Blogger’s Corner: Collective Wisdom or Delusional Thinking?

This week, I’m putting up two pieces discussing the political problems and potential of what has been called ‘the wisdom of crowds.’  Coincidentally, they both came from writers for the New Yorker.

The first piece is from Menand’s review of economist Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter (Princeton, 2007), which might be called, ‘Who cares what you think, anyway?’ (I said, economist, not ‘political economist’).  Here’s a good sample of Menand’s summary:

The average voter is not held in much esteem by economists and political scientists, and Caplan rehearses some of the reasons for this. The argument of his book, though, is that economists and political scientists have misunderstood the problem. They think that most voters are ignorant about political issues; Caplan thinks that most voters are wrong about the issues, which is a different matter, and that their wrong ideas lead to policies that make society as a whole worse off. We tend to assume that if the government enacts bad policies, it’s because the system isn’t working properly—and it isn’t working properly because voters are poorly informed, or they’re subject to demagoguery, or special interests thwart the public’s interest. Caplan thinks that these conditions are endemic to democracy. They are not distortions of the process; they are what you would expect to find in a system designed to serve the wishes of the people. “Democracy fails,” he says, “because it does what voters want.” It is sometimes said that the best cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. Caplan thinks that the best cure is less democracy. He doesn’t quite say that the world ought to be run by economists, but he comes pretty close.

To counter this, I’m putting up blogger-journalist Emily Gordon’s interview with James Surowiecki, whose best-selling book The Wisdom of Crowds helped to popularize the notion that collectively-held knowledge could be more powerful than that of individual experts.  Here Surowiecki talks frankly about the limitations of the paradigm he has written about.  When asked whether ‘wired first world life’ might translate into different, more immediate forms of political participation, he responds:

The simple answer is: I don’t know.  I think that it’s clear that lots and lots of people want their opinions to be heard — and want them to, in some sense, make a difference. And I hope that that will, at the very least, translate into people voting in greater numbers, and even contributing to political campaigns in greater numbers. (It’s possible we actually saw some evidence of this in 2006.) But there is a big gap between dialing a call-in number on “American Idol” and participating in a demonstration, let alone actually doing real labor organizing. The thing about lower-tech forms of collective action is that they’re often hard, not just in the sense of being demanding in terms of time and energy, but also in the sense that they require tremendous amounts of patience and a willingness to defer immediate gratification. Unlike electing Jordin Sparks this year’s American Idol, social and political change does not happen in a few hours, or even a few months. So I’m not sure we can expect the “democracy” of the Net and of modern media to lead to an efflorescence of real-world activism. But that doesn’t mean that participatory democracy in the wired world is unimportant. We just have to be realistic about what it can accomplish.

There’s a lot we could discuss here, but my question would be, what happens once we assume that ‘experts’ as well as ‘crowds,’ may harbor, communicate, and even defend their ‘prejudices’?  How will those errors and prejudices be corrected, or at least countered, in public discourse?  Who is responsible, we might ask, for correcting them?



One response to “Blogger’s Corner: Collective Wisdom or Delusional Thinking?

  1. Of course, now that I think of it, the ‘wisdom of crowds’ approach would suggest that committees, academic departments, parliaments–organizations of all kinds–would be smarter and more effective than individual managers and directors. Yet my experience is that faculty, for example, dread committee work and the time spent working with others.

    Organizational structures seem to have a wonderfully neutralizing effect on such collective wisdom. It must have something to do with the lack of transparency or accountability in such arrangements, the absence of an author-function to trace back the decisions and how they were ‘made.’ It reminds me of the great line in ‘The President’s Analyst’: ‘Everybody hates the phone company. Even the people who work for the phone company hate the phone company.’