I’ve finally got round to reading James Surowiecky's “The Wisdom of Crowds”. It's been sitting on a shelf for some years and every time I had a glimpse of the title I wondered if the book was going to highlight any positive sides to group-think.
Well, far from it. The author does argue that crowds are better at making decisions than individuals, but independent thinking by each of its members is vitally important to the quality of the decisions. The independent judgements of the members are then aggregated or averaged into a crowd decision. The interesting point Surowiecky makes is that decisions made following this process will often be at least as good as – and sometimes better than – the decision of the cleverest members of the crowds. This is apparently true even when these individual members are experts in the relevant field!
The other success factor in this collective decision-making process is diversity. Therefore size matters – the bigger the crowd, the more diverse it will be.
It's good news for democracies, as well as an argument in favour of freethinking. It's good news for non-freethinkers too – apparently “you can be biassed and irrational, but as long as you're independent [in making your decision], you won't make the group any dumber”. The extreme positions held by various members of the group will cancel each other out. I do find it ever so reassuring, that any lapses in my freethinking will not cause any disasters. Perhaps a corollary of this book is that I should always abstain from proselytizing, so that I don't spoil the independent thinking of others :-)