What has collective wisdom to do with wisdom?
In J. Elster & H. Landemore (eds.), Collective Wisdom. Cambridge Universuty Press (forthcoming)
Conventional wisdom holds two seemingly opposed beliefs. One is that communities are often much better than individuals at dealing with certain situations or solving certain problems. The other is that crowds are usually, and some say always, at best as intelligent as their least intelligent members and at worst even less. Consistency would seem to be easily re-established by distinguishing between advanced, sophisticated social organizations which afford the supporting communities a high level of collective performance, and primitive, mob-like structures which pull the group towards the lower end of the achievement scale. But this reconciliation meets with some objections. The most familiar ones concern the mixed record of elaborate social systems, which are said to occasionally or even, according to some accounts, systematically produce wrong decisions, poor assessments, disastrous plans, counterproductive measures, etc. A more recent set of objections rests on cases where ‘crowds’, i,e, groups not organized in a sophisticated way, produce good results, in fact, results which better those of most, or even all, members of the group. Such cases are collected in James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds, which argues more generally in favor of an ‘order out of chaos’ view of collective thinking: whether sophisticated or simple, social organizations for the production of knowledge or problem-solving can benefit from the absence of certain individualistc constraints which are traditionally thought to foster excellence in cognitive tasks. This flavor of paradox is enhanced by Surowiecki’s choice of phrase: at the surface level, ‘wisdom of crowds’ conflicts with the well-entrenched cliché of the folly1 of crowds; but at a deeper level, Surowiecki seems to appeal to one frequent connotation of ‘wisdom’ which is precisely its paradoxical character. Whether Surowiecki actually intended to exploit this..
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