Martin Dimartino Marriott

Tag: Derren Brown

Derren Brown’s Interpretation of the Wisdom of Crowds

by Martin on Sep.15, 2009, under Articles by Martin, Blog

I like many was truly amazed by Derren Brown’s recent stunt where he supposedly (as later revealed) used an until now little-known concept known as the Wisdom of Crowds taken from the field of behavioural economics; something which I have recently taken interest in. This man is always amazing and I am aware that he never claims anything more than tricks and illusions.

Is he telling us everything?

Is he telling us everything?

Derren has clearly been reading his Surowiecki, and I was interested to see this concept being explained and being publicly demonstrated. I do love these crazy economic theories!
This one is the theory that if a sufficiently diverse and (crucially) independant group of people are asked to make decisions or guesses on problems, the average outcome will be more-or-less intellectually superior to an isolated individual, even an expert.
Even Derren’s initial explanation of the concept drew upon the example taken from the introduction of this book; the example of the average guess of a ‘guess the weight of the ox’ contest at a fayre in 1906. Scientist, Francis Galton conducted statistical tests on all the entries in order to determine the ‘collective wisdom’ of the crowd. Many of these punters were farmers and so could be considered relative ‘experts’ in this game. Of course, there were many others who were ‘ignorant’ and had no insider knowledge. As you’d now expect, after the ox was weighed, sure enough, the crowd as a collective guessed virtually perfectly.

Fine — that’s logical you may expect. Indeed, the Wisdom of Crowds does work; it’s the reason Google works so well, and can pull up the most relevant result first time, and it’s also why you find exactly what you want in stock at the supermarket.

All this sounds fine on the face of it — why can’t you use the wisdom of a crowd to predict lottery numbers? It works in other areas of our life. But my point here is that I think Brown has mis-applied this awesome economic dynamic and taken it out of context to suit his own ends. Without venturing into philosophy (about which my knowledge is almost exactly zero) essentially, I’m questioning the realist epistemological outlook of Mr Brown. What do I mean? Well the wisdom of crowds works well when there is a ‘truth out there’; a pre-existing answer which can be guessed, however [un]intelligently. The weight of the ox for example was not ‘random’ and the answer already existed.
How, then, can this be applied to a yet-to-be-determined sequence of numbers — there is no objective answer which can be tapped into in ANY way prior to the random drawing of the numbers. The weight of the ox had an objective truth, as does the optimal page-ranking sequence of Google, it still has an optimal state which could be known given the right methods.

Derren’s positions appears to be partially that of an empirical realist, that is, one which belives that complex reality can be understood, “but fails to recognise [the] enduring structures and generative mechanisms producing observable phonomena” (Bryman & Bell 2007:18), ie. Derren has failed to recognise that there are forces YET to decide the outcome of the numbers. They are totally independant of the mind of the crowd.

I feel the method employed by Derren is thus incompatiblewith the objective fact that the lottery balls remained un-knowable until the draw and remained subject to deterministic forces until such time; we are forced to conclude that he is not telling us everything and must have been up to something else.

For a start, even if his sample ‘crowd’ were impartial and not plants, they couldn’t have been totally objective and free in thought, because they were gathered multiple times and socialised with each other too much; a condition corrosive to pure independence and diversity of mind (Surowiecki 2005:38) where groups fall into ‘groupthink’ where they increasingly make decisions based on influence of each other and are thus LESS accurate.

Also, I was somewhat less confident in their being genuine at all! Their remarks at the end of the experiment were vague and seemed a little forced and detached. These people just weren’t convincing.
I don’t claim to know much about behavioural economics or philosophy for that matter and to be honest, this probably won’t make sense, but from what I know about the Wisdom of Crowds, this experiment just didn’t sit right. But he’s only an entertainer and an illusionist anyway, right!?

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