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All the Marbles

June 14, 2011

I remember a cartoon, probably published in that unique source of thought-provoking cartoons, The New Yorker, that shows a father and son standing in front of a statue depicting a crowd of people. The caption was, "Son, there are no great men, just great committees."[1]

The idea that a number of people can be more effective as a team than as individuals has become the operating mode in modern corporations. It seems to be an effective way to encourage the marginal performers to actually make some contribution to a project, since they're brought out of hiding and thrown into the fray. It's also a method of generating a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts.

I mentioned crowdsourcing in a previous article (Prognostication, January 3, 2011). Crowdsourcing is the idea that groups of people can make better decisions than individuals. This idea of the "wisdom of the crowd" goes back at least as far as the 1906 observation of a contest by Francis Galton.

In this contest, 800 visitors to a livestock fair tried to guess the weight of meat that would be produced by a particular ox. Many of the guesses were wildly off the mark, and no individual guessed the exact weight. Galton observed that the mean of these guesses was within a pound of the actual weight of 1,197 pounds.

Figure caption

Sir Francis Galton (c.1860)

(Via Wikimedia Commons)

Crowdsourcing in the business world was examined by James Surowiecki in his 2004 book, The Wisdom of Crowds, which is subtitled, "Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations."[2] Surowiecki, of course, was obligated to mention Galton's observation very early in the book, and he recites case studies to prove his case, most of these in economics.

It's interesting that so much anecdotal information about the wisdom of crowds has been presented in the hundred years since Galton, but there is a lack of experiment. Stefan Krause of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Lübeck University of Applied Sciences in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany performed an experiment much like Galton's.[3-6] For this experiment, visitors to a museum were asked to guess the number of marbles in a jar. Krause and his team did a statistical analysis of the results that went beyond Galton's average.[3]

Since there were more than 2,000 responses, they were able to make random groups from the total and determine the average for these groups. The result was that groups of forty or more had a better average guess than the top quartile of individual guesses. In other words, groups of forty ranked at the 99th percentile of performers, a result consistent with Galton's.

Krause's team, which included a physicist and several biologists, uses the term, "swarm intelligence," in their paper, rather than crowdsourcing. The term, swarm intelligence, is usually applied to ants, birds, gregarious animals, bacteria and fish, and to their computing analogs, but not to humans. This might be expected from biologists, who might view humans as just another animal.

I'm uncomfortable with the emergent idea that "groupthink" is good, especially when individual contribution is discounted. As the authors write in their abstract,
"...adding diversity to a group can be more beneficial than adding expertise. Our results question the emphasis that societies and organizations can put on individual performance to the detriment of diversity as far as teams are concerned."

One thing that's essential to both this experiment and Galton's experiment is the fact that the individuals possess knowledge. If Galton's group had no knowledge of what a pound weight was, or how much of an ox is useful meat, the result would have been much different. The participants in the German experiment had it somewhat easier, since it was mostly their perception that was being tested.

However, one thing that's certain, if my local shopping mall ever has a "guess-the-number-of" contest, I'll have at least forty of my friends and relatives tell me their guesses before I make my guess.

Albert Einstein in 1921, during a lecture in Vienna.

Team player, at least with Podolski and Rosen.

I think it's safe to say that Einstein made some very important contributions to physics as an individual.

Albert Einstein in 1921, during a lecture in Vienna.

Photograph by Ferdinand Schmutzer, Via Wikimedia Commons)


  1. Perhaps my memory is not precise. Another source (Betty Jean Craige, "There are no longer any great men, just great committees," University of Georgia Web Site, January 29, 1998) mentions a couple looking at a large marble sculpture of five people at a table. The man explains to his wife that "There are no longer any great men, just great committees."
  2. James Surowiecki, "The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations," Doubleday, May 25, 2004, 320 pages (Via Amazon).
  3. Stefan Krause, Richard James, Jolyon J. Fariac, Graeme D. Ruxtond and Jens Krausee, "Swarm intelligence in humans: diversity can trump ability," Animal Behaviour, vol. 81, no. 5 (May, 2011), pp. 941-948,
  4. Study finds that diversity can trump ability, University of Bath Press Release, April 21, 2011.
  5. Research Highlights-Behaviour: Diversity beats ability, Nature, vol. 472, no. 7343 (April 21, 2011) p. 263.
  6. Study finds that diversity can trump ability, Physorg, April 21, 2011.

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Linked Keywords: The New Yorker; corporation; Wally; marginal performer; crowdsourcing; wisdom of the crowd; 1906 contest; Francis Galton; livestock; fair; ox; arithmetic mean; pound; Wikimedia Commons; James Surowiecki; The Wisdom of Crowds; economics; anecdotal evidence; experiment; Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Lübeck University of Applied Sciences; Schleswig-Holstein, Germany; marbles; statistical analysis; random; quartile; percentile; physicist; biologist; swarm intelligence; ant; bird; gregarious animal; bacteria; fish; ant colony optimization algorithm; human; groupthink; shopping mall; Einstein, Podolski and Rosen.

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