Thursday, December 24, 2009

The wisdom of crowds vs. the distribution of expertise

Jason Flom has a very good brief post on 10 principles for the future of learning:

This is a good post that I'm not so much criticizing as using a springboard to illustrate a trend that I see with current epistemological thinking in popular culture: we are moving toward seeing collectively derived sources as authorities in preference to individuals, or we assume that we are moving away from reliance on authority sources. It seems as if a lot of people are viewing this as an unambiguously good thing. I'm not so sure. Culture is changing rapidly, but the evolved properties of the human nervous system don't necessarily change at the same rate, and I think there is no doubt that we do have stable social cognitive features that characterize us even when we switch technologies radically.

To me there is a classic dilemma regarding authority: we rely on it for accurate knowledge (because expertise is not evenly distributed!) and we can also be manipulated by it and rely on it too much. The currently popular philosophy of knowledge seems to be that we are sociallizing knowledge and that our intelligence and expertise are becoming a collective web of some sort. This abstract is certainly interesting and provocative, but really it is unlikely to be true at least in the near future.

The important features of individual minds don't scale to networks of humans (as far as I know!). Individual expertise and intelligence does not appear as a property of human social networks (again, AFAIK). Also, groups are subject to fallacies just as individuals are (this one I think is pretty well established in social psychology). Those fallacies just follow a different pattern.

Collective editing is not neccessarily self-correcting, it can amplify mistakes under various conditions.So we can't just make that dilemma of authority go away by saying that we are collectively the new authority source or that there is no more need for authoritative sources or pretending that social networks are themselves experts or that expertise is becoming more evenly distributed. It clearly is not.

As of right now, there are still a few people who know much more than nearly all others about each domain. I don't say that lightly. It's a fundamental scaling that results from the effort required to achieve true expertise in any domain. It's a result of expertise research, not political or social philosophy.

So I feel as if there is a serious but very common epistemological flaw of confusing wide dissemination of information with even distribution of expertise. The misused term "knowledge" seems to be used in this service, since we often carelessly use it to mean both information and expertise. Of course we should make use of collective sources like Wikipedia, but we should not make the further glib assumption that these can replace individual expertise.

That's why we really do need some of those criteria for making limited use of collectively derived sources. They don't neccessarily provide us with the best information for all uses, and our natural temptation is to just transfer credibility to them. We need to not only make better use of collectively derived sources but also transfer proportionately our critical thinking normative principles from individual authority to those collective sources and learn new principles for evaluating them.

Sometimes the crowd is wrong. And most of the time the crowd gets the least common denominator most right. That's probably good enough for a high school project, but not for serious scholarship. In my opinion. Thinking remains a property of individual minds, facilitated by the social network but not (God help us) replaced by it.

kind regards,



  1. Hi Todd,

    Very interesting. I loved The wisdom of crowds by James Surowiecki but I would love to read a good update which addresses questions like the ones you raise. Such a book would shine more light on under which conditions collective judgement works best and also what the role and value of individual expertise is. While I think individual expertise is often overrated, its importance is also often underrated. How do we recognize valuable expertise? When can we use it and how?

  2. I agree Coert, expertise is both undervalued and overvalued. Although we understand somewhat what it takes to be an expert chess player, we haven't really focused on distinguishing which domains are enough like chess to generallize the findings. Taleb makes the interesting distinction that fields where meaningful surprises occur and make prediction unreliable don't have true experts in the same sense.

    There are several fascinating and important questions implied in your response and I hope to learn more about it too. I think expertise research has the potential to help us identify domains where expertise matters vs. those where it doesn't, to help us distinguish legitimate expertise in fields where it matters, and to identify new kinds of expertise that defy the current model.

    Harry Collins has a model that distinguishes "interactional expertise" that lets us ask good questions about a topic even though we can't _perform_ as an expert in that domain. If we make more refinements like this, we will eventually better understand what it takes to learn from each domain. This includes what we can learn from crowds and what takes profound individual engagement. To me we are just beginning to understand the important role of different kinds of expertise in human thriving.

    Thanks much for your comment!


  3. Thanks so much for this post, Todd. Yes, yes, yes.

    @Coert -- when I saw Surowiecki speak about his book, he began by stating that while ANTS become smarter as more of them work together, humans become... dumber. And I think he actually does an excellent job of explaining in his book the precise constraints under which the crowd *is* smart -- nearly always as a result of aggregated individual knowledge, not the result of collaboration/group efforts.

    Although "Wisdom of Crowds" has been used to champion the Social Media/2.0 approach to, well, everything, the author of the book insists that for a "crowd" to be wise, you need:
    * independence (each person's opinion is not influenced by the group)
    * diversity of thought
    * aggregation
    * decentralization

    Surowiecki suggests that people are smart/wise as long as they are NOT acting as a crowd/group, and that the "crowd" he refers to is the aggregated collection of the "smartness" of individuals.

    As for collective editing, one simple example: I have attended two "Wikipedia Parties" whose sole purpose was for people to help edit one another's factually incorrect Wikipedia entries, given that you aren't ever supposed to edit your own. Of the numerous errors in everyone's profiles, some were simply mistakes while others were malicious and often subtle attempts to cause harm. And unfortunately, there is no way to opt-out of a Wikipedia profile once "the crowd" has chosen to include it.

  4. Thanks, Kathy!

    I think the trick is to know what groups are good at and where they go astray, and under what conditions.

    For example there's a good post at PsyBlog about brainstorming that explores the reason why brainstorming doesn't work very well in general. It turns out that individuals are much better at generating ideas, while groups are particularly good at evaluating them. However it must be admitted that electronic distance helps reduce the obstacles caused by face to face social groups Electronic forums do much better than face to face groups at generating new ideas, although the individual is still the one doing the actual thinking.

    As the post puts it:

    "The conclusion of the psychological literature, therefore, is that people should be encouraged to generate ideas on their own and meetings should be used to evaluate these ideas. The same rule applies in business as in your personal life. Generating ideas about where to go on holiday, what to write that new sitcom about, what question your research should address, and so on, are best done alone.

    Groups aren't where ideas are born, but where they come to sink or swim."