Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Crowds, shmouds

kw: commentary, sociology

I've had a couple of instances lately when people said something like, "Well, we can trust the wisdom of the crowd." I didn't know how to reply. For example, there is a controversy that has been going on for decades about the need for professional indexing, versus free text searching, lately known as "Googling". In actuality, the PageRank method used by Google is a kind of popularity contest, with the greatest weight given to the most popular "linkers". It is a kind of human indexing method, using the free labor of those who build web sites, and who have an interest in having the best links. It resembles the "hidden hand" of Adam Smith, that regulates economic well-being due to the selfishness of those who know better than to mistreat their customers (too badly). But this is not really a "wisdom of the crowd" arena.

As described in books like The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the crowd being consulted is a special sort of gathering. For example, if you ask ten or twenty people at a "guess the number of beans in the jar" contest, what their guess is, the average of their guesses is usually closer to the real answer than anyone's individual guess, except for perhaps one or two lucky ones. But the "crowd" has to be consulted on a question of fact, that can be verified by something like counting the beans. On matters of belief, things can get weird quickly.

Of course, we know the difficulties that follow trying to have any kind of rational discussion of either religion or politics when those present have differing views. Mayhem is likely! But just try talking to a few people when some of them have a fixed idea about someone else's intentions. A neighbor once shared with us the cost of installing a cobbled waterway between our properties, the better to carry runoff during rainstorms. But a couple of times, some of the cobbles were moved by the neighbor, and one of us became convinced that there was a malicious intention, such as trying to make more of the water run over our property, rather than out the end of the cobbled way. Asking others' advice yielded quite a range of opinion, and nobody but me suggested the wisest choice, which is to walk over and ask. Though I plan to do just that, I'll have to do it in secret, or risk a real blowup with my loved ones!

Sociology isn't subject to factual, scientific parsing. Being emotionally inept myself, I'll have to play this one carefully. No help from this crowd.

No comments: