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?

A defective reading of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”

The “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rainer Maria Rilke is a poem of great power. (Here is a link to the Stephen Mitchell translation, which I recommend you read before proceeding with the rest.) The surprising shock of the final words (You must change your life.) always seem new and true to me, no matter how many times I read it. The poem at once shifts from a detached aesthetic gaze to a hard ethical demand (i.e. subjectivity in Kierkegaard’s sense), from potency to actuality. (It is not surprising to discover that Rilke studied Kierkegaard intently in the years leading up to writing this poem.) Let’s begin by taking the title apart:


“Metaphysical Desire in Girard and Plato”

That’s the title of a paper that I presented at the 2010 Colloquium on Violence and Religion at Notre Dame — a version of which was published in the journal Comparative and Continental Philosophy (Volume 2.2, 2010). Here is a link to the Notre Dame version, which I introduce in lieu of a substantive post: Metaphysical Desire in Girard and Plato.

I mention it so that I can segue from a detour into Peirce & Girard back to my (still Girardian) reading of Plato. Now that I have discussed the importance of mimetically-mediated shared attention in human meaning-making through a discussion of Peirce and Girard, I would like to now emphasize its importance in Plato through this paper, particularly the way philia/friendship works to shape such attention. I also want to gesture toward a way out of the violent foundations upon which most of human meaning-making is unfortunately and unintentionally based.

The issue of “positive mimesis” is a controversial one in Girardian circles. On the one hand, the pessimist/realist camp of Girardians tend to dismiss most talk of positive mimesis as forms of  mythological disguise manifesting a Pelagian avoidance of the hard truths of mimetic desire and scapegoating (and it can tilt that way in practice); on the other hand, the optimist/romantic camp observes correctly that Girard himself accepted that mimesis is not all bad, that there are (and must be) positive forms of it, as in the Imitatio Christi. I admit to a sympathy for both points of view and in developing my own (dialectical?) version of positive mimesis, I pray that I don’t overlook the true insights of the “realist” side, a side to which I belong by disposition (I am a Calvinist after all.) I guess my claim would be that while our cosmology/anthropology should be realist, our eschatology/ecclesiology had better not accept current reality as fated necessity. Human beings must live in a “tension of existence” between these two poles of realist acceptance and eschatological aspiration — see Soren Kierkegaard and Eric Voegelin as champions of this point of view.