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Should we trust the crowd with delicate national issues? Crowds may be wise when it comes to making tough, close calls, but there’s growing research showing they are actually worse than individuals at choosing between two options.

For instance, there’s no doubt that when it comes to decisions effecting national security and police the decisions should be made by state organs and individuals therein rather than by the crowd at large.

Where on this spectrum the line is drawn, however, is a question of increasing significance. One that has taken on further relevance in the last few weeks with the discussion surrounding Labor’s (likely) decision to withhold support for the government’s Marriage Equality Plebiscite. In effect the government and the opposition are drawing the line at two different points. The government arguing it is a question for the crowd, the opposition arguing it is a question that should be reserved for parliament.

Despite dubious political motivation on both sides of the aisles for taking these positions — the issue raises an interesting point. In a world where policymakers have greater access to public opinion, to what degree do we expect them to rely upon it?

There really are strong arguments for saying that we shouldn’t rely on crowds at all — crowds are fickle, given to bouts of passion and can amplify the individual’s propensity towards mistake. Our entire system of government is based around the idea that pure democracy needs tempering, or as George Washington famously analogised: needs systems that, like saucers are to tea, exist “to cool it”.

There have been countless examples of poor decisions being made by crowds, from the classical examples of ancient Athens right through to the catastrophes of soccer riots, mob attacks, or even the decision to join terror groups. As Sasaki reminds us, “We often get fooled by others.”

In the fast growing industry of crowdsourcing platforms, and in society more generally, we can see a growing acceptance by organisations and users alike that the crowds they are engaging with have some common failings. For instance, when addressing a specific problem there is need to consider and discount alternatives before a solution can be arrived at. In a crowd of one it is quite simple to assess the value of each competing solution and evaluate relative to these assessments the most appropriate response. Crowds are obviously not a homogenous grouping capable of relative comparison to the same degree an individual or small group can due to the fact they lack an objective set of priorities or objectives to evaluate them against.

The “crowdsourcing revolution” of public consultation is really at a stage where crowds can contribute to solutions but are yet incapable of delivering solutions. Until we either develop the perfect crowd or the perfect methodology there will always be challenges to overcome in this area. However, while crowds don’t always make wise choices, there is doubtless intelligence in crowds — what we need to figure out and continue to develop is the process through which we can leverage it to develop more targeted solutions and involve the crowd more effectively.

This refinement will in turn lead to greater confidence on the part of policymakers in crowdsourcing as a tool and eventually see more inclusive deliberative processes and decision-making.

Bruce Muirhead is the CEO of Eidos Institute and the Founder of — More Blogs here:

Mindhive | ex — Eidos, Boilerhouse, Basement, Margaret Marr | Speaker, Author | Bringing the shared economy to problem-solving #collectiveintelligence

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