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How Much Does That Ox Weigh?

by Rob Gorle

It's not easy to guess the weight of a dressed ox. So what are the chances that 800 people, each taking a guess, will collectively estimate the right answer? Apparently, very good.

1906, Plymouth. The annual West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition. Amongst those visitors present is Francis Galton – a cousin of Charles Darwin.

Francis is an avid measurer and is intrigued by the 'Guess The Weight of the Ox' competition. After the prize is awarded he asks the organisers for access to the completed answer cards. He discards 13 as 'defective or illegible' and arranges the remaining 787 cards in order from lowest guess to highest. The mid-point is 1207 lbs. The mean is 1197 lbs. The dressed ox weighs 1198 lbs.

The crowd has produced a statistical judgment that is well within 1% of the actual weight. Francis calls the result a win for the vox populi and goes on to say "This result is, I think, more creditable to the trust-worthiness of a democratic judgment than might have been expected."

According to Bryan Appleyard in his book "The Brain is Wider than the Sky", James Surowieki used Galton's story and several others of a similar nature to popularise the notion that the crowd is cleverer than the experts and more decent than individuals or small groups.

This moral and practical insight seems unarguable. At first glance it fits well with our democratic leanings, our growing distrust of Big Government and other Authorities. The wisdom of the crowd holds out great promise for a better world.

Crowd wisdom, over the past two years is credited with creating the huge political changes we now call the “Arab Spring”.

Harnessing the crowd has produced over 4 million articles in the English edition of Wikipedia – perhaps the largest collection of 'crowd wisdom' ever.

At its best, crowd wisdom, propagated via the internet, can keep the professions honest, uncover scamsters, raise our awareness and rally us against the shady dealings of tyrants both political and commercial. Thanks to the crowd and the internet, we can give and receive more information about more things than at any time in recorded history.

But all is not golden in the kingdom of the crowd. In the past year we've seen crowd wisdom promoting violence against women, persecution of minorities, barriers against vaccinating and educating children and ruinous action against scientific and social advances.

The track record of crowd wisdom has been patchy. Perhaps because in the excitement of this great endorsement of a democratic ideal, we've lost sight of what was obvious to Francis Galton in 1906: the composition of the crowd materially affects the judgment it makes.

The 1906 crowd at the Plymouth Show was made up of farmers, butchers, and other people who had experience and interest in livestock matters. Indeed, their guesses about the weight of the dressed ox ranged from 1074 lbs to 1293 lbs. The least accurate guess was only 11% off, and fully three quarters of the crowd gave figures that were within 3.7% of the actual weight of the ox. This was not a random crowd. This crowd knew its cattle.

The expertise of the Plymouth crowd was further ensured by the entry requirements: they each paid sixpence for the privilege of entering the competition (discouraging chancers), and they wrote their names and addresses on their entry cards (discouraging dishonesty).

These selection criteria: specialist knowledge, personal (financial) commitment, and personal identification, are three essential elements that are often missing in the crowds that now influence everything from advertising property investments to carrying out acts of international violence.

Crowd wisdom can prove the old adage that two heads are better than one – and ten heads are better than two. But crowd wisdom may also be the reason we have un-enforcable drug laws, taxes that stunt growth, and educational programmes that fail to educate.

Parents and carers are particularly knowledgeable about those in their care and thus form a particularly well informed crowd. ACSYL can be a meeting point to harness the power of that crowd and thus build better lives for the loving, funny, and wonderful people who otherwise will continue to be isolated.