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on 25 August 2006
The central premise of the book is an interesting one - that taking the average of a large number of individual viewpoints is likely to give a better result than taking the view of a single (or small number) of experts.

The paragraph above is, of course, an oversimplification. The book does go into rather more detail about when this works, and when it doesn't.

The approach in the first half of the book overall seemed OK - there were points in the first chapter where I thought that the author had fallen into some basic errors, but reading on made me realise that, no, he had considered them and had responses to the questions that I thought needed answering.

However, there are, to me, two flaws in the book.

Firstly, the second half of the book is too lightweight. He applies his theory to a whole bunch of situations (shorting of stocks, elections and so on), but doesn't present any proof of his ideas. He seems to assume that we're all so convinced in the first half that he can spend the second half saying "now we know this is true, this is what it means."

... which takes me to the second flaw.

Someone rather more intelligent than I - from memory Richard Feynman - wrote a long and interesting article about scientific rigour, and how when you do one expirement that appears to suggest a theory, you don't assume the theory is right because it fitted that one set of data. Instead, you specifically design other experiments that TEST the theory.

The problem with this book is that there appears to have been a single "real world example" which suggested the theory, but that every other example is a "class room experiment by Professor X in which a series of students did Y..."

Sadly, in a book that purports to relate to research going back 50 years, it is hard to believe that there are so few examples of the principle that can be brought to bear.

In having said all that, I have a nagging feeling that the theory is right, and that the evidence is there, but that the book was over-pruned to get down to a certain size. If this is correct, I wish he'd given more material showing why he was right, and less speculation about what would happen if he were.
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on 25 April 2005
This book confounded my expectations. I generally dislike books like this but this one is interesting, provocative and stimulating. I do not wholly agree with the central thesis but even in the sections that I disagreed with there was enough interesting material to hold my attention, it was refreshing to need to question one's assumptions and to think about the points being made.
What is the Wisdom of Crowds?
The book defines it rather loosely suggesting that groups make better decisions if certain conditions are met. The conditions are: diversity (to ensure that different information is used to make the decision), independence and (a certain type of) decentralisation (to ensure that no one person is dictating the decision and that people are using their own private information) together with a way of summarising the different opinions into a collective view.
This loose definition allows the book to address a huge range of topics. It does not build a coherent case attempting to support and justify the central thesis. Instead it relies on a more anecdotal approach - examining situations where crowds can be wiser and situations where they fail to be wise - it is a biography of an idea rather than a manifesto.
To provide some structure three different types of problem are identified: cognition problems, co-ordination problems and co-operation problems. However, even within these broad areas large and rather diverse sets of problems are examined. To assist in the analysis a wide range to techniques are utilised including psychology, statistics and game theory.
The book makes great play of the ideas being counterintuitive and surprising; in some of the examples this is true, in others it seems to be seriously stretching the point. For example, the story about finding the lost submarine is interesting and surprising, as is the speed with which the market identified the company at fault for the Space Shuttle disaster. Less surprising are the examples which boil down to applied game theory, statistics or the fundamental nature of markets.
The most important (practical) problem with the thesis is that the conditions required for the wisdom of crowds to apply are very difficult to meet. The book recognises this and devotes considerable space to situations where crowds fail to be wise because of this. For me, these are probably the best sections of the book. It is very clear that the wisdom of crowds does not mean management by committee (as committees almost always fail to meet the necessary conditions). It is also very sharp on the culture of the 'expert' and is very clear about the need for dissent and the importance of (intellectual) diversity. The section on NASA is chilling and excellent.
In spite of the issues this is still a fascinating book. There is a huge range of stories and examples about how the wisdom of crowds can work and how it can fail spectacularly. I found it a thoroughly engaging and interesting book.
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on 14 June 2004
James Surowiecki writes the "Financial Page" column in The New Yorker, where he's consistently able to come up with unusual takes on seemingly familiar topics, and he has a great knack for making business stories compelling and entertaining as well as understandable. But the column is only a page long, and I always wondered how Surowiecki would do if he was able to develop his ideas and arguments more fully. Luckily, "The Wisdom of Crowds" lives up to all my expectations. It's wonderfully readable, full of terrific stories, funny, and its basic argument -- that groups, under certain conditions, can make better decisions than even the smartest individuals -- is counterintuitive without being willfully contrarian.
The roots of the argument obviously stem from the way markets work -- buyers and sellers find each other and reach efficient outcomes without anyone being in charge, while the stock market (at least some of the time) does as good a job as possible of setting prices. But what I really like is the way Surowiecki extends this argument way beyond business and markets, showing how collective wisdom can be seen (and can potentially be used) in a host of other situations, including the racetrack, on the Internet, and on city streets. He also does a good job of drawing out the possible implications of this for everything from the U.S. intelligence community to the way companies are run.
This is definitely a big-idea book, but the author is cautious in laying out his evidence, and is careful to show that groups, even if they're potentially wise, are often stupid and dangerous. The chapter on small groups in particular, which focuses on NASA's mismanagement of the Columbia mission, is powerful stuff, and useful to anyone interested in how to run a meeting well (or badly, for that matter). The least satisfying part of the book is the chapter on democracy, where Surowiecki shies away from pushing his conclusion to its logical end. But on the whole, this is just a wonderful book, elegant and enlightening.
If you're interested in this book, it's also worth checking out Paul Seabright's "The Company of Strangers" and Robert Wright's "Nonzero."
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on 6 December 2006
Following on from books like Blink and Tipping Point and the infuriatingly readable Freakonomics, this is a book that intends to make economics cool. That is a more difficult task than even my job; to make theology interesting!

