Democracy and the ‘Wisdom’ of Crowds

In an earlier post, “On political agnosticism”, I shared my struggle with participating in electoral politics in a way consistent with Platonic notions of justice. (Please understand that I am not advocating that anyone else adopt my practice of not-voting — perhaps it is my understanding of Platonic justice that is in error.) In this post, I want to think against myself a little bit.

Perhaps democratic elections are a phenomenon of the type described by James Surowiecki’s (excellent) book “The Wisdom of Crowds.”  There Surowiecki provides some vivid examples of crowds converging on truth through the aggregation of their untutored guessing. A few of the more impressive of his illustrations:

1. In 1906, the British scientist Francis Galton attended a livestock fair, which had as one of its diversions a contest to guess the weight of fat ox on display. The closest guess would win a prize. Each of the 800 contestants paid 6 pence each to enter the contest. The participants were a diverse lot. The crowd of guessers included some who might be presumed to have some particular expertise in reckoning weight such as butchers and cattle farmers, but a fair number of non-experts competed. The correct weight was 1197; the average guess of the crowd was 1198 — a nearly perfect guess!

2. In 1968, the U.S. submarine Scorpion disappeared in the North Atlantic and the Navy had only a vague idea of where it may have gone down. Although the search are was a seemingly manageable twenty miles in diameter, it may have well have been the entire ocean given the great depths involved (many thousands of feet). Something closer to pinpoint accuracy would be required to find a submarine on the bottom of the ocean. The Navy consulted a variety of experts with diverse forms of knowledge relevant to the task, not only submariners but oceanographers, meteorologists, mathematicians and salvage men. Again the results were aggregated (although this time not averaged but employing Bayesean updating of the original guess based on the various inputs.) When the submarine was originally found five months later, it was a mere 220 yards from the aggregated result.

Surely these two examples are impressive pieces of evidence for the value of the aggregation of guesses. Perhaps something similar happens in a democracy. You may be biased one way and I in another, so that, when we vote, our biases cancel and our best notions converge toward something like a good result. Perhaps good governance can be the emergent effect of a lot of good and bad surmises — the bad guesses tend to cancel and the good guesses tend to converge. (Since two opinions may or may not be in agreement; two knowers always are.) That is the hope that lies behind our faith in democracies, yes?

There is a problem though. The “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon is only effective if the guesses are uncorrelated with each other. For a democratic process to converge on wisdom, the voters must be diverse and independent of one another. But in a media saturated age, they rarely are. The voices of the loudest demagogues and media sources cause the aggregation of bias, and not distributed wisdom. The scandalized response of each side to the bias of the other side then tends to enforces each bias rather than cancelling it. So if we imagine independent opinion scattered in a bell-curve pattern around a virtuous mean position (which is a presupposition of the wisdom of crowds phenomenon) then the correlating of bias leads to the extremes to be favored over the virtuous mean. We get a choice between biases and not a choice that contributes to the dampening of bias. This is the absurd position toward which elections in the media-age lead us. Pick your poison.

You can see this problem of a contaminating correlations in committees. The wisdom of crowds only function if there is sufficient diversity of opinion in the group. Assuming that diversity exists (i.e. rarely), a vote should be taken right away, before anyone sways the opinion of anyone else. This is not what happens. Instead, the committee will discuss the issue; and the less confident will become swayed by the more confident, decreasing the diversity and increasing the correlation with the bias of the more confident. When the vote is taken, the dominant bias is confirmed, the very bias that we hope to eliminate by aggregating diverse opinions. Committees often produce results that are dumber than the sum of its parts. Perhaps you have noticed.

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it…good and hard.” — H. L. Mencken

Where diversity of opinion is lost, the demos becomes an ochlos, an undifferentiated crowd. The “motives” of a crowd are by their very definition purposeless and random. A crowd usually moves toward whatever attracts its basest impulses. Since cultural/personal advance must often move against the gravity of the pull of mere sentiment and appetite, the target of those playing to the crowd must often be the civilizing forces that urge moderating checks on appetitive behavior, along with hatreds, resentments and fears. The result is usually not pretty.

“Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.” — Soren Kierkegaard

Now, I am certainly a believer in the distributed wisdom of the many in a society. I agree with the proponents of democracy that everyone has something vital to contribute to defining the concrete ends of politics. I do not want to hand the reigns of society over to “experts” who disregard the people’s true interests. (FYI — I don’t think Plato did either.) I simply disagree that the mechanism of voting for electoral candidates is a productive means for teasing out the collective wisdom that is the aim of a virtuous politics. I think the virtuous political path can never be to turn my ignorance into power at the ballot box.

It opens the question as to what Socrates meant when he said in the Gorgias that he was the only practitioner of the “true political art:

“I am one of the few Athenians perhaps indeed the only one who studies the true political art, and that I alone of my contemporaries put it into practice, because what I say on any occasion is not designed to please, and because I aim not at what is most agreeable but at what is best.” (Gorgias, 512d)

Is the “true political art” really just the Socratic form of pedagogy? And can it serve as a model for virtuous practice for anyone else? Why isn’t Plato’s Gorgias at the forefront of political education?


4 thoughts on “Democracy and the ‘Wisdom’ of Crowds

  1. Democracy very well may be the second lowest form of government, but what other realistic options do we have? Where are we going to find a philosopher-kind with access to the Form of the Good able to rule benevolently?

    I’m willing to participate in representative democracy, but only begrudgingly.

  2. For all its blustering, American democracy takes a pretty dim view of human nature. The best we hope for is that by pitting parties with competing self-interests against one another the outcome will be acceptable to everyone.

    Or like your example suggests, perhaps factional politics is the real culprit. But how many of us are truly able to think independently?

    • My point is not that we should ditch the idea of democracy — it is rather to question whether it’s flaws can be overcome by “voting better.” I don’t think they can.

      For instance, right now we have a winner-take-all spoils system so that if 50.5% of the population favor an idea that 49.5% reject, the 50.5% is given 100% of the power to effect it. In the very issues that divide people, we grant full power to a factional “solution” whether from the right or left. This increases the rancor of the other side and make electioneering all the more desperate.

      Every new policy passed incubates it’s own special interest with systems of bureaucracy gamed by lobbyists, attorneys, etc. I recommend Jonathan Rauch’s excellent book THE END OF GOVERNMENT for an analysis of this problem. Ours has become a government of the rent-seekers, for the rent-seekers and by the rent-seekers.

      As I mentioned in my post, I am a basic believer in the “wisdom of crowds” — I just think our current systems smothers that wisdom rather than amplifying it. (On this point, I recommend Hayek’s essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society” which you can find easily by googling it.)

      So I think the Socratic way has merit as a way to practice politics — try to convince a few that they don’t know as much as they think they know. Demonstrate epistemological modesty in your judgments and claims. Don’t parrot unexamined slogans. Interrogate the slogans. Don’t vote for those who don’t know what they are doing, who exaggerate what they think they know, who demonize those who disagree, who don’t grasp the larger systemic problem. In my universe, that suggests “Don’t vote” as a corollary.

  3. BTW, Socrates’ solution in the Republic isn’t really a “Philosopher King.” The critical quote is “Unless either philosophers become kings in our states or those whom we now call our kings and rulers take to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophy, while the motley horde of the natures who at present pursue either apart from the other are compulsorily excluded, there can be no cessation of troubles, dear Glaucon, for our states, nor, I fancy, for the human race either.” [473c-d] The essential requirement for actually just cities is the conjunction of political power (dynamis politike) and philosophy (philosophia). Now if the people are to assume rule, each must exercise whatever power they are given (and voting is a power) by the light of philosophy. The rest of Book V is concerned with answering the question “What is meant by ‘philosopher’?” It does not mean those who have philosophy degrees surely. It means those who act in accordance with the measure of wisdom they have and pursue zealously the wisdom they lack. These can only be “seen” by the light of the Idea of the Good, which means concretely just this: the vision to act wisely and pursue wisdom where lacking. Modern politics pursues energetically exercises of power well beyond the limits of wisdom and are not at all interested in pursuing the wisdom that they lack and yet somehow don’t know that they lack. Voters are complicit unfortunately, and are forging the chains for their own bondage unknowingly.

    I stand with Socrates in denying that I have within me a wisdom of the type necessary to rule and I am eager to talk and learn from anyone who has it and who promises to teach it to me. Once I have that I’ll know who to vote for…I hope.

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