Galton and the wisdom of crowd

Francis Galton Sir Francis Galton was not one of those who believed in the wisdom of crowds. Instead, he was convinced that the world was falling apart because there were too many idiots who have a say in its functioning. If only all the power could be given to a select few, he thought, things could be much better. His opinions mattered. After all [source: Wikipedia], he had produced over 340 papers and books throughout his lifetime. He also created the statistical concept of correlation and widely promoted regression toward the mean. He was the first to apply statistical methods to the study of human differences and inheritance of intelligence, and introduced the use of questionnaires and surveys for collecting data on human communities, which he needed for genealogical and biographical works and for his anthropometric studies. And did I mention that he was Darwin’s cousin?!

Anyway, one day in early 20th century this brilliant scientist, who was well in his 80s, went to a country fair fair close to his town in England. There he saw a guessing game, which we get to see even in these days at state/country fairs. The point was to guess the correct weight of an ox. Nearly 800 people gave their guesses. Galton collected these guesses once the “competition” was over and analyzed this data trying to measure several parameters. It almost shocked him when he averaged the guesses. The average was 1197 pounds. The correct weight of the ox was 1198 pounds! The “best” guess was far off from this number. This was not what Galton had expected. He thought since the crowd was likely to have a few smart, some dumb, and many dumber people, the average of their cumulative “intelligence” would be bad. But this wasn’t the case here. The crowd, as an entity, turned out much more “intelligent” than even the “smartest” person in that crowd.

Moral of the story: never underestimate the wisdom of crowd!

This story is inspired by the one given in The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

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