The Limits of the Wisdom of Crowds

by Dean Mattson

Opening Keynote
James Surowiecki
June 29, 2008

Wise decisions are produced by argument much more often than by consensus.

That was the take-away message delivered by James Surowiecki during his opening keynote at NECC 2008, a presentation very familiar to readers of his influential 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds.

The premise of the book is that many average people can reach wiser decisions than a few smart people. But for me, the most interesting part of his talk was when he talked about the conditions needed within a group to produce wise decisions. I think everyone in education has been members of groups where people just go along with what the person in charge is saying, where they don’t feel that their concerns are valued. Surowiecki explained why it is better for the group when criticism is accepted and valued.

All interesting stuff, but I wish he wouldn’t opened up his premise – and strayed from his book a little – and addressed the question of technology in education. After all, there is no shortage of people resisting new tools or different, better modes of instruction. Can it be the wisdom of crowds doesn’t apply in this situation – that people can be too tied to traditions? That peoples’ self-interest can trump what is best for all? What would his theory advise in those situations?

I think his presentation was interesting and valuable, I just wish he would’ve taken it a little bit further.