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Ask HN: How can so many people be wrong?
11 points by diminium on Jan 30, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 17 comments
Crowdsourcing, democracy, large conversations. Thousands to millions of brains looking at a problem trying to figure out the answer. And when they fail spectacularly, they fail spectacularly.

So I ask the HN crowd today, how can so many brains be wrong? How can millions of brains seeing the same problem come up with the wrong answer? If a million brains failed, would a billion or a trillion brains come up with the right answer?




A few confounding issues: first, how do you define 'wrong'? Can you prove empirically that a better solution exists than the answer put fourth in any given example?

Secondly, if we can prove that better solution that the crowd-sourced one exists, then can we prove that it would be more or less likely to be hit upon by an individual working alone or by the crowd? IE: what configuration provides the greatest likelihood of choosing the correct solution, and how do we quantify that?

Thirdly, it is very possible that for any given problem, there's not a 'correct' answer that can be attained reliably given the known data. One trillion people working together would be not more likely to predict the winning lottery numbers tomorrow for instance -the information they have available to them simply is not adequate.

My gut feeling? Group decision making is useful for certain, narrow reasons but doesn't become more powerful in a linear fashion when you add more people. There are inefficiencies of scale that come in to play which begin to outweigh the benefits of distributed decision making.


Such a good question! It illustrates how for ideas to flourish they need a platform and strategy to be organized and improved upon.

For example there's a great innovation tool called the Lotus Blossom Technique - you start with a concept, but then add layers of ideas or improvements to the original idea (like peeling a blossom) until you reach a core (and much improved) idea. The results of this are much more effective and targeted than traditional crowd-sourced problem solving - such as via forums - that can often involve lots of orthogonal voices shouting ideas yet lacking structure.

I love the Lotus Blossom as a creative thinking tool, yet can imagine on a larger scale it's an issue in itself to organize (e.g. who leads the process? how to make everyone feel 'heard'? how to keep the brainstorming on track so ideas are strengthened, not watered down?) So, when it all boils down, it's understanding and adapting to human psychology (at both an individual and collective level) that solves large-scale problems. This would be an awesome problem to solve!


Your premises are flawed. Human brain power is not an additive substance. So 1000 brains are in no sense of the term 1000 times more powerful than one brain.

Crowds don't actually have wisdom. All they really have is consensus.

As such, if a problem is the kind of thing that one person usually gets wrong, then it's also the kind of thing that the majority of a million-person crowd will also get wrong.


This. Each brain acts independently, and some brains have access to rather more or less data (and yes, processing power too) than others when it comes to making a decision on any given subjects. It's more of a surprise when the majority chooses correctly given superficially-appealing conflicting arguments on esoteric subjects it doesn't really understand.


Truth isn't a binary, it's a gradient. There's both rational and emotional truth in many things we label wrong or unjust.

Meanwhile, we evolved to sift through information rapidly towards self-preservation. This has obvious drawbacks like any other broad algorithm would. Let's not get proud of whatever cohort we identify with; logical fallacies are the norm at any level of intelligence.

Many of our truths conflict with other societal and even personal truths. You can want children with a loving wife and still find pleasure in extramarital affairs. Both have sound biological and psychological rewards that carry paradoxically self-sabotaging complications.

Add to that cultural and technological shifts, disparities in wealth and power, the weakness of language, and many other complications which won't fit into the box I'm typing in.

Truth is complicated and dynamic enough as a philosophical concept, let alone with the innate irrationality we all share.


One answer could be:

Given that success is a combination of problem, solution and another variables, the probability of someone finding the correct combination is very small. This is why the fly-or-die model startups like to choose is so cruel. Sometimes it looks like a startup is a lottery ticket and VCs are buying as many tickets as they can to secure the prize.

The probability of 1 zillion or just one person finding the right number is the same for each individual. What you could do is to become multiple tickets by pivoting or getting together with another individuals.


Human cognitive illusions are powerful. It is by no means guaranteed that any number of human brains attempting to grapple with a problem will arrive at a correct answer. Democratic and scientific processes of sharing information and authority help a great deal, but one commonality all human beings have is fallibility, and crowd-sourcing more fallible brains doesn't eliminate that instrumental problem in truth-seeking.

(That said, I do appreciate the disagreement I often receive from other participants on HN as a reality check on my own thinking.)


Can you give an example of this spectacular failure you are referring to?


Your question assumes that humanity, at least in large quantities, is a rational actor. I think history shows us that's not true.


of those brains, how many are actually analyzing the problem, vs just regurgitating information posed by someone else?


