Feeds

Junk science - the oil of the new web

Extraordinary delusions and the Wisdom of Chimps

Next gen security for virtualised datacentres

Comment Borges once wrote that what the world needs is more good readers, not more good writers. So when bad ideas and sloppy thinking abound, is it more the fault of the author, or the public's desire to misrepresent their views?

Maybe you can help us decide.

There's a case to made that James Surowecki's The Wisdom of Crowds is the most influential book of the decade - The Selfish Gene for the noughties. Both have something else in common: the title of each book is profoundly misleading. Crowds aren't wise, nor can genes be selfish - as one critic famously wrote, any more than atoms can be jealous.

Just as the young polemicist Dawkins paved the way for the social darwinism of the Reagan and Thatcher years, Surowecki's discussion of futures markets and "collective intelligence" provides the flimsy premise for a spending splurge on junk technology. It's the common thread that unites several of the disparate "Web 2.0" start-ups we wrote about yesterday, in our must-read roundup.

Both authors were the catalyst for entire schools of junk science - yet both can justifiably claim to have been misrepresented to some degree. While Surowecki is clearly as bewitched by "collective intelligence" as Dawkins was by a gene-eyed view of evolution, he also warns that the crowd only picks winners in very specific circumstances, where the collective guess work acts as a kind of risk hedging. If these factors aren't present, then the market falls victim to the inevitable: gaming.

The Wisdom of Chimps

But even when this appears to work, so what? Seth Finkelstein notes that in some situations, throwing darts at a dartboard produces excellent results. Citing the Wall Street Journal Dartboard Contest, he writes,

"People are fascinated by ways in which data-mining seems to represent some sort of over-mind. But sometimes there's no deep meaning at all. Dartboards are competitive with individual money managers - but nobody talks about the 'wisdom of darts'", he writes.

And today, Canadian hockey fans are rejoicing in the return of Maggie the Macaque. The simian (on the right) out-performed the experts in predicting the results of key games during the 2003 season. Could it be Maggie's diet of crabs, or could it be - "The Wisdom of Monkeys"?

One need only look at the composition of the internet to understand why the "Wisdom of Crowds" will never apply: the internet isn't representative of society, and even amongst this whiter-than-white sample, only a self-selecting few have any interest in participating in a given pseudo-market.

While Wisdom of Crowds was self-consciously written with the purpose of restoring the public's faith in the market, after the dot.com bubble burst - it was titled after Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Decisions and The Madness of Crowds - it's had the opposite effect.

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
Our LOHAN spaceplane ballocket Kickstarter climbs through £8000
Through 25 per cent but more is needed: Get your UNIQUE rewards!
LOHAN tunes into ultra long range radio
And verily, Vultures shall speak status unto distant receivers
EOS, Lockheed to track space junk from Oz
WA facility gets laser-eyes out of the fog
Volcanic eruption in Iceland triggers CODE RED aviation warning
Lava-spitting Bárðarbunga prompts action from Met Office
NASA to reformat Opportunity rover's memory from 125 million miles away
Interplanetary admins will back up data and get to work
LOHAN Kickstarter breaks NINETEEN THOUSAND of your EARTH POUNDS
That's right, OVER 9,000 beer tokens - and counting
Major cyber attack hits Norwegian oil industry
Statoil, the gas giant behind the Scandie social miracle, targeted
prev story

Whitepapers

Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Advanced data protection for your virtualized environments
Find a natural fit for optimizing protection for the often resource-constrained data protection process found in virtual environments.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.