March 20, 2016

The Wisdom of Crowds


About ten years ago James Surowiecki published a book called The Wisdom of Crowds. The idea of the book was to make the case that under some circumstances large groups of people are more likely to make wise decisions and accurate forecasts than any single individual would likely make acting on their own. Put the guesses of a lot of people together about the value of an item, or the weight of a cow, or the number of beans in a five-gallon glass jar, and the average of the guesses is very likely to be just about exactly the right answer. In fact, it turns out that crowds can be even more intelligent than  the smartest people in them.

Of course, there’s a catch. Surowiecki identifies the conditions that are necessary for a crowd of people to be able to function as a kind of optimal decision machine. The only problem with those conditions is that they describe a kind of ideal state of humanity—and as it turns out, we don’t live in that state.

The thing is, even if we don’t have the ideal conditions, we still have the crowds. The crowds still come together, and they still make decisions. And those decisions often have high stakes attached to them.

The crowds knew that Tom Robinson was guilty, even after Atticus Finch makes his innocence plain in the trial at the center of To Kill a Mockingbird. And it isn’t just crowds in books that get it wrong; three hundred and thirty seven convicted criminals in the United States have served time in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. Twenty of those were on death row.

The crowds of scientists knew that nothing as small as a microscopic germ could cause infections in obstetric wards, the infections that routinely killed upwards of a third of all new mothers into the nineteenth century. They knew this even after Ignaz Semmelweis showed that hand-washing reduced that number to less than one percent. They knew it so certainly that Semmelweis ended up being committed to an asylum, where he died from infections that set in from the beatings he received. Two years later, Louis Pasteur proved him right.

The crowds in the streets of Germany in 1932 knew that the man who promised them he would restore Germany’s dignity and sense of possibility was not really serious about all the things he said. And the crowds in the streets of Serbia were absolutely certain that the man who warned them of the mortal threat posed to them of the people with whom they had lived peacefully for decades was telling them the truth.

The crowds we hear about today are no different from any of those crowds. They are large, they are enthusiastic, and they are sure they’re right. And within a very short space of days, completely change their mind.

At first they acclaim Jesus. They’re fascinated by him. They have great hopes in him. They’ve heard great things about him. He has buzz. He has followers. They’re swept up in the excitement.

Just days later they can’t abuse him enough. They call for his blood. It might be because they’re just fickle. It’s more likely that they are afraid. They see what the people in power around them are saying and doing, and they are too afraid to know how to do anything other than fall into line. What they said just a few days ago doesn’t matter now. As hopeful as they were then, is as angry as they are now.

We have our own crowds. We have them in basketball arenas and political rallies. We have them in our offices and in our workplaces. We have them in our classrooms and in our hallways.

Crowds are large and loud. They have no patience with questions or with disagreement. They lift up some and walk over others, and they expect us to go along or else.

Whenever that happens, wherever it happens, we are meant to remember the story of this day. The mistakes that we make, the sins that we commit, are not only made one by one; we manage to sin at the social level too, and when we do the damage can be severe indeed.

The crowds are often where that damage gets done, where the dangers of our human frailties become compounded. The crowds are where we tend to do the most damage to each other—to each other’s dignity, to each other’s humanity.

But just remember—if that crowd way back then knew the way the winds were blowing on high, and decided to get in line—well, dear people, there is a reason why, on the top of this church, there is not a weathervane, but a cross.

We say all the time in this place that we are a community; and so we are. But communities are not crowds. It is in a community that we can find the strength and the courage to stand up to the crowds. Crowds have a voice—often a yelling voice. But communities have a heart. And we have a mind as well—a mind that gives us the ability to reflect on the purposes to which they are called, and by which they are meant to be known—and the determination to hold fast to who we are, and who we are called to be, no matter how loud the crowds may be.