Wonderful, Weird Wikipedia, Sept 05


In 1906 the British scientist Francis Galton, then in his 80sand still very curious about everything, visited a country fair and came upona contest to guess the weight of an ox after it would be slaughtered and dressed.After the contest he collected the tickets on which the guesses had been written,and calculated the average of all the guesses.

The correct weight was 1,198 pounds, and the average guess was 1,197—moreaccurate than the winning estimate.

This anecdote begins the fascinating book The Wisdom of Crowds, by JamesSurowiecki, which documents that often a group has information as good asor better than any individual expert in that group.

Another example. A submarine sank to the ocean bottom, and a naval officerwas charged with finding the wreckage. Nothing was known other than the locationof the sub when it sent its last communication. It was unknown how far afterthat it traveled, or what the malfunction was.

The admiral gathered a group of experts with diverse backgrounds: submarinetechnology, mathematicians, salvage specialists, etc. He had developed somescenarios and had them individually bet on which was most likely. He thenused a formula to analyze their response and came up with a location thatwas different from that suggested by any individual expert. The sub was found220 yards from that estimated location.

Surowiecki explains why the wisdom of crowds works and the factors necessaryto make it work well (and how it sometimes breaks down). It’s importantfor the individuals involved to be diverse, independent, and decentralized.And he discusses a wide range of ways this has been implemented, from bettingto the stock market to so-called decision markets.

I thought of this wisdom of crowds when I was recently looking at the Wikipediawebsite (www.wikipedia.org). This is the world’s largest encyclopedia,with over 600,000 articles in English (nearly 10 times as many articles asthe Encyclopedia Britannica).

Click here to read therest of this article. You’ll be taken to Jim Karpen’s website for the complete article, and access to all of Jim’s posted writings.


Jim Karpen

Jim Karpen, Ph.D., teaches writing at Maharishi University of Managementin Fairfield, Iowa. He has been interested in the revolutionaryconsequences of computer technology ever since writinghis Ph.D. dissertation in 1984 at Bowling Green State Universityon the study of the "digitizedword."