How useful is wisdom of the crowd?

I checked out the entries on Wikipedia and found there’s a book named The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki and another entry on just wisdom of the crowd (note the “s”). The idea is that groups of individuals are able to provide better solutions, answers or opinions than a single individual.

People raising hands
[image by Michael Jay]

Now Surowiecki stated 4 criteria needed for it to work:

  • Diversity of opinion
  • Independence
  • Decentralisation
  • Aggregation

The first two points are somewhat countered by herd behaviour, where people are (easily) influenced by other people. Based on my observations of people around me, and my personal experience, I found that it’s challenging to come up with your own original idea, thought or opinion. Then it’s also challenging to defend that originality against questioning by other people, or self doubt.

The other two points seem related. The more you decentralise, the more you need to aggregate better. It’s like specialists and generalists (using the terms loosely here). The more you specialise in something, the more work you need to tap on other fields of knowledge.

Aannyway, I was thinking about independent thought, the phrase I heard that’s “wisdom of the crowd” and crowdsourcing (though after reading its meaning, it’s not what I wanted). I was thinking if you’re working on something really hard, would the crowd give you better answers? Or would you (or an individual knowledgeable in that field) be a better choice?

Previously, I talked about using heuristics to match image textures. I was using a few tests to determine if a given texture image matched any of the textures in a sample set. This is like using wisdom of the crowd. No one individual test could match with a reasonably high enough accuracy rate. Let’s compare my matching algorithm with the criteria above.

I’ve got a few different tests, so “diversity of opinion” is covered. I’ve got “independence” because each test doesn’t rely on another. I’ve got “decentralisation” because each test is an “expert” on the particular test algorithm used. And I’ve got “aggregation” when I used some kind of average of the tests’ results.

What happens if the problem is so hard, so unheard of, that you don’t know whose opinion to seek?

Diversity dilutes the final (if any) solution if unrelated opinions are brought on. And for an uncommon problem, independent thinkers might get swayed by the first seemingly correct answer (thus following the herd), simply because the problem is so hard. And there’s not much expert knowledge if the problem is so rare (there goes “decentralisation”).

And whose answer are you going to trust, or how are you going to consolidate answers (aggregation)? When answers are uncertain, bias comes into play. A person’s reputation, your feelings towards a person, the way a person presented his solution.

Remember how I used weights on the results of my texture matching algorithm? Not all opinions are created equal…

Of course, all this could be another barber’s paradox, because there’s no such problem! *smile*

Ok, the whole point of this article is I want you to increase your reliance on your opinions, intuition, thoughts and feelings. I’m sure you have a healthy dose of humility and self-awareness such that when you’re truly stumped, you will find someone knowledgeable and ask. It’s when you form a habit of asking others before coming up with your own conclusions first that I’m worried about.

Choose your own adventure

I loved those “Choose your own adventure” books. Each choice I made created a different outcome, and somewhere down the road, I might end up with the same point which resulted from a different choice. There were only a few final endings, finite due to the limitation of a book, but there were still lots of different story plots to go through.

Because it’s finite and limited, if you play through enough times, you’ll discover the “best” route to the “ideal” outcome. You can construct a solution choice tree and tell your friend, and your friend will be able to navigate through the book in one reading and get the best ending. It’s tried, it’s proven, and it’s also incredibly boring. Where’s the fun in that?

I’m telling you this with regards to learning, specifically when learning from other people. When studying code samples from reference books (or sites), test them to check if they fit your purposes. Understand what the code is to accomplish. When reading other people’s works and writings (that includes me), question their intentions, question their understanding, hey, even question their questions.

Think for yourself. I’m not saying you can’t agree with nor trust the information. I’m saying to think about it before blindly following along. Choose your own adventure books have finite paths. Learning doesn’t.

This actually reminded me of something from those wealth seminars I attended. The general idea from the presenters was:

  • Found a way to become fabulously wealthy
  • Am rich (show proof: screenshots of PayPal accounts, cheques)
  • Will show you how, step by step (for a fee of course)

Granted, the methods do work for some people. It’s not that that puts me off. It’s the step-by-step part. Because normal people find it difficult to navigate the road to wealth, they are presented with a step-by-step, hold-your-hand, do-as-I-say process to follow. I find it fascinating and utterly insulting at the same time. So there’s little room for experimentation, huh?

