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Wednesday, May 4

Zeus not uncrowned and Dalai Lama's Rule of Thumb

Pundita is closing down the Comment section again. This is after receiving only four comments (two, if one cuts out the clowning around in PNMSpeak) in response to Part 5 of the Intersection series. I am still hoping for comments from two other readers but these, if and when they arrive, will be published (along with the two serious comments) in a post.

Dave Schuler's comment is part of a "riff" on Part 5 that he published on his own blog, The Glittering Eye. His wide-ranging thoughts about various points I made in the essay are worth the read. He notes in part:
Central planning whether in totalitarian Soviet Russia or the bureaucratic European Union have several problems in handling problems effectively and expeditiously. Perhaps the most important of these is informational: the very mechanism of its operation obscures the market information that's necessary to make an efficient choice. There's something similar at work in any top-down technocracy: no expert is so expert that he or she is smarter than the aggregate wit, wisdom, and experience of the
crowd.
The link in the passage refers to James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. Just the Publisher's Weekly review is worth the read. In part:
While our culture generally trusts experts and distrusts the wisdom of the masses, New Yorker business columnist Surowiecki argues that "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them."

To support this almost counterintuitive proposition, Surowiecki explores problems involving cognition (we're all trying to identify a correct answer), coordination (we need to synchronize our individual activities with others) and cooperation (we have to act together despite our self-interest).

His rubric, then, covers a range of problems, including driving in traffic, competing on TV game shows, maximizing stock market performance, voting for political candidates, navigating busy sidewalks, tracking SARS and designing Internet search engines like Google.

If four basic conditions are met, a crowd's "collective intelligence" will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, Surowiecki says, even if members of the crowd don't know all the facts or choose, individually, to act irrationally.
The author's observations fly against the cherished notion that once the masses are allowed into government, anarchy inevitably follows.

Aristophanes, observing the chaos of the Athenian assembly, wrote, "The ruler of the world is Whirlwind, that hath unseated Zeus."

I was reminded of the quote by Dave Schuler's Angel in the Wind.

There are, perhaps, too many variable factors to draw fast conclusions about what trips off anarchy. However, it could be argued that the chaos that overtook Athenian government had more to do with special interests manipulating votes than with mass participation in governing decisions.

I continue to welcome comments via email about the Intersection essays. However, after receiving a letter that seems to represent a thesis on stochastic calculus or a discussion of an Esperanto translation of James Joyce's Ulysses, I see it's time to tighten up on this blog's letters policy.

As I have noted before regular Pundita readers are very smart. So it is with regret that I lower the boom by instituting the dreaded Dalai Lama Rule of Thumb.

The way this rule came about...during a guest appearance years ago on William Buckley's Firing Line, the Dalai Lama brought along a translator and parked him within whispering range of his chair.

Buckley would ask a long question about the Chinese, Communism or Tibet, then the Lama would lean toward the translator, who would whisper and wave his hands to translate the question.

Suddenly Buckley leaned forward, listened intently to the whispers, then exclaimed in confusion, "Wait a minute! Your translator isn't speaking to you in Tibetan; he's speaking in English!"

The Dalai Lama boomed cheerfully, "Yes. Simple English."

.
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