Crowds, Sums, Emergence

One of my major goals for the next few years is to work on a philosophical explanation or justification for the success wisdom of crowds. The basic argument of the wisdom of crowds is that a group of people can sometimes be more accurate than a single individual. The claims about increased accuracy are supported by empirical examples such as the ones used by James Surowecki in his book ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’. For example, the average of a crowd’s guesses about the weight of an object or the number of gumballs in a jar is likely to be more accurate than any single individual guess. One statistical way of explaining this phenomenon may be the convergence of random samples.

But there is a philosophical jump from claiming that crowds can be more accurate at some tasks than individuals to the claim that crowds may know more than an individual. Knowing is a more problematic claim.

On the one hand there is a tendency within the social sciences to support methodological individualism. In other words the actions and behaviors, as well as the knowledge, of a group are just the sum of the actions, behaviors, and knowledge of the individuals in the group. I’m working to a broader claim that groups actually do know something that is not within the scope of any individuals knowledge.

One approach to justifying this claim may to consider an analogy between the human brain and a crowd. Most of us accept that a person can know some fact, P. Many also believe that human consciousness or the mind is built up out of the combined activity of the millions of neurons within the brain. However, knowledge claims have not been reduced to the firing of individual neurons. There is a debate between eliminative materialists who believe that knowledge and human consciousness will eventually be reduced to the firing of many neurons. There are also others who argue that the experience of consciousness and knowing is an emergent property of the many neurons within the brain. The emergent argument is parallel to one I think can be made about social groups. There is emergent knowledge within social groups that goes beyond the individual sums of the group members.

So there are two parts of an argument so far presented. The first is based on how statistics works and the law of large numbers. As we get more numbers or people involved it becomes possible to have more accuracy or better knowledge. The second is an analogy between the emergence of human consciousness and crowd knowledge. Crowds may know more than the individual components because they are similar to brains which know a self out of the multiple firings of neurons which are beyond conscious awareness.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.