for the decision being made, and other experts for other things. The crowd’s IQ is higher because it’s the highest of each expert in their category. However, there can certainly be even expertier experts who aren’t in the crowd who could out-think the crowd on a particular subject. There could be even be individuals with a higher overall IQ than the whole crowd; uncommon but not rare. It's certainly not that crowds are more intelligent than particular individuals but they may be wiser than the average person. However, changing the word from “wisdom” to “competence,” is a truism: Competence of Crowds can always outperform a single individual in the long run. Competence is learned and nobody, no matter their intelligence, experience & wisdom, has the time to be competent in everything. A super-wisdom person stranded on an island is going have a hard time surviving even with an army of robots laborers to help, but a crowd could build an empire, and have.

There's evidence that crowd competence must exist because, all-in-all, things work & run pretty smoothly. I drive down the road, across bridges, by storefronts, and stop at a restaurant that makes food just the way I like it. I don't know one person who could do a fraction of the things it takes to maintain that supply chain, physical or mentally. Competence of Crowds also crosses over into psychology: everyone I know seems like bundles of neurosis, have a lack of self-awareness, and are easily exploited by and exploitative of others; but we can have a BBQ together and everyone has a great time, and looks forward to the next one. People in the crowd naturally become dominate when they are competent, at the grill for example; and bow out when they aren't: talking about old cars.

Competence of Crowds seems to dominate politics too: talk to any politician and they seem incapable of running their own lives let alone other people's, yet somehow our democratic leadership mechanism is working despite the fact candidates certainly aren't selected for their competence, or their experience, or even their honesty. The lights are on, the water is running, the streets are safe, kids aren't being drafted; that's what government's for, but nobody in charge knows anything but superficial campaign-oriented talking points. The competence of the bureaucracy crowd runs everything.

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Speaker to Animals
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Re: Competence of Crowds

Post by Speaker to Animals » Thu Aug 08, 2019 2:05 pm

I have heard this argument before, but I fundamentally disagree with the assumption that crowds are smarter than experts. For one thing, the experiments are geared towards estimations of measurements (e.g. how much water is in this bucket) that do not carry over to political decisions at all.

Also, I think most of social organization is entirely unconscious anyway. Society works because we don't analyze it too much. Taleb had a good argument justifying the execution of Socrates to this end. If you ask a child who just learned how to ride a bike how exactly it works that he can do that, he is likely to fall. Asking a nascent civilization how it all works could have disastrous effects for similar reasons. To me, attributing society's workings to any conscious political system or decision process misses the deeper point. We just do it.


Another thing.. I doubt the wisdom of the crowd in identifying the most competent experts in the first place. The crowd goes with the most convincing act, not necessarily the actual expert. The climate change issue illustrates that. Freeman Dyson can break down the problem is lucid detail, but he isn't as convincing a demagogue as Al Gore.