In 1906, Francis Galton, known for his work on statistics and heredity, came across a weight-judging contest at the West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition. This encounter was to challenge the foundations of his life's study.
An ox was on display and for six-pence fair-goers could buy a stamped and numbered ticket, fill in their names and their guesses of the animal's weight after it had been slaughtered and dressed. The best guess received a prize.
Eight hundred people tried their luck. They were diverse. Many had no knowledge of livestock; others were butchers and farmers. In Galton's mind this was a perfect analogy for democracy. He wanted to prove the average voter was capable of very little. Yet to his surprise, when he averaged the guesses, the total came to 1197 pounds. After the ox had been slaughtered, it weighted 1198.
James Surowiecki takes Galton's counterintuitive notion and explores its ramification for business, government, science and the economy. It is a book about the world as it is. At the same time, it is a book about the world as it might be. Most of us believe that valuable nuggets of knowledge are concentrated in few minds. We believe the solution to our complex problems lies in finding the right person. When all we have to do, Surowiecki demonstrates over and over, is ask the gathered crowd.
The well-written book is divided into two parts. The first deals with theory; the second offers case studies. Believe it or not, I found it to be a page-turner. The author has that precious ability to render the complex in simple, understandable and interesting prose.
I have long been an admirer of H. L. Mencken who once wrote, "No one is this world, so far as I know, has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people."
By the time I finished this book, I believed Mencken was wrong.