Wisdom of the Crowd

e voting screenDuring the Article 50 vote, I found myself tweeting quotes from a famous speech made by Edmund Burke, who was a Whig MP and Political Philosopher in the 1700’s, on representative democracy.

In his speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774, he said that government and legislation are matters of reason and judgement and must not be decided by opinion and inclination. The quote I used to underline the point that MPs who believe Brexit is wrong should not vote to trigger Article 50 was, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.

There is obvious logic to that point, but you can see why it could become a dangerous argument. It says that our elected representatives will act on our behalf except for when they think they know better.

The EU referendum result has led to many on the remain side questioning whether referendums can ever be a good thing and that complex decisions should not be put to the electorate. They argue many people do not understand or are susceptible to lies and manipulation, essentially that large groups of people make bad decisions.

That we ended up with an outcome that is obviously so very destructive, should not be used to argue that the electorate’s judgement should be valued less than their elected representatives and that the power to make big decisions should be concentrated. The problem is not democratic will, it is the way in which people are forced to express it.

The problem with democracy is voting.

Neuroscientists Mariano Sigman and Dan Ariely have been looking at how people interact to reach decisions by performing experiments with live crowds around the world. They thought that crowds would be wiser if they were spilt into smaller groups that fostered a more thoughtful and reasonable exchange of information and tested this in large events with tens of thousands of people present. The people were given questions or moral challenges to answer and spilt into groups.

They found that the average answers from the groups were more accurate than from the individuals and that in more complex moral questions, groups that had somebody prepared to see the merits on both sides of the argument were more able to reach a consensus. Groups also tended to strip out the more extreme opinions on either side in order to reach a consensus and a more accurate answer.

In other words, when small groups were encouraged to have informed discussions using independent thinking, this made the overall crowd wiser.

Imagine a future where before big democratic decisions we held massive events in big arenas around the Country and then put the recommendations that people in the crowds came up with to parliament. The electorate would be much more likely to trust the opinions of people who are just like them and would feel much more engaged in the democratic process.

Edmund Burke’s point about the importance of judgement is correct, it is very important that our representatives do the best for those who elect them and their judgment should be valued. But the notion that a select few are wiser than the masses is simply incorrect, the wisdom of the crowd can be much more accurate and valuable should it be given an environment in which independent thinking can flourish.

* Darren Martin is the Press and Social Media Officer for the Hackney Lib Dems. He is a council candidate for next year's local elections.

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10 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 30th Nov '17 - 6:28pm

    Interesting stuff. But just one thought (addition, not criticism).

    I remember being told that the internet would be wonderful for debate and democracy and how we’d all get wonderful debate and political engagement online. I was a true believer in my young-and-dumb days. What we’ve got is a massive let-down.

    I think the difference is what could be termed civil society. And this is why I like so much this talk about physical meeting and actual talk. The internet has been a poor substitute for civil society and nowhere has that been more evident than in political debate.

  • Charis Croft 1st Dec '17 - 8:45am

    This is an interesting experiment described above, but I’m sure I remember reading something that said that groups can tend, not to strip out polarisation, but to increase it. See the ‘bubbles’ on social media for an example of this. If a group starts out leaning slightly one way, they can end up ever further that way as the pressure to conform to the group stops any opposing arguments and people argue themselves further and further down a particular line of thinking.

  • Hmmmmm? I wonder what would happen if a referendum on the return of Capital Punishment was held tomorrow?
    There are many negative things about crowds…
    Timing…. What if the above referendum was held in the wake of a particularly gruesome child murder?…
    Information…Will the information be balanced or, as in the case of newspapers, reflect the view of the owner ?
    Rabble Rouser…The loudest voice, more often than not, carries most weight…

    The MP is elected by a large group (hopefully, after considering that he will represent their views on most matters)

  • Stephen Booth 1st Dec '17 - 9:19am

    Darren’s Edmund Burke quote is interesting. “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.

    OPINION v. JUDGMENT
    Putting Burke’s quote into modern language:
    “MPs owe you their judgment. They betray you if they simply reflect your opinion. Why? Because you elected them to investigate and consider complex matters, which the ordinary citizen rarely has either the time or access to the fullest information.”

  • John Probert 1st Dec '17 - 9:52am

    If the crowd used its wisdom to choose the right MP surely all would be well?

  • Darren Martin 1st Dec '17 - 10:09am

    @Little Jackie Paper, I think you are right about the internet. I think that what we have seen with fake news and bots is the erosion of the crucial element that the researchers believe make crowds wiser, independent thinking.
    I do think we should not dismiss the transformative benefits that the internet has had though, we need to force internet companies to be more responsible for the content found on their sites.

  • Darren Martin 1st Dec '17 - 10:14am

    @Charis Croft I think the experiments that I link to show that the most reasonable opinion was what was polarised, which sounds pretty good to me. The robust average stripped out the more outlandish opinions. There are problems with that though, sometimes the most radical idea could be the right one and people with different views within the group would feel left out.
    Still a lot to look into, but have seen small events like this really work well. Have a look at G1000.

  • Darren Martin 1st Dec '17 - 10:16am

    @expats i’m more making the point that we would not hold referendums but hold national consultations in this format.

  • Laurence Cox 1st Dec '17 - 11:55am

    Here is an article by Peter Westmacott, a former ambassador to France and to the USA, making much the same points:

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/01/project-fear-brexit-cold-reality-vote-again-second-referendum

  • Expats,

    ” I wonder what would happen if a referendum on the return of Capital Punishment was held tomorrow?”
    According to the last British Attitudes survey piblic support for reintroduction of the death penalty is below 50% http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/media-centre/archived-press-releases/bsa-32-support-for-death-penalty.aspx.

    The author is right to conclude:

    “Edmund Burke’s point about the importance of judgement is correct, it is very important that our representatives do the best for those who elect them and their judgment should be valued. But the notion that a select few are wiser than the masses is simply incorrect, the wisdom of the crowd can be much more accurate and valuable should it be given an environment in which independent thinking can flourish.

    Or as Gladstone put it:
    “Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.”

    Tempered by prudence means giving due consideration to the issues you highlight around timing, availability of information and influence of rabble rousers. Such issues can be mitigated by Parliamentarians by, for example, calling for a referendum on any Brexit deal negotiated with an option to remain.

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