We still are limited by all the information theory stuff.

Sometimes the point is not about the 'processing' power as much as it is about the fact that some problems need massive quantities of information to be solved, information wich might be simply unavailable, for example.


Everyone is fallible. How do you know that you are not in regard to the failure of the masses?


Groupthink can also be an issue as well within certain pockets of communities.


There goes a great saying:

The IQ Of The Group Is The Lowest IQ Of A Member Of The Group Divided By The Number Of People In The Group.


whats interesting is that swarms of bugs actually do become more intelligent collectively.

but I think it almost works inversely with people


Crowd-anything is rare right...


I am going to be honest here, and in doing so I will expect some downvotes because it goes against what the majority thinks is right and correct.

The majority is not always right or correct, they refuse to admit when they are wrong or when they are incorrect or have a flaw somewhere. Everyone is perfect, they think, there are no worries or problems to address, just write code and finish the projects and then you have an instant IPO worth billions. When your Dotcom has mostly yesmen and yeswomen (yespeople would be a better word to use) they cannot say 'no' to a bad idea and often when someone says 'no' they are fired.

Wait, Orion, these are good people, lots of talent and skills, studied at the best colleges, very popular and bright, all of them leaders, honor students, high IQs, the best of the best. How could any of them be wrong or incorrect on anything?

First to have a successful business you have to do research and analysis for the products and services your startup will provide and find out of any of them are feasible to work on. You have to find a problem that people need solved and solve it and then fill that need. You have to provide a good customer experience and have a good customer satisfaction and find the right market that allows opportunities for growth. You have to find 'turkey' projects that drain more expenses than they bring in with revenues and either fix them or get rid of them and develop new ones to replace them that can bring in more revenue.

Uh, we just work 80+ hours a week in a 'Hackathon' and create the best project with bleeding edge technology and the latest and greatest programming language and it will be an instant hit, right?

Nope, not if there is no market for it, not if it has tons of competition (like another Tetris or Suduko clone), not of you cannot find enough customers to find a need to use it or buy it, not if you cannot market the product enough to draw attention to it.

Well we had a great video game, original and clever about a Haunted House in the GO Language and raised money on Kickstarter and had some Crowdsourcing, but the project failed anyway.

Of course, there is a limited number of GO programmers out there, and the ones you had quit because the funding ran out before the project was finished. You needed more time, and more money to finish it. Sure you met your goal, but you didn't plan properly and budget properly to make sure the developers were well funded enough to finish the project even if it took twice as long as planned to finish. Now if you did it in C++ or Java first, and got a project out that brought revenue in, then you could have used that money to develop the GO version. Remember to use common languages first, and then use the money from those projects to develop on the less common languages.

Well we got a Dotcom and are selling advertising on it but we still cannot earn enough money despite having a large user base.

You are using a Dotcom Cookie Cutter business plan. Advertising is not enough for growth or even staying in business anymore. Many people use adblocker tech these days and very few click on advertising links for fear of a virus or phishing scam. Sure have free accounts, but also offer services free users won't have unless they are a subscriber. For example Youtube is having a $5/month subscription service come out for 25+ channels that have premium content after their advertising didn't work out.

Look there is other things too, sometimes people in the minority can see things the majority cannot. But in a startup Dotcom often people in the minority are kicked out or excluded. Don't let a silo mentality or a social kliq take over your corporate culture and community. You need a diverse bunch of people, not Pod People who are all alike. Don't exclude people aged 40 or above and only hire 20somethings, you need people with experience even people who failed and learned from it (Steve Jobs was kicked out of Apple in 1985, learned from his failures started up Next and bought Pixar, and then came back to save Apple later learning from his past mistakes) or that can be a mentor. Don't exclude people who are mentally ill, they may have a creative imagination that your company needs for brainstorming and coming up with new ideas and innovations (Would you kick John Forbes Nash Jr. out because he is schizophrenic?) and don't demote someone when they turn mentally ill, accommodate and support them.

I myself have been excluded from my local startup community in St. Louis. I posted about it on another thread, I got invited by someone in that community who asked me to email him. I did email him, saying I want to help out, never got a response back. They had an event recently on Google+ that said to "Include Everyone" to solve the problems, but for some reason I am never included. They will say so publicly, but when it comes to doing it, well that is a different story.

You see I have two degrees one in computer science and one in business management. Most startups often overlook the business ends of things, and that is a major flaw and downfall.




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