There Is No Wisdom In Crowds: Against Mass Voting

There Is No Wisdom In Crowds: Against Mass Voting

Today, an excerpt of Chapter 5 from Everything You Believe Is Wrong. This is only a brief excerpt from a long chapter which lists a number of voting fallacies and arguments against democracy, the worst of which is the Wisdom of Crowds Fallacy.

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This comes in the middle of the chapter with many examples given before Galton. I hope you will be able to infer the gist, however.

Galton’s Guesses

On 7 March 1907, Francis Galton wrote a brief but interesting article for Nature magazine entitled “Vox Populi”, which opened, “In these democratic days, any investigation into the trustworthiness and peculiarities of popular judgments is of interest.” This was true then, and it is true now, only it is more important these days.

Galton’s article revolved around a set of observations he made at a fair. Galton apparently liked democracies and sought evidence justifying them through the crowd-wisdom of voting. He said his results were “more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgment than might be expected.” Let’s see if that’s true.

The main purpose of Galton’s article, and in an earlier letter to the editor “One Vote, One Value”, was to advocate the median and not the mean as a routine summary measure of sets of numbers. This is an obscure statistical argument of little interest to the average reader (a pun), but I heartily and enthusiastically agree with him. But if you won’t mind indulging me for two paragraphs, we can come to a larger point. Arithmetic means, Galton wisely said, are subject to the wild speculations of “cranks”, which is to say, of lunatics, idealogues, and activists. These eccentrics are more likely, when asked to make guesses, to offer extreme numbers.

Recall the example of Mesd-su-Re’s nose length [which starts this Chapter]. Suppose we had three guesses by men in the street, say, 2 inches, 3 inches, and 42 inches. The arithmetic mean of these is (2 + 3 + 42)?3 = 15.7. The median, which is the center measure, is 3 inches. The median comes far closer to the truth (which was 0) than the mean. Medians are robust, Galton says, and we must agree. His analysis of the observations he chose nicely shows this. Thus endeth the math.

Galton’s observations were taken from a county fair and consisted of guesses of an ox’s dressed weight, in a manner similar to the jelly bean contest. Whoever was closest to the real weight won. Galton showed that the median of the guesses was close to the actual weight. And he marveled.

Many people reading Galton through the years have said that his analysis points to the wisdom of crowds. One man might not know a lot, but many man cobbled together do. Or so the story goes. But, strictly speaking, the wisdom of the crowds is a fallacy, as we saw.

Some Clue Is Not No Clue

If you ask a man who hasn’t a clue about the value of some thing, his guess is useless. This follows from the “no clue” premise: having some clue is not the same as having no clue. A group of clueless is just as ignorant as one clueless man. Forming the mean or median (or any other measure) from a collection of baseless guesses is no better than using the guess from any one man. Galton, good eugenicist that he was, would agree that this also has deep implications for democracy. But he never managed to draw that lesson.

When quoting from Galton’s paper in support of crowd wisdom, people often forget these words. Speaking of the “judgments” of the dressed ox’s weight, he said:

The judgments were unbiased by passion and uninfluenced by oratory and the like. The [then not unsubstantial] sixpenny fee deterred practical joking, and the hope of a prize and the joy of competition prompted each competitor to do his best. The competitors included butchers and farmers, some of whom were highly expert in judging the weight of cattle; others were probably guided by such information as they might pick up, by their own fancies.

His next sentence is key: “The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes, and the variety among the voters to judge justly was probably much the same in either case.”

This conclusion does not follow, nor even come close to following, from the premises. The premises are this: a group of uninfluenced interested experts made guesses about a matter in their expertise. And they did well, even very well. Their errors were small. As we should expect and hope them to be.

Did you also notice the poll tax? The six-penny fee to insure “skin in the game”. Poll taxes are out of favor.

No Clue Is No Clue

Contrast Galton’s “election” to a largely ill- or uneducated harangued and harassed and increasingly largely disinterested citizenry asked to vote in national elections, or to express an opinion on something as complex as a national health bill. Their guesses as to the “best weight” will be closer to the situation of guessing Mesd-su-Re’s nose length than guessing the weight of a dressed ox. We have all seen videos in which voters are asked who the Vice President is, or how many justices serve on the Supreme Court, and we see how the respondents flail and fail.

Galton was wrong. The average expert competitor is vastly more fitted for making guesses over matters on which he is expert than the average uneducated voter is of “judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes”. This judgment may well be true in small, local elections, where the average voter is or can be an expert. But it has not proved to be so for large elections, where most voters are anything but experts, and where the propaganda is thick and abundant.

Times change. The voting franchise in 1907 is not what it is today, and not what some desire it to be (some now call for children to vote, etc.), and it’s fair to say that Galton did not anticipate this. In his time, when voting was (let us say) a more specialized activity, his judgment was closer to being true. Mathematics, however, is not going to rescue the justification for one-man-one-vote.

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  1. Robin

    Wasn’t Sir Francis Galton also a notorious eugenicist?

    In any case he died just 4 years after penning this piece (1911) so he, as a eugenicist, could not have possibly imagined the idiocracy that would evolve after his passing.

    Very thought provoking article – just like your book that I highly recommend.

  2. c matt

    I don’t know how anyone with half a brain could think that a random crowd’s guess on a subject of which they have little, if any knowledge could form the basis of taking some action. If a group of astronomers “guess” the mass of a particular celestial object is X, that’s one thing, but you put that question to the average Joe on the street, what good is it?

    To some extent, the “average” Joe may have a little clue as to some policies, but whatever little clue he has is confounded by lies, misinformation, lack of full information, and any other number of factors. He can’t just walk around and observe the dressed ox unimpeded.

