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Week 5, Gene Expression Book Club – Not Born Yesterday

James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of the Crowds came out in 2005. The basic insight is groups of people are often much more accurate than individuals. Not Born Yesterday accepts this finding, but chapter 5, “Who Knows Best,” punches back against overreading the result in all domains.

Wisdom of the Crowds came out in a decade when all sorts of cool psychology and neuroscience books were being published. Counterintuitive stuff that was entertaining sold (e.g., Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide). That was before the replication crisis, and it turned out that a lot of the counterintuitive results were one-off’s and not general results. The 2010’s became the decade of boring psychology due to a correction against this pattern.

In this chapter, Hugo Mercier starts coming through on his claim that we’re not that gullible. People go along with the crowd, but not unreasonably so. The famous experiments that show conformity are actually not as illuminating as they’ve been made out to be. People know very well which line is longer, they just admit that they conform in public. And even then, most people refuse to conform. Preschoolers are aware of expertise. They know that doctors know more about plants, while mechanics know more about how to fix a toy. They trust adult judgment in things adults presumably can understand, but not where their opinions shouldn’t be weighted (e.g., children see that the adult has no more information than they do).

Humans are OK at weighing expertise, and gauging a sense when majority opinion can likely be right (e.g., situations when errors are independent and random). When you tell people that the majority went along with a particularly charismatic person, they discount the majority consensus.

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8 thoughts on “Week 5, Gene Expression Book Club – Not Born Yesterday

  1. According to Le Bon, the intelligence of a crowd is defined by the most stupid member in the crowd, not the smartest one.

    “Group decisions – my perhaps jaundiced view is that it is close to impossible for outstanding investment management to come from a group of any size with all parties really participating in decisions” – Warren Buffett.

    Indeed, my own experience in stock market and land investment also proves that my own independent thinking over popular opinions gave me tremendous profit. It is by no mean that independent thinking alone can bring profit. It has to be that your own rational conclusion is superior to that of crowd.

    In science and mathematics, it is always individual who gets right and majority is wrong or has no clue. If popular opinions as way of correctness, the earth is flat, only idiots believe earth as globe. Only reason majority believe globe earth is centuries indoctrination of mass through religious style of repetition. Majority have no way to figure out shape of earth on their own.

    “You’re neither right nor wrong because other people agree with you. You’re right because your facts are right and your reasoning is right – that’s the only thing that makes you right. And if your facts and reasoning are right, you don’t have to worry about anybody else.” Warren Buffett.

  2. Just some observation.

    Scientists seeks facts to prove the correctness of any idea or hypothesis. Average people judge the correctness base on approval rating. Obscurantism judge right or wrong based on faith (political ideology, religion doctrine, any fixed beliefs).

    Certainly IQ requirement for the last category is the lowest. You have guideline layout in front for you and you do not need to think very much on your own. This might explain phenomenon that mental ability is inversely related to religiosity or fundamentalist of ideology.

  3. this is a fascinating idea to me. the MAGA people i work with, they reject all of liberalism. they’re (overly) skeptical about EVERYTHING…basically, contrarians. But yet they conform to their group’s ideals very tightly (a “stolen” election.) But they also wear masks, receive the vaccine, etc. as asked. Their behavior typically doesn’t match their rhetoric. Or rather, their behavior takes a while to catch up with societies, true to the conservative tradition.
    So which are they? Conformists or skeptics? Very weird.

  4. Razib: When you tell people that the majority went along with a particularly charismatic person, they discount the majority consensus.

    That’s an interesting one. We see today that a favoured go-to line to discredit a popular, but disliked opinion is “Oh, they’re being misled by a popularity seeking demagogue!”.

    I’ve always tended to attribute this line of argument to the typical group of speakers’ vast and unwarranted tendencies to intellectual arrogance.

    But maybe there’s more to it. Perhaps this is just one of the more point-blank effective ways that a speaker can lie to try and get rid of a popular opinion that he doesn’t like? Just claim that a group are “sheeple” following a charismatic leader, and its easy to get them to forget that they made that decision because of their own, largely good, judgment…

  5. Mr Ford

    Again your acquaintances’ positions seem perfectly reasonable to me

    Have you realized that your characterization applies to yourself as well

  6. “…People go along with the crowd, but not unreasonably so. The famous experiments that show conformity are actually not as illuminating as they’ve been made out to be. People know very well which line is longer, they just admit that they conform in public. And even then, most people refuse to conform.”

    But we’ve been seeing Asche’s conformity experiment play out in academia, for much higher stakes. Razib, you’ve seen it yourself, over and over. Mercier is wrong here.

  7. I wonder often about how generalisable lab based conformity experiments are to real society.

    For instance, the usual claim is that an individualistic mindset makes individuals less likely to conform. People think for themselves and are less likely to take mental shortcuts of copying.

    But from a game theory perspective, if you’re an individual who has low confidence that members of his ingroup won’t defect to an outgroup, and groups are open, e.g. you’re just individuals who can freely leave and join social groups, then that seems like the incentives are on you to defect and that’s exactly the situation that will breed defection and conformity.

    For real world dissidents, membership of unions, churches, family, all provide support for dissenting behaviour.

    I wonder if there isn’t a non-linear function of real non-conformist thought where decay of very strong ingroups gives rise to more individual thought, but “Bowling Alone” leaves individuals alone against “the mob” (mass society) and creates re-emergence of conformity?

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