Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
James Surowiecki: The Wisdom of Crowds: Why
the Many are Smarter than the Few...

This book received only mediocre ratings from our group, an average of 5.5 on a scale of 0 to 10. Both Kirby and Scott felt strongly conflicted about the book, and that general feeling may have led to its mediocre overall rating.

Kirby said that he really liked some parts of the book, and really disliked other parts. He said he figured that a majority that reelected Bush can't be very smart, and that led him to question the premise of the whole book.

Scott hated the bourgeois economic assumptions of the book, the glorification of the market and of capitalism in general. But he very much appreciated other sections which brought out some of the various ways in which there is indeed mass wisdom. Scott relates this to his own fixation on the Maoist theory of the mass line and has promised to write a review of the book from that unusual perspective. (We'll see if he ever writes it!) Scott feels that although the author is bourgeois to the core, there are nevertheless many important things in the book well worth attending to. But to extract those good things the text often needs to be "reinterpreted". Thus, when Surowiecki talks about the problems of "group-think" within the leadership of a corporation, Scott prefers to think about similar sorts of problems—and how to avoid them—within the leadership of revolutionary parties!

Rosie didn't like the book, and felt that way too much of it was self-evident. However, she agreed with what she described as the main point of the book, that diversity of opinions are very important within any group of people if that group hopes to be able to come to a good decision about some major issue. She added:

However, it is important to note what Surowiecki actually means by "group decision". Individual opinions must be collected independently of each other—not in a meeting with your boss, your work group, your social group, or in the presence of a so-called "expert"—in order to come up with the "wisdom of the crowd". Otherwise, various peer and group pressures will unduly influence a person's "vote".

Barbara enjoyed the book, but Kevin S. only skimmed it. "It lost me early on," he said.

Rich thought the book was pretty interesting. He remarked that he hadn't thought much about this sort of thing, and found some of it quite counter-intuitive (such as that it is a good idea to add some contrary views to the mix—even if you know those specific views are wrong!—before coming to a collective decision). Rich remarked, however, that Surowiecki's insistence on referring to narrow self-interested attitudes as "rational" was quite annoying. I think the rest of us very much agree with that criticism!

Return to our complete list of books.

Return to our Science Group home page.