I have another story to share with you. Welcome to another lesson from the great kungfu master Chen Min!

The holes in stones

Some time after Chen Min’s training in the bamboo grove, a travelling master and his disciple arrived. Long story short, the disciple, Xu Fang, became a good friend and sparring partner to Chen Min. The thing was, Chen Min lost all the battles with Xu Fang thus far, despite his proficiency with the staff.

During one of the battles, Chen Min lost because Xu Fang extended his staff, from holding the end in his hands to holding it with his index finger and thumb. Both thrust their staves at each other. The extension meant Xu Fang hit Chen Min, even though the staves were of the same length.

So he decided to see what Xu Fang every day, to see if Xu Fang did any special training. He watched Xu Fang closely during breakfast, to see if there’s anything he did with chopsticks. He peered surreptitiously at Xu Fang during daily training to see if he did anything differently. Nothing.

Chen Min then decided to train his index finger and thumb. At night, he would write, using only his index finger and thumb to hold a brush steady. When chopping vegetables during chores, he’d hold the chopping knife by only the index finger and thumb. He trained his arm strength by holding a piece of firewood with his arm outstretched horizontally. Yet he still got no closer to winning Xu Fang.

One day, Chen Min saw Xu Fang carrying his staff into the woods, apparently for training. Chen Min decided to shadow him. Xu Fang went past a small brook, and caught sight of something in the water. He went into the water and got into a stance, holding the staff at one end and pointing the other end down at the water.

Then he started jabbing into the water with amazing speed. After some time, Xu Fang stopped. He looked down at the water, breathed a sigh and wiped his brow. Then he left.

Chen Min sprang forth from his hiding place and went into the water, wondering what Xu Fang was hitting. Then he saw them. Stones resting on the bed of the stream. With holes in them. Round holes made by the end of a staff. The stones weren’t shattered, they were bored. Chen Min was astounded by the strength and accuracy required to thrust through water and drill a hole in a stone.

So Chen Min practised boring holes in stones. The water made it difficult to aim due to its flow, and difficult to strike because of its presence. But Chen Min persevered. Stones shattered, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to just break them. He had to be strong enough, fast enough and accurate enough to bore holes in stones. He was ecstatic when he finally made it, holding the bored stone in his hands. Chen Min went back, feeling like he’s catching up to Xu Fang.

The next day, Chen Min followed Xu Fang again. This time, Xu Fang went to the woods again, and stopped in a clearing. He stood before a large boulder and stared at it. And waited. Chen Min held his breath.

Then Xu Fang went into his signature stance, right hand holding a staff end, the other end aimed at the boulder. The staff was held horizontally at shoulder level, his left hand in front, as though aiming at a particular spot.

Then he struck. A loud knock echoed in the clearing as wood hit rock. Xu Fang lowered his staff. A split appeared diagonally across the boulder. Then the top half of the boulder slid off with a dull thud on the grass.

It was at this moment that Chen Min realised he couldn’t catch up with Xu Fang.

He went back dejected, and told his own master what happened. The master smiled. And told Chen Min that if he was always copying Xu Fang, if he was always following in Xu Fang’s footsteps, then he’d never be able to surpass Xu Fang.

It’s a brave new world

You, my friend, are going to face some tough challenges. You’ve read what others had written, heard what others had done and used what others had created. You’ve learnt a lot. Yet it still seems insufficient.

It’s a brave new world out there. Things seem to move quite rapidly. Maybe it’s not enough to play catch up, to keep following other people’s footsteps. Maybe it’s time to do it your own way. Because all those skills, all that knowledge, isn’t as good as what’s in your head, the way you think.

Learn and adapt what you can, and come up with something uniquely yours. The world doesn’t get better if you keep choosing other people’s routes. For crying out loud, forge your own path and choose your own adventure.