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Two ways to the wisdom of the multitude: Mean and Synthesis

Written on:October 23, 2012
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When talking about wisdom of the multitude, we think on ways that enable our collective ideas to aggregate and present the right answers. A well-known method to acquire the wisdom of the crowds, was publicized by Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds, and was discoverd by Francis Galton (Galton 1907) . Galton discovered that when many people were asked to evaluate the wight of undressed ox, the mean of their answers gave a close approximation of the true answer. Surowiecki showed that Galton’s method works in many cases. But Galton’s method is prone to misestimation. Lorenz et al. (2011) had found that this method can go off-balance if the multitude are trying to work together to obtain “better” estimation of the answer. Only if the multitude try to evaluate the answer separately, an accurate answer can be produced. Lorenz al. also suggested that Galton’s method is also liable to dysfunction if biased information is presented. If the crowed are given wrong information regarding the objects in question, they will give erroneous assessments. In their paper Lorenz et al, also suggested that experts can divert the decision and promote erroneous solutions. This is due to the habit of experts to consult one another, and therefore creating answers biased toward dominant ideas in their clique.

Deliberation is a method that is used to reach agreement. It might not be suitable to find good solution, because of group thinking, conformation bias and framing effects. So it’s main power is in reaching agreements, and not neceserly bringing wiser solutions. Yet when some conditions are met, it was found that the wisdom of the group can be also be obtained through deliberation. Woolley et al discoverd that when a group deliberates and it’s members share as much as possible equal talking-time, and are empathic to each other, the group’s collective intellectual is becoming higher (Woolley et al. 2010). Yet, the equal-time-emapthic deliberation does not spcify how wisdom of intelgent people can incoprate into group decision and enahncing group’s ability to create more wise solutions.

I’ll suggest that when additional terms will be brought about, a group in deliberation may become even wiser. In my experience as a moderator of face to face and on-line deliberation, I have found that there is a crucial role for bright people who can gather previous ideas given by the group members to a more accepted statements. These smart people, are important to the summation of information proposed by previous participants, and for the proposition of new ideas that will enable more coherent and accepted answers to emerge, based on the previous ideas.

One of the more natural technics for bringing these syntesises in group deliberation, is the deliberation in circle. The group is asked a specific question, and everyone in his turn gives his answer. People who speak later can hear the ideas of the previous members and ameliorate their answers to produce better ones. As the circle come to the end, a more clear answers are in the hand of the group.

This process of aggregation of previous ideas into more excepted ideas, is called in “Heglian terms”: synthesis. A thesis and antithesis brought by group members and the bright people synthesise them into new statements. They take many conflicting proposition, and with a higher perspective, incorporate them in to a more coherent statements. If the new statements are accepted by growing portion of the group,their statements will be the base for growing agreement in the group.

An example for such synthesis could be a discussion about monopolies and the harm they might inflict on the health of markets. One side can say that monopolies are harming competition in free-markets and may cause increase in prices, while another can claim that there are some monopolies that are essential to market grow, like the electricity company. People may feel that they can not reach a conclusive agreement in this point, and may find it hard to agree upon the measures need to be taken in the case of monopolies. But participant that is well acquainted with the field of monopolies, can propose a synthesis which propose that in regular cases monopolies are disturbing free competition and holding the markets down, but in cases when large amount of resources need to be invested in order to develop a market, the monopoly is an efficient way to open new markets, and therefore advance the economy. In later the monopoly is called “natural monopoly“. Such synthesis can help group members devise new strategies to decentralize the market in most cases, and promote natural monopolies in cases when such are needed.

Today, synthesis is used in open-source communities and in Wikipedia. To aggregate many ideas into a coherent software. Open-source communities are counting on benevolent dictators, and their adis. The benevolent dictators, are people that other members of the group count on to make order in the chaos of multitude of ideas. In wikipedia the multitude of writings and conflicting world-views are settled by small minority, that pack multitude ideas in to coherent pages.

Of course, one of the hazards of synthesis is creating group thinking. As more accepted ideas will emerge, many members will stick to these ideas and ceases to adopt new ideas. To avoid this, many actions can be taken. One of them is to chalange group convication, and advise the members to rethink the matter with other groups or bring into the group fresh members that can chalange group thinking. Another action can be, to set the order of the group reasoning, in accordance to the seniority of the members, therefore allowing the new commers bring new thoughts into the group pool of ideas. Such procedure was used by an encient group some two thousands years ago.

One of the ancient groups that used synthesis was the “Sanhedrin“. The Sanhedrin were organizations of judges that were active in the period of the second temple of Judea (from around 2nd century BC till about 425 AC). It’s name came from Greek but they conducted their trials not as the ancient citizens of Athens conducted their’s. The Athenians used for their trials Galton’s method by installing in each trial 201 to 1501 citizens that acted as judges. All the hundreds of citizens listen to both sides, and then cast their votes. The Athenians, which probably had intuition about Galton’s method to extract the wisdom of the crowd, asked their judges not to consult each other, to avoid biased verdict, but in realty, the judges did consult each other, and therefore advanced biased answers.

The Sanhedrin approached judgment by another course. They limited the number of judges to 3 in financial cases, and 23 to 71 judges to capital cases (Tractate of Sanhedrin). They applied the approach of synthesis to produce their verdict. The convention was that after interrogation of witnesses and seeing evidences, the most junior judge will start offering justifications for the verdict. After him, the next judge in age will continue, until the oldest and wisest will conclude.This procedure could have given the elders, more time to learn from the new comers, and conceptualization more elaborate answers. Then after listening to everybody, all the judges voted on the verdict. In this procedure, the new comers could also have a chance to give fresh propositions, and therefore give the group new insights.

While Galton’s method is well-adjusted to simple questions, when the crowd is asked to give simple answers, that can be combined by calculating the mean, the synthesis method, is more suited to elaborated and subtle questions and answers. In my experience, when using synthesis properly, very bright answers can be given by the multitude.

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