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The Wisdom of Crowds

Sir Francis Galton (Wikipedia)

Galton undoubtedly thought that the average guess of the group would be way off the mark. After all, mix a few very smart people with some mediocre people and a lot of dumb people, and it seems likely you’d end up with a dumb answer. But Galton was wrong. The crowd had guessed that the ox, after it had been slaughtered and dressed, would weigh 1,197 pounds. After it had been slaughtered and dressed, the ox weighed 1,198 pounds. In other words, the crowd’s judgement was essentially perfect. … Galton wrote later, “The result seems more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgement than might have been expected.” That was, to say the least, an understatement.

James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds

It’s crowded inside my head right now–

  • The national elections are coming up in November,
  • Some of my friends are predicting the end of the world as we know it,
  • We are experiencing a global energy transition,
  • We are trying to come to grips with the reality of climate change,
  • The universe is evolving toward infinite complexity,
  • We need to do something…

(One difference between me and my computer is that I can decided to jump outside of a problem without my computer thinking I am broken. I think I will do that now!)

I bought Surowiecki’s book, if not his argument. I think that strange things happen all the time in life, and while there is inescapable correctness in both democracy and the Iowa Electronic Markets, there are also brilliant flash-insights that go against the majority’s opinion.

Jumping out of jumping-out-of-the-problem, here are some interesting statistics that might seem unrelated to my list, or to ‘wisdom’. On one hand…

Americans’ self-reported church attendance has continued to inch up in 2010, with 43.1% of Americans reporting weekly or almost weekly attendance. This is up slightly from 42.8% in 2009 and 42.1% in 2008. The increase comes as Americans’ economic confidence has also risen, suggesting that, instead of church attendance rising when economic times get bad, as some theorize, the opposite pattern may be occurring.

—Frank Newport, Gallup

On the other hand…

Characterizations of religious life in the United States typically refererence poll data on church attendance. Consistently high levels of participation reported in these data suggest an exceptionally religious population, little affected by secularizing trends. This picture of vitality, however, contradicts other empirical evidence indicating declining strength among many religious institutions. Using a variety of data sources and data collection procedures, we estimate that church attendance rates for Protestants and Catholics are, in fact, approximately one-half the generally accepted levels.

—Hadaway, Marler and Chaves, What the Polls Don’t Show

“Secularizing trends?” You mean, like in science…

Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press

The recent survey of scientists tracks fairly closely with earlier polls that gauged scientists’ views on religion. The first of these was conducted in 1914 by Swiss-American psychologist James Leuba, who surveyed about 1,000 scientists in the United States to ask them about their views on God. Leuba found the scientific community equally divided, with 42% saying that they believed in a personal God and the same number saying they did not.

More than 80 years later, Edward Larson, a historian of science then teaching at the University of Georgia, recreated Leuba’s survey, asking the same number of scientists the exact same questions. To the surprise of many, Larson’s 1996 poll came up with similar results, finding that 40% of scientists believed in a personal God, while 45% said they did not. Other surveys of scientists have yielded roughly similar results.

—The Pew Forum, Scientists and Belief

(In the direction of peer pressure, and since science is a collegial enterprise, one could assume that the unbelieving group of scientists would not be truthful.)

  • As many as 51% of scientists believe a higher power exists in the universe.
  • As many as 20% of “regular citizens” do not attend church regularly, but do lie about it.
  • Fracking could replace global warming as the Next Big Thing Argument.
  • Whoever gets elected in November will very likely be the right candidate for the job.
  • The world as we know it is always ending. That’s a good thing, actually.
  • The universe is probably evolving exactly as it thinks it should.
  • We don’t need to do anything, but we get to, if we want.

The Myth of Matter, p. 8

After Einstein

Some people say –perhaps rightly– Einstein didn’t really invent any new theories at all. It’s a fact that other people were working on parts of the same ideas that Einstein put together in his four miracle papers. This complaint reminds me of the Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” On one level, like with Einstein’s work, Hans Christian Andersen’s story was based on a German version of a story that was originally published by a 14th century Spanish author.[1] Did Andersen plagiarize the fairy tale, or did he recast and improve it? (In the original, there was no innocent child calling out the truth of the naked emperor; that was due to Andersen’s creative input alone.)

On another level, Albert Einstein was like Andersen’s child calling out the naked truth. There was no such thing (necessarily) as ‘luminiferous ether’. Nor was there any such thing (fundamentally) as indestructible matter, atomic or otherwise.

