The wisdom of democracy


In 1906, the English scientist Sir Francis Galton attended a livestock show where 800 people purchased the chance to guess the weight of an 1,198-pound ox after it was slaughtered and dressed.

Some of the contestants were butchers and farmers who had a pretty good chance of being right. Others were just fair-goers. Galton saw the parallel with democracy.

“The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes,” he later wrote in an article.

Once the contest was over, Galton obtained all the guesses. Some of course, were very wrong. But the median guess — the one in the middle, in other words — was 1,207 pounds. And the average of all the guesses was 1,197.

As individuals, they all missed it. As a group, they were one pound off.

That’s why you should vote on Tuesday, if you haven’t already voted.

In his 2005 book, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” author James Surowiecki listed many examples where the masses were wiser than individuals. On the TV game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” the most reliable lifeline wasn’t “Phone a friend,” in which the contestant presumably was calling their smartest acquaintance in a particular field. It was “Ask the audience,” where random strangers were asked to vote on the answer. Ninety-one percent of the time, the answer with the most votes was the correct one. In another case, a finance professor polled his class as to the number of jelly beans in a jar. The average of his 56 students’ estimates was 871 – only 21 more than the actual number. Only one student guessed closer. The day the space shuttle Challenger exploded, stocks for its four major contractors first tumbled, but then three quickly recovered, with only Morton Thiokol ending the day with a substantially decreased value. That’s the company that made the defective O-rings that turned out to be responsible for the explosion, though nobody knew that at the time. Somehow the market sensed that Morton Thiokol would be the most harmed.

According to Surowiecki, a “wise crowd” must have several conditions, including a diversity of opinion and an environment where people make up their own minds independently. Such a diverse collection often is wiser than like-minded experts, because like-minded people engage in groupthink. Meanwhile, people who are too influenced by the opinions of others cluster around group norms.

The “wisdom of crowds” is not a perfect explanation for how the world works, Surowiecki wrote. Maybe the stock market just guessed right on Morton Thiokol, and maybe the game show contestants asked easy questions of the audience and saved the tough ones for their smart friends. Or maybe their friends weren’t that smart.

He also questioned its application for democracy because guessing the weight of an ox is not the same as choosing a political candidate. There really was a definite, concrete answer in the first case. In politics, there rarely is.

Still, there is something to this, and maybe a lot. As individuals, we don’t know much. But you know things I don’t know, and I know things you don’t know. We accomplish more when we combine our expertise. We’re freer, too.

Four years ago, a little less than 1.1 million Arkansans went to the polls, about half the eligible voting age population, according to the United States Elections Project. The numbers are similar nationwide.

That’s a problem because certain types of people — most notably the young — don’t vote in nearly as high percentages as others, and when that happens, the crowd becomes more homogenized. An electorate composed only of people over age 35 is not the wisest crowd we can have. Besides, it’s young people who’ll most deal with the consequences of Tuesday’s vote.

Likewise, the “crowd” being elected to Congress is not very diverse. It’s two parties dominated by liberals and conservatives, with a dwindling number in between. There’s a lot of groupthink happening in Washington, if you haven’t noticed – and not a lot of wisdom on display lately.

Galton, by the way, wasn’t just interested in ox weight-guessing. Prior to that experiment, he was the founder of the eugenics movement, which basically says that mankind can be improved by selective breeding. Charles Darwin was his cousin.

In other words, his big idea was that certain people are just better than others and should be encouraged to reproduce for the sake of the gene pool.

But after witnessing the ox weight-guessing contest, he wrote in that same article, “This result is, I think, more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgment than might have been expected.”

The article was titled “Vox Populi,” which is Latin for “voice of the people.”

Appropriate for a democracy, don’t you think?

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com