Erik B. Steiner in Wired:
A few weeks ago, I asked the internet to guess how many coins were in a huge jar. For more than 27 years, my parents had saved their spare change. My mother recently trucked the whole load to a bank to cash in, and in so doing finally learned the stockpile’s actual value, or at least the value as calculated by that particular coin-counting machine. The update from Mom got me wondering: Might someone be able to guess that amount? What about our collective estimate—is the crowd really as wise as some say it is?
The mathematical theory behind this kind of estimation game is apparently sound. That is, the mean of all the estimates will be uncannily close to the actual value, every time. James Surowiecki’s best-selling book, Wisdom of the Crowd, banks on this principle, and details several striking anecdotes of crowd accuracy. The most famous is a 1906 competition in Plymouth, England to guess the weight of an ox. As reported by Sir Francis Galton in a letter to Nature, no one guessed the actual weight of the ox, but the average of all 787 submitted guesses was exactly the beast’s actual weight.
Galton, who also happens to be the inventor of eugenics, was shocked to find such value in “democratic judgment.”
The notion that the hive is more intelligent than the individuals comprising it is a seductive one, and a keystone of today’s bottom-up Big Data revolution. It’s democratic ideology, open-source goodness, the “invisible hand,” and New Age humility all wrapped into a big networked hug.
But is it true?
More here. By the way, I was one of the people who took part in the experiment. Below are emails between Erik and me. I didn't do so good! 🙂
By popular demand, here are your personalized coin jar contest results.
The actual value: $379.54
Your guess: $203.5
You were $176.04 off.
Your guess was closer than 68.3% of the participants.
Amongst people who 'actually did the math' your rank was 45/149.
I'd be interested in knowing how you actually did the math. There seems to be some discussion in the article comments about how difficult this task is – I'm honestly surprised people think it is so challenging.
Anyway, fun stuff, and thanks for participating.