Thinking about the Madness of Crowds, and their Occasional Wisdom

Thinking about the Madness of Crowds, and their Occasional Wisdom October 30, 2019




What a piece of worke is a man! how Noble in
Reason? how infinite in faculty? in forme and mouing
how expresse and admirable? in Action, how like an Angel?
in apprehension, how like a God?

It was today, the 30th of October, or rather this evening back in 1938 that Orson Welles’ famous, or perhaps infamous radio play the War of the Worlds caused panic in the streets of America.

Well, some streets.

It was not quite as national a crisis as some stories would have it. Still, for some a genuine horror. And not to be ignored.

I wrote about this anniversary and what it might mean a couple of years ago. Here I’m going to revisit and, just a little, expand on what I thought then…

It really was a deal. While the cast managed to finish the whole production, police had entered the theater to try and stop it. The outcry over the next few days pretty much sealed the deal for Welles as a brilliant and maybe unethical showman.

Me, as a take away I found there are two interesting examples of the madness of crowds. First, the panic among some. And, then the long repeated tales of mass panic believed as gospel.

In my youth I stumbled upon Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and read it as a quick course in the problems with large groups of humans. While the events of the War of the Worlds took place nearly a century after Mackay’s book, it pretty much confirmed the issue. Don’t trust big groups of people. We tend to get crazy.

Of course the reality is rather more complicated. And that has been dug into rather interestingly in the study of big numbers, and popularly by financial journalist James Surowiecki in his The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. Sometimes we get smart in big groups.

Clearly it is all complicated.

And so I’ve found the subject of human individuality and our relationship to larger groups, deeply interesting.

Of late the use and misuse of appeal to “consensus” within the scientific endeavor has been particularly interesting to me. In our political discourse here in North America those seeking to cut through the political opposition to addressing climate change correctly point out a consensus among climate and related scientists about first the reality of climate change going on right now and our human involvement in triggering it.

While the politics of it all make this kind of argument hard to avoid, of course what “everybody knows” is a dangerous thing. Particularly in scientific research where the deal is uncertainty, and things can only be disproven, not proven. That said the way scientists communicate now and how work done collaboratively has advanced scientific research at an exponential rate is itself noteworthy. And actually the advance of the study of climate change is a powerful example of what that collaborative research looks like.

Even more interesting for me now we have entered an era of big data where human behaviors are being predicted with unsettling accuracy, sometimes deeply embarrassingly so. A take away for me is that we actually think not just as individuals but as a herd. Or, maybe that’s as herds. And so crowds will, of course, just like our individuality, contain both madness and wisdom.

But this is the important part for this reflection, at least. We are each of us inseparable from larger units. To look at a human being in isolation from others, and by extension, from the world, turns out to be a big mistake.

So, while I do remain concerned about the madness of crowds, and hope a bit for the wisdom of crowds, what is most interesting to me is how it speaks to our human identity and how fluid and dynamic what we are actually is. And how our very identity is neither constant, nor bound exclusively by our skins.

Not so much either a positive or a negative, just an observation. I and we are intimately bound up, and where one part ends and the other begins, well, it is a mystery.

And so my take away? Oh my. What a piece of work is man. (okay, sic…)

Mystery upon mystery…

And. Of course…

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