Now to get back to the theory of matter and energy, let us spend some time thinking (naively) about their relationship, as proposed by Einstein. Our everyday experience is that we can release energy by converting one type of matter, say gasoline, air and a spark, to another type of matter, like smog, and use some of that energy to annoy other people with powerful low-frequency sound vibrations coming out of the trunks of our cars. But if you could stand it long enough, you would be able to follow that car, collect all the smog, weigh it, and you would find the mass of smog was precisely equal to the combined masses of the gasoline and air wasted by the mobile “music lover” as they converted chemical energy into bad karma. Mass, a.k.a. ‘matter’, would have been preserved; energy would have been preserved. Of course, the usefulness and sanity of having a car with a full tank of gas would be converted into the useless insanity of, …(Hey! Turn down that noise! What? Why you little…! The thermodynamic term for that is ‘entropy’.) … but physically, matter would still be matter and energy would still be energy.

But doesn’t Einstein’s theory propose that it could be possible to rip all that useless, blinking, thumping hardware out of the offender’s car and completely vaporize it into a blinding flash of pure energy – the matter being totally eliminated – that could (in naive theory) be used for constructive purposes (Just think of it next time you are out driving — why, the possibilities are endless!)? The answer is a qualified, patronizing, “Yes,” and the qualification is, “it may be theoretically, but not practically, possible.”[2]


[1] Don Juan Manuel, Tales of Count Lucanor, 1335

[2] Max Jammer, Concepts of Mass in Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2000

The Myth of Matter, p. 7

Orthodoxy in Science

Having learned how harmful it can be to cling to one’s ideology – regardless of how well-reasoned that ideology might be – it may seem puzzling to learn that the ideas of Euclid, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Mendeleev gained the same force of orthodoxy in science as the Inquisitors’ words had in Christendom. Looking at the timeline, it is even more astounding that this seemed to occur in the blink of an eye! Here is the story of how it happened.

Einstein: Time Magazine's "Person of the Century"

By the end of the 19th century it appeared to everyone that the physics frontier would soon close.[1] The Newtonian view of a mechanical universe had been reinforced with theories of electromagnetism and chemistry. It seemed that remained only a few details to be nailed down in order that the natural laws could be written in their final form. (These details included inconsistencies in the measured speed of light, the distribution of mass inside atoms, something called “The Balmer Series, and other esoterica.) The giant problem hidden in the details was that the Newtonian model depended on the twin myths of absolute time and absolute space.

The Davidic figure who slew this two-headed Goliath was Albert Einstein. In 1905, what became known as his “miracle year,” Einstein published four articles–

  1. “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light” contains Einstein’s proposal that energy is carried by light in discrete quantities.
  2. “On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in a Stationary Liquid, as Required by the Molecular Kinetic Theory of Heat” finally put an end to lingering doubts about the existence of atoms.
  3. “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” introduced Einstein’s theory of relativity.
  4. “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?” contains the now universally recognized mass-energy relationship, E = mc2.

How much controversy did Einstein cause? When he was finally awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, it was “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.”[2] No direct mention was made of the ubiquitous E = mc2!

Further evidence of controversy can be found in the text of the 1921 Nobel Prize Award Speech. “There is probably no physicist living today whose name has become so widely known as that of Albert Einstein. Most discussion centers on his theory of relativity. This pertains essentially to epistemology and has therefore been the subject of lively debate in philosophical circles.”[3] Notice how the speaker, Svante Arrhenius, denigrated Einstein’s physical theory of relativity as being mere philosophy.

One last interesting tidbit is that Einstein did not receive his prize until one year later, in 1922, because the Nobel Committee for Physics decided that none of the nominees met Alfred Nobel’s standards. So they haggled over it for another year before belatedly giving the award to Einstein.[4]

Einstein’s equations forced open once more the closed frontier of physics. They predicted moving clocks ran slower than stationary ones, objects weighed more when they were moving than when they were at rest, and objects experienced a contraction in length – but not height or width – when moving in the direction of their measured lengths.


[1] Stephen Hawking, “A Brief History of Relativity,” http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,993018,00.html, 25 Sep 2011

[2]  “The Nobel Prize in Physics 1921”. Nobelprize.org. 25 Sep 2011 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1921/

[3] “Nobel Prize in Physics 1921 – Presentation Speech”. Nobelprize.org. 25 Sep 2011 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1921/press.html

[4] “The Nobel Prize in Physics 1921”

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