Crowds and experts

I’m enjoying The Wisdom of Crowds a lot. The author knows how to write with lots of wonderful stories to illustrate his argument. (See Dave Pollard’s useful review here.) It provides powerful evidence of the value of diversity arguing that decision made by large, diverse groups are better than those made by experts. Sorowiecki says

Suggesting that the organisation with the smartest people may not be the best organisation is heretical, paticularly in a business world caught up in a ceaseless “war for talent” and governed by the assumption that a few superstars can make the difference between an excellent and a mediocre company. Heretical or not, it’s the truth: the value of experise is, in many contexts, overrated.

This is partly because expertise can be narrow; crowds can aggregate a lot more varied information.

There’s more on the trouble with experts: evidence that they are are little better at forecasting than laypeople (psychologists are worse at predicting behaviour than non-psychologists); and “studies that have found experts’ judgements to be neither consistent with the judgements of other experts in the field nor internally consistent”. What’s more

Experts are also surprisingly bad at… calibrating their judgements… much like normal people: they routinely overestimate the likelihood that they’re right.

Surowiecki cites surveys showing expert group after expert group overstating their knowledge.

And one more problem with trusting experts:

We think that experts will… identify themselves, announcing their presence and demonstrating their expertise… (but) experts are no more confident in their abilities than average people are, which is to say they are overconfident like everyone else… knowing and knowing that you know are apparently two very different skills.

It’s interesting to compare this view with the recent post by the ever-provocative Hugh at Gaping Void: Seek out the exceptional minds

I will spend the rest of my professional life working with visionaries. I know who they are, they know who they are. Everybody else I will toss out like old furniture.

Might not be such an exceptional strategy!

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