The Wisdom of Crowds

I received an e-mail today from MoveOn.org, requesting that I vote to set MoveOn.org’s priorities for 2009. They said that they “believe in the ‘wisdom of crowds’ – the idea that by pooling our collective intelligence, we’re smarter than any of us would be alone.

I find this to be an astonishing thought, and a slightly depressing one: to think that we all could have done so much better in school by simply pooling our collective intelligence during the final exams. Wow. And I wasted all that time studying the subject matter….

The more I think about this concept, the more ridiculous it becomes. It is true that, out of the five million individuals who make up the MoveOn.org membership, there is a chance that at least one person actually knows exactly what to do about the current economic mess, to pick just one example. But I’m willing to bet very good money that there are at least another 4.9 million people who haven’t a foggy clue – and I’m afraid I’m one of that vast majority. And I’m sure that at least half of those (including myself) have an ignorant opinion on the matter.

So we have around 2.5 million people expressing their ignorant opinions, and one person who actually has the answer who hasn’t a prayer of being heard over all the shouting. What to do? I know! Let’s “pool our intelligence” with a vote, and let the majority rule! Isn’t that what democracy is all about?

It’s amazing how fundamentally people misunderstand democracy.

Democracy has nothing to do with crowds being smart. Crowds are not smart. Try speaking in front of one, sometime. A good rule of thumb for crowds is to take the intelligence, or wisdom, or goodwill of the best and brightest person in the room, then divide by the number of people present. A crowd of five million averages out to pretty much zero on every scale.

Democracy isn’t about intelligence or wisdom, it is about the “consent of the governed.” It is about the majority saying, “We are going to stop pulling apart in every possible direction, and allow the leadership – a Congress, a President, a system of courts – to govern. We will voluntarily give away our individual power and play ‘follow-the-leader’ for the good of the whole.” Almost by definition, the majority does not think. It follows. The result is not the wisdom of crowds, it is the brute-strength of crowds, which (unlike the crowd’s intelligence) is quite formidable.

What has really happened with MoveOn.org, I think, is that it has outlived its purpose. It was started as a grass-roots effort to resist conservatism. With Obama in the Oval Office and a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, they no longer have anything to push against, and they are trying to decide who they are.

If their leadership figures it out, I’ll decide whether I consent to be governed, depending on how well they make their case. It isn’t looking too good, though. Not if the best reason they can give me is a simple majority among 2.5 million ignorant opinions.

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