Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Experts and Amateurs

“Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”  
– James Surowiecki

In his book “The Wisdom of Crowds”, James Surowiecki told a story about the British scientist Francis Galton. Galton came upon a weight-judging competition one day, where an ox was selected and people were to place wages on what the weight of the ox would be after it had been slaughtered and dressed. After the competition, Galton collected all the guesses and ran a series of statistical tests and calculated the mean of the guesses – 1,197 pounds. The correct answer was 1,198 pounds. The crowd was not necessarily composed of intelligent people, but collectively, the group was surprisingly intelligent.

To me, this means that even if we do not fall under the elite category of being “special”, amateurs like us are capable of making significant contributions to whatever it is we care about.

 “The traditional view … is that creativity is about special people. … Special people, special places, think up special ideas, then you have a pipeline that takes the ideas down to the waiting consumers, who are passive. … this view … is increasingly wrong.”  
– Charles Leadbeater

In fact, the best teams are a diverse combination of experts and amateurs because different people have different experiences and can contribute in different, but equally significant ways. Sudowiecki remarked that “the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” Instead of asking its members to “modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with”, an intelligent group aggregates ideas and come up with one that represents what every member of the group thinks.

Mountain bikes, for instance, were built by a group of enthusiasts in Northern California. They were frustrated with the expertly-built racing bikes of the time, so they decided to combined the frames of the bigger bikes with the gears of racing bikes and created the mountain bike. Thirty years later, mountain bike sales and mountain bike equipment would account for 65% of bike sales in America.
In his TED talk, Charles Leadbeater asserts that “This is a category entirely created by consumers that would not have been created by the mainstream bike market because they couldn't see the need, the opportunity; they didn't have the incentive to innovate.” These bike enthusiasts came up with something that represented what they all thought of as ideal.

And so it is for you and I. This idea of breaking out from the norms imposed upon us by the elite isn’t new, nor is the idea of working together towards a better ideal – we’ve been doing that in every revolution since the Age of Enlightenment. We don’t have to be passive and rely on the experts, but we can work with the experts to contribute to the greater good, whatever form of good that might be.


  1. I think part of the reason why groups working collectively are more successful than individuals is because there is give and take. I'm sure we've all been in groups where one person, who presumes they are more superior, takes charge and the rest of the group doesn't feel comfortable to share. This probably steps into psychology, the lack of motivation to participate when someone who is an expert takes control of a group. I'm not sure if you want to go there, but it could be interesting.

    1. That's a good point. I think there also needs to be leadership though, that again is a whole other topic. Leadership versus bossing people around.

  2. I liked the layout of the post, especially how you used your quotes. It seemed a little bit like it would not "divide an educated audience" though, like Professor Burton said it should. I think most would agree with everything that you have said.

    1. Thanks Chloe, I think that's a good point, especially since Tommy will be taking the opposing view. Thanks for pointing that out!

  3. Great presentation Adrian! I'm really going to have to step up my game if I'm going to present a convincing opposition