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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Mash Gas


Dr. Lester CN Simon

Friday, April 20, 2007 might go down in the recorded history of Antigua and Barbuda as a day to understand who we are and what sort of society we want to become. Long lines of vehicles driven by all classes of people including robots, vulgarians and elites were inching into petrol stations and obstructing many of us from driving to our yards. I was one of the robots until Radio Observer clarified the matter as one of a temporary nature and advised that, based on information from the national supplier of petrol, normality would be restored in less than 24 hours.

I have asked a few persons why drivers with an adequate amount of petrol to last until the next day would remain in the long lines despite the assurance that the minor, temporary setback would be over long before they could drive around the island twenty four times. The answers ranged from not hearing the clarification on radio or cell phone, not believing the clarification, being safe rather than sorry if the setback worsened, to sheer panic.

James Surowiecki, a business columnist of the New Yorker magazine, has written a highly acclaimed book called The Wisdom of Crowds. His argument is that contrary to what many of us believe, a large crowd of diverse people is smarter than a small number of brilliant, expert individuals. What great wisdom did the crowd of drivers display on Friday, April 20, 2007?

Surowiecki provides many examples to support his claim. One example is that in the television series Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the audience is right 91 percent of the time compared to 65 percent for the experts who are called on the phone when the player is stumped for an answer.

A wise crowd must meet four criteria. It should be noted that crowds are not good for every problem, especially ones involving skills such as performing surgery or flying a plane. West Indies cricket would have a very wise crowd were it not for one of the four criteria.

One: The crowd must have a variety of people. The idea is based on statistical sampling theory. A small group of experts working together tend to think alike and reinforce each other. The outcome will be based on their collective wisdom, right or wrong. Their individual mistakes will add up and give the wrong answer more often than the answer from a larger, mixed group. A larger, mixed group will include experts but the errors of the very unwise will cancel out the errors of the very smart. A larger, mixed group is more representative of all the possible answers including the best answer. It is probably safe to assume that the Friday gas crowd met this criterion. Which is the most diverse political party in the state?

Two: The members of the crowd must be independent thinkers. They must pay attention to their own information. The opinions of other members of the crowd should not determine the opinion of any one individual member. Let’s leave this one for last. Which local political party qualifies best for this criterion?

Three: The crowd must be decentralized. No dictators are allowed. It may be that great leaders master the art of not appearing to be dictators. One of our three Prime Ministers is considered the supreme qualifier. Drivers in the Friday crowd might have reacted negatively to the suggestion that they should come out of the line if they had sufficient petrol and leave the space for those with near empty tanks. Some people resent being told what to do even if it is the right thing.

Four: The crowd must be able to turn the individual judgments into a collective action. Which political party does this best? Drivers in the Friday crowd could have driven away or stayed in line. Drivers who wanted to leave might have been obstructed by the traffic. Others probably were too ashamed to be seen leaving the line and be accused of having had sufficient petrol all along.

Perhaps most of the drivers were not acting independently and were responding to the action of each other. It cannot be that what happened on gas-Friday was the action of our wisest crowd. Can it be? If a large, diverse crowd of independent individuals gives the smartest answers then such a crowded political tent with disagreement and even conflict must be the smartest political ensemble. But all four criteria must be met, including number four.

There are times when politicians want wise constituents and times when they want compliant ones. If independent thought and action remain a national mirage, do not be surprised to see a repeat performance of gas-Friday just before the next general election.


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