I learned, 6/24/16 (Brexit edition)

I am a big fan of the idea of the Wisdom of the Crowd – the idea that averaging the desires of a diverse group yields the best answers. Crowds routinely beat experts in the stock market, idea generation, and bookmaking. So should I believe that UK crowd chose correctly in the decision to Brexit?

It’s an emotionally loaded question for me, because I’m a big fan of democracy. Even a populist. But, crap, I can’t help but think that the will of this crowd was horribly, horribly wrong.

So what gives?

There is an idea, supported by recent research, that crowds are great when people make their decisions in isolation from each other, but do a piss-poor job when social influence is present. Social destroys the diversity of the crowd opinions, and thus destroys the multiplicity of thought that bring crowds their wisdom.

Without social coordination, crowds act like a giant computational engine, averaging all of the information taken in by each person’s slightly different perspective. With social coordination, crowds can be persuaded by the loudest narcissist in the room, repeating the same trope as if it wisdom.

With our own election coming up, this does not make me happy.

The good news, I hope, is that the internet sees to be making crowds smaller. With Facebook we all get our own private echo chamber. But maybe in the aggregate our echo chambers are numerous enough and diverse enough that they will average out into something approaching rationality.

I’m an optimist. And at least I can make a case for hope.

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