The Folly of Crowds

The Emperor’s Nose is a story that the incomparable genius, Richard Feynman, tells in his autobiographical book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, as an illustration of how governments work. I’m was reminded of it because of the nearly similar and farcical nature of the political events unfolding on both side of the Atlantic.

To the west, here in the US, presumptive presidential candidate and closet puss caterpillar, Donald Trump, aided by the pathologically disingenuous Fox News media and a petulantly recalcitrant GOP, are polling millions of Americans, asking whether immigrants, people of color, Democrats, liberals and [insert the next “undesirable” race or group here] are usurping the livelihoods of “white folks”, taking away their rights to arm bears and generally ruining America (“Make America Great Again”).

To the east, the Brexit vote led by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage and abetted by a bitterly biased media, polled the citizens of the UK – including Wales, Scotland and Ireland – asking whether exiting the European Union will curb the loss of British jobs to immigrants, improve the economy of the UK, shore up security and retain its sovereignty.

This question of using the “wisdom of crowds” and trying to figure out whether a complex national and international policy is good or bad by looking at it carefully or by taking the reports of a lot of people who looked at it carelessly is like this famous old problem of the Length of the Emperor of China’s Nose.

(The following generalisation was not considered problematically racist when Feynman told the story, but doubtless may be for some as I tell it today, sorry but it’s only a story).

The story goes that a long time ago, in a faraway, and mythical country, which we’ll call China, the people wished to demonstrate their loyalty to the greater glory of China by erecting a statue of the Emperor. When it came to sculpting the face, however they were stumped. The Emperor lived in the Forbidden City and no one from outside was allowed in to see him. Similarly no one from inside the Forbidden City was allowed out. Of course to be seen even trying to look closely at the Emperor’s beak – let alone to hold up a ruler to it – would have invited a painful death. But so many people were curious, that a group of sages got together to look for a method of finding the answer, and this is what they came up with.

Questionnaires were printed and sent out in bundles to cooperating village chiefs, who distributed them to the peasants. They even ran a national campaign to raise awareness about estimating the length of the Emperor’s nose – TV ads, radio spots, pundits, community organizers, teachers, even bureaucrats all getting the word out about this important subject. That really got everyone involved and excited! Literacy was at a sufficient level that most were able to comprehend the single question, which was, of course: “How long do you think the Emperor’s nose is?”

When the votes were tallied, mathematicians added up all the values, and divided by the number of voters. Thus it was known that the length of the Emperor’s nose was 6.734602 cm. They were very proud of the result – being the average of so many answers, it must be highly accurate. It even had nice properties of numerical stability – it wasn’t heavily influenced by any one person’s response.

The people were very surprised and felt more than a little silly when the emperor traveled through the village and his nose bore no resemblance to the averaged result.

You would think that the approach of averaging would be very “accurate” because you averaged so many people. But it’s no way to find anything out; when you have a very wide range of people who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don’t improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging. Feynman’s point was that if something isn’t known, just asking a large number of people who don’t know or have vested interests or have been heavily influenced by biased reports, shares the responsibility about the problem, but is unlikely to produce a correct answer except by pure dumb luck.

I am certainly not an expert on immigration, national economies and the nuances of employment, but it seems to me that politicians have taken the same flawed approach to solve both these problems – Drumpf and Brexit. Ignore the blatant political prompting and suppose only that we’d asked two simple questions – “Should we elect Donald Trump?” and “Should we exit Brexit?”. If people had no information other than basic common-sense, there is no reason to suppose just guessing-and-averaging would have been helpful. How could it be? Ignorance plus ignorance divided by two is still ignorance. Now add to this the miasma of vested interests, biased media reporting and political machinations. Biased-Ignorance-Averaging is a fallacy which is actually worse. That’s what’s happened to us, here in the US and to our cousins across the pond.

Directly or indirectly, we’ve voted into the senate/parliament, experts who know a lot more about these topics than we, the average citizens, do. We’ve trusted these experts to know what they are doing, or at least know what we want or need, and take the appropriate decisions on our behalf. But no matter how much we’d like to, we, as ordinary citizens, cannot consider ourselves experts on these topics. Our collective wisdom on these topics demonstrates as much intelligence as Donny the Hair does when he opens his mouth to tal about literally anything. That is why national polls, votes and referendums on complex topics such as these are not just meaningless – they’re dangerously inaccurate.

Wisdom of the crowds isn’t worth squat when individuals are ignorant of the subject matter they’re guessing. Averaging is okay, but only when folks are using unbiased, intelligent, correct information. The bad news is already well known: spreading misinformation works. People, even groups of them, will come to wrong conclusions based on flawed premises.

The UK already made its colossal mistake with Brexit. Let’s not make a similar one ourselves.

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