  3. Hagfish Bagpipe

    That’s all very well expressed, Briggs, but if we disallow voting by ignorant, foolish, and disinterested voters it would destroy the essence of our wonderful democracy. And where’s the fun in being subject to a knowledgable, wise, and keenly interested polity if you can’t vote the rascals out? You may be right, in theory, and even in logic, but some of the happiest moments in life are downing a fifth of scotch, staggering to the polls, and barfing on a ballot. Not voting is an offensive notion that you’re trying to impose, Briggs, while being judgmental, and feelings will be hurt. Clearly you are on the Wrong Side of History.

    PS: Do you also work for an oil company?

  4. Johnno

    Who cares Briggs? What’s important is that I feel in charge! Lookit my active participation! Look at my being part of Team Community! Look! I am doing SOMETHING! Sure there are times when doing absolutely nothing is more beneficial… but our politicians are always looking for nothing to do disguised as something which results more often in something worse… so I need to keep up appearences too! After all, I want to be respected! And you know who gets respect? Politicians! That’s why people are always doing as they command! Why wouldn’t they? They put most of them in there precisely to tell them what to do! How else to explain it? You saying people are that stupid???

  5. Cookie

    Children over the age of wisdom would probably be more educated than the average punter….provided they are taken away from the influence of others.

    As for adults….they have skin in the game, what they don’t have is an environment that talks and focuses their mind, instead there is a fog of distractions that happens every moment -aside of sleep- from cradle to grave.

    Maybe a two-week ban on all media, sports, and work to allow people before an election to focus on issues and candidates backgrounds and their decisions of the past?

  6. Oldavid

    I’m pretty sure that Harry Stottle (who described democracy as “the tyranny of the ignorant”) would substantially agree with the Briggsian article above. However, Mr Briggs should be on the lookout for a fatwa urging jihad against him from the imams of Americanism. Maybe the ugly, fishy bag-of-noise is already agitating for such.

    Anyhow, I want to coin a new word to annoy the children of the Materialist Renaissance. “Demolatry”! It’s a contraction of the two Greek words “demos” (meaning the common people) and “latreia” (meaning the deference of worship). It’s not as amusing as some other words used like “democrazy” or “democrappy” but it (in my opinion) fairly well represents a common, raging, resurgent apostasy that we might summarise as: “Vox populi = vox Dei”.

    It will almost certainly annoy many if I give my opinion about the Sodom and Gomorrah story from Scripture. I think it very unlikely that every man woman and child in those cities was a militant poofter. But I think it very likely that whole population could have agreed to: “You piss off, Mr Lott, and take your God with you. We’re running this show”. Democracy, eh?

  7. Chaeremon

    If you have a vote that is meritless, all you can vote for is meritless-ness.
    If your tax payment is the weight of your vote, then everyone votes for less taxes, and this is wise (self-correcting).

  8. “a largely ill- or uneducated”

    Or worse yet, “an intentionally misled”. At least the uneducated voter may know nothing about the national issues, but if he knows that the OSHA inspector shut down the perfectly good factory in which he was working; if he knows that the Governor of his state lives in a nice mansion and killed his grandmother who was in a nursing home; if he knows that the celebrities he sees on TV aren’t wearing masks at parties during the (alleged) pandemic even though he is subject to fines and imprisonment if he goes outside during the wrong times with or without mask he can make a rational decision regarding his vote. If he never actually sees any of these things happening because they are suppressed by the media and banned from social media platforms, then he isn’t even able to reach any sort of reasonable conclusions.

  9. Johnno

    Heresolong, the sad truth is that even when these deplorables see things with their own eyes, they also rush to submit themselves to the checkas seeking for frivilous excuses to maintain their captivity, such as that everyone there was fully vexxined, and our elites are titans of carefulness with armies of scientific slaves under their employ carefully measuring and sanitizing everything before and after and having access to magical air filtration devices they could only imagine about everywhere they gather, with every chair and door handle and stairway bannister washed down with Listerine and smelling minty fresh the moment they exit the limousine.

    The logic of the explanations don’t matter. The fact that some newsdope or fak checka has proffered one up is sufficient enough. We know those kinds of people. They’ve come here before and enthusiastically linked us to such products from these professional excuse factories without bothering to read any of it themselves. They exist and they vote, and they vote based on where the same factories claim all the crowds are leaning, and by golly do they want to be acceptable to all; the crowd, and crown, and clown.

  10. OldDavid,

    Great word, “Demolatry”.

    However, someone’s beaten you to it–at least in meaning: Communist theory is exactly the worship of the common man.

    “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” is the imagined paradise of communists. Rule over all by the wisdom of the crowd–the proletariat, the common man.

    Reality has been a real downer for that theory, though. But, funnily enough, Lenin was able to justify a tweak–to arrive at Marxism-Leninism. That is, in preparation for nirvana–Dictatorship of the Proletariat (which is delayed due to the foolishness of the common man!)–there’ll be an interregnum.

    Who’ll fill that gap? Oh, Experts will! Lenin’s solution was an admission that Marxism was nonsense, that a gaggle of workers couldn’t figure out what to order for lunch, much less rule a society. So, the deadly farce of Communism adapted Leninism: rule by an Elite Vanguard while the proletariat gets its poop in a pile.

    Thanks for the new word, though!

  11. McChuck

    Voting is no way to run a country. The Founding Fathers knew this, and thus restricted popular voting to the lower house. In our ignorance and arrogance, we threw away wisdom and replaced it with feelings. See also the 19th amendment for proof.

    What popular voting really is, is a pressure release valve.

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