Surowiecki has a very good stab at it. This book is filled with counter-intuitive examples of group behaviour that do a very fine job of making the author's point for him- an aggregated decision made by a large group of people on average produces a result better than the best decision made by the best individual guess.

The reason I'd only give it about 7 out of 10 is really very subjective. He draws out inferences constantly that refer to the free market. I am not certain that the collection of case studies he shows justifies the argument he mounts. Really what bothered me about the book was that it sometimes read like paean to western capitalism and that grates on me. So the book felt like it dragged. It need not grate on you and even if it does, I wholly recommend it- its a very well written, fascinating account of a phenomenon that will raise your consciousness.
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on 8 April 2005
It is often believed that a good remedy against the madness of groups is to give much power to extraordinary individuals. People who are aware that they cannot fully understand complex problems often believe that there are other people, more intelligent, knowledgeable and strong than they are, who do posses the answers to these problems. They are quite prepared to follow and depend on these leaders, people who do seem and or pretend to know the answers to pressing complex problems. But is this wise? No!
James Surowiecki fights the idea that group decisions can only be mad and lead to misery and that extraordinary individuals should therefore solve pressing problems. He says that the potential of groups is underestimated and the value of expertise overestimed:
"... the more power you give a single individual in the face of complexity and uncertainty, the more likely it is that bad decisions will get made".
If the circumstances are right groups can behave highly intelligent, often more intelligent than even the most intelligent individuals. Under those circumstances, groups are better at solving problems, making predictions, assessing situations accurately and deciding wisely.
The right circumstances for collective wisdom are:
1. Diversity: when arguments, views and opinions do not differ from each other they don't add anything to one another. Diversity guarantees that multiple perspectives are brought into the decision-making process and that a broader range of information is included.
2. Independence: when individual group members are strongly influenced by arguments, information, experiences and onions of others this will suppress the diversity of input into the decision-making process. This increases the likelihood of groupthink.
3. Decentralization: the chance to achieve collective wisdom is greatest when individuals get a chance to bring their own information and experience into the process. Surowiecki calls this `local experience'.
4. Aggregation: a mechanism and a process to come to an integration of the different views and opinions. It is very important to prevent there will be too much interaction before each other to strongly so that the pressure to conform may get too strong and any deviating opinions will be suppressed.
An intelligent group does not ask of its individual members to conform to the dominant view. Instead it has created a mechanism that resembles a democracy or a market. Individual group members get the opportunity to bring in their own information and opinions and are not forced to change their views. Their independence is explicitly protected.
I found this book very interesting and accessible.
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on 19 March 2006
This book is less well-organised but more interesting than you might think. Surowiecki is often presented as saying little more than that estimates drawn from a wide variety of people tend to be surprisingly accurate. Actually, the book also contains a good discussion of when group decision-making fails, some great stuff about corporate organisation, and lots of good anecdotes. Recommended.
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on 19 June 2006
This well-written bestseller explores the apparent anomaly that crowds of nonexperts seem to be collectively smarter than individual experts or even small groups of experts. This basic insight is at the heart of contemporary financial investment theory, with its emphasis on the difficulty of outguessing the market. Beginning with British scientist Francis Galton's remarkable discovery in 1906 that a crowd of nonexperts proved surprisingly competent at guessing the weight of an ox, financial columnist and author James Surowiecki skillfully recounts experiments, discoveries and anecdotes that demonstrate productive group thinking. The concept does not come as news to anyone reasonably well read in modern financial literature, but we recommend this comprehensive, fresh presentation.
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on 12 June 2007
I notice that Amazon are bundling this with Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" and they do actually have a lot in common. "The Wisdom of Crowds" belongs to that growing niche of 'smart books' written for grown-ups who need a bit more than pub banter to keep their grey matter alive. My opinion is that Surowiecki may have benefitted from a slightly tougher editor who could've made this book just a bit more readable. Yes it's definately worth reading cover to cover as the 'wisdom' does keep on flowing, but having to persevere through a book detracts from the enjoyment. All that's left at the end is a vague smugness that "Haha, I did it... now I know a lot more clever stuff than I previously did... haha... now I've now climbed another rung up the smartness ladder.." Or maybe it's only me who thinks like that?
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on 9 January 2013
I actually bought this copy to give to one of the Directors of a large company that I advise. He was dabbling in consensual feedback as the core of a brainstorming session that I was in and I mentioned this book and then ordered it for him before he went back to the US. First comment - I love Amazon prime, because you can do this - think of a book and receive it so quickly. As for the book, it is something that sticks in your head and comes back to you at the most unexpected moments - even at my kid's Xmas fair I looked at the 'how many sweets in the jar' stall differently. Very insightful and useful at meetings where you can see the dangers of directed groupthink most clearly but also useful as a general way of thinking about problem solving. Highly recommended.
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VINE VOICEon 16 August 2006
Very similar to the fein of Freakonomics, the Wisdom of Crowds explores the way we percieve the world through a number of pop culture references, Who wants to be a millionaire included. Am currently reading this book as a PPE prep, just to expand my knowledge, and has been a page a minute read. Would strongly reccommend.
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