Crowds: smarter than you think

So-called fake news is said to spread six times more quickly than verified information. But is “the crowd” really that stupid? In 1906, the English statistician Francis Galton wanted to prove that it was by asking visitors at a livestock fair to guess the weight of an ox that had been slaughtered and butchered. Although the answers when taken individually were wrong, the average estimate was remarkably accurate.

Aristotle defended the idea of the crowd 2,400 years ago when he wrote, “For the many, of whom each individual is but an ordinary person, when they meet together may very likely be better than the few good.” The same holds true for the game of chess. When Garry Kasparov played against a crowd of 50,000 amateur players in 1999, he came close to losing. The crowd’s tenth move, which was as unusual as it was smart, entered the annals of chess history. And since social animals in general do great things together, why shouldn’t humans? Look at Wikipedia, the fifth most-visited website worldwide, which now features 10 million articles in 260 languages. Twenty-seven million people have contributed to an article at least once, which makes Wikipedia the largest collective project that humankind has ever undertaken. As surprising as it may seem given the publishing process, the quality of Wikipedia articles is similar to that found in traditional encyclopedias such as Encyclopaedia Britannica or Encarta. Two basic conditions need to be fulfilled to activate the collective intelligence of the crowd, according to Mehdi Moussaïd, researcher in cognitive science at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin and author of Fouloscopie: a diverse range of ideas and independent judgment.

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Fouloscopie, ce que la foule dit de nous by Mehdi Moussaïd (HumenSciences, January 2019)