Enjoy the Silence

From Wikipedia:

In 1906 Galton visited a livestock fair and stumbled upon an intriguing contest. An ox was on display, and the villagers were invited to guess the animal’s weight after it was slaughtered and dressed. Nearly 800 gave it a go and, not surprisingly, not one hit the exact mark: 1,198 pounds. Astonishingly, however, the average of those 800 guesses came close — very close indeed. It was 1,197 pounds.

Averages over many individual decisions can indeed be more accurate than any individual decision. That’s not the case for all such averages, however: there are certain key factors that have to be considered.

The following influences are not exhaustive, but they are necessary for such averaging to be valid:

1) The decision-makers must have a means of perceiving the subject that is capable of veridical representation along the relevant factors – or at least approximates accuracy. For example, human vision possesses neither infinite resolution nor universally reliable perception, but it has been selected for moderate accuracy.

2) The decision-makers must be willing and interested to make the most accurate decision they can.

3) The decisions must be made independently, without knowledge of what others are deciding or have decided.

Those may not be the only requirements for valid decision averaging, but I’m confident that if even one of them is lacking, averaging is no longer a wise course of action if you want to make a quality decision.

Why do I point this out? The silence is deafening.

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2 Responses to “Enjoy the Silence”

  1. Has anyone tried running the ox-weight experiment relaxing constraint 3?

  2. I don’t know of any systematic attempts to keep the first two constant while varying the third alone. But there are sufficient examples of what happens when ostensibly qualified people have access to each other’s opinions to get a rough idea.

    It’s questionable whether voting satisfies either of the first two conditions, but we know that reporting on how voting is progressing can alter the outcome of an election — and it’s not even a matter of correctness, but of convenience.

    There’s been a lot of study of groupthink. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has (metaphorically) tried an ox experiment.

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