David's Reviews > The Wisdom of Crowds

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
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Oct 20, 08

Recommended for: Intellectually curious and dynamic people

When I first heard about this book, I was somewhat skeptical. Most of the examples given suggested that the aggregate opinion of a test sample might reflect or predict the OPINION of another group (e.g. an opinion poll predicting the Oscars) but not a physical fact. However, several examples in this book showed that a "crowd" could be right about physical facts too, like the weight of a pig, the number of beans in a bar , the whereabouts of a sunken vessel and even responsibility for the first space shuttle disaster.

This does not mean that a crowd can formulate - or even choose between - advanced scientific theories. But their aggregate wisdom can reflect underlying reality in a vast range of circumstances. This has implications for many areas of human activity.

This book does well to give a number of examples. It even shows the limitations of collective wisdom, as when people act like sheep instead of independently - giving rise to such phenomena as stock market bubbles. But I couldn't help feeling that it was built up into a completely coherent picture. the author instead simply went on at great length in those cases where he had a lot of information and in brief when he had only a limited amount of information.

What I felt was needed was a more rigorous and structured approach as to when and how to apply the wisdom of crowds.

One point on which Surowiecki is wrong was in his comparison of right answers by members of the audience and "expert" friends in the TV quiz show WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE. He writes: "it's possible, though not likely, that the audiences were asked easier questions. " His assumption that it is unlikely is quite arbitrary. First of all the audience tends to be asked more on the earlier questions which are presumed to be easier (according to the way the game is devised).

Also, the questions that are put to the audience are usually questions about popular culture (TV shows, movies and popular music) which one would be expect to be well known precisely amongst the kind of people who are likely to attend a TV studio as members of the audience. The phone-a-friend lifeline was usually saved for questions that had nothing to do with popular culture.

That said, the book does illustrate a certain widespread phenomenon that can be tapped or harnessed by businesses and social reformers alike.
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