Majority Error
© 7 Apr 2014 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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The Foolishness of the Masses.


Each summer I travel about helping to put on a series of workshops for high-school computer science teachers. Bob Luciano also participates in many of these workshops, presenting on the value and application of logic puzzles in CS classes. One of the puzzles he gives the attendees is to find the smallest number satisfying some set of constraints. He’ll give this to the teachers, they’ll work on it, and then he’ll say “‍How many of you got an answer of nine?‍” Most hands will rise. “‍Congratulations,‍” he’ll say, “‍you think like most people. Did anyone get an answer of seven?‍” Usually just one or two hands will raise, and he’ll have them explain why seven is the correct answer.

In those same workshops Joanne McGrath Cohoon will share that when she was a young parent the mantra was “‍praise your children; tell them they are smart and beautiful‍” but that current understanding suggests that that kind of praise is detrimental, inhibiting a growth mindset. Instead, we ought to praise children for their work, their diligence, their persistent effort in accomplishing great things.

We used to think that spreading DDT was good for the public health. We used to think that lessons should always be tailored to the preferred learning style of the student. We I use the term “‍we‍” to refer to entire cultures over decades of time. used to think a lot of things that weSame “‍we‍”. now believe are bunk.

And yet, we have a phrase, “‍the wisdom of the masses.‍”

We also have other phrases: “‍fad‍”, “‍mob mentality‍”, “‍least common denominator‍”, and the less-used but startlingly true “‍none of us is as stupid as all of us.‍”

The masses are very often wrong. They get some things right; many things, in fact. But they also get a frightening number wrong.

It is not clear,a priori, which topics the masses will get wrong. About a year ago I had a fascinating conversation with GeneJ on the question “‍do more researchers make genealogical results stronger?‍” We reached no conclusion besides that the question was a difficult one. Just a few months at RootsTech I was asked a similar question by an employee at FamilySearch who was trying to figure out how to test the evolving strength of conclusions as more researchers got involved in a single line. I hope he finds a reliable way of measuring that, because I have no way of guessing what he will discover when he does so.

There is one area where we know the masses cannot be trusted: anywhere that marketing or mass media is involved. Consider dairy: most Americans believe that dairy is important for one’s health and yet many of the countries with the highest life expectancy have little if any dairy in their diets at all. So where did this public opinion come from? From some very clever marketing and lobbying by the dairy industry. Money talks, what it says is “‍make more of me,‍” but what the masses You and I are part of the masses. usually hear is “‍I am truth.‍”

Aristotle defined “‍democracy‍” as “‍rule by demagogues.‍” With the advent of mass media, demagoguery became a business which means that the message of the demagogues became the message of the oligarchs. Thus, in the political realm we also have reason to believe that at least the most vocal parts of “‍public opinion‍” are probably manipulated and presenting some kind of greed instead of some kind of truth.

There are many other ways that majorities have a leaning toward wrongness. C. S. Lewis’s book Present Concerns mentions several I find intriguing, such as the wrongness of “‍democratic education‍” and many of the moral implications of popular opinion. Prophets ancient and modern always seem to be fighting some kind of false but widespread and growing popular opinion. This remains true today, and will likely continue true until the end of time.

Over time I have learned that anytime my opinion aligns with the majority opinion reported in public opinion polls, it wise to look for the error in my thoughts. None of us is as stupid as all of us, and when I am thinking like part of the “‍all‍” I am generally thinking poorly, accepting the demagoguery or bending evidence to fit my personal comfort.

It takes an exceptional person to see the truth in a difficult topic. I believe that most people are capable of being the exceptional ones in this way in some topics, perhaps even most topics; but we are not generally capable of seeing clearly in every direction at once. There is advantage in withholding opinion; let the foolishness of the masses become one of your meters of personal error.

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