(I'm finding some old posts I didn't get around to finishing, so hence not as current as it could be).
In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Suriowecki argues that often the ‘dumb’ crowd makes smarter decisions than the informed experts. This has been taken to mean that the mob is always smart, which we know isn't true. But what is interesting to me is the reason why Suriowecki's examples work. I think it's because the crowd operates with less information, and there are times when this is actually beneficial (although usually one wants more information).
Let us take an important example in recent history - the decision to invade Iraq. In the UK there was widespread opposition to the war. While the majority still backed the war, a lot of this can be attributed to a kind of patriotic tick, the opposition was almost unprecedented. On February 15th 2003, nearly a million people marched in protest in London, the largest demonstration ever in the UK. Why were so many people opposed to it? The interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan had not met with anything like this level of opposition. It certainly wasn’t because the protestors supported Saddam Hussein. And although it is impossible to ascertain now, since those protestors will have the benefit of hindsight, my guess is that if you had asked people on the day they wouldn’t have proposed the lack of a proper plan for reconstruction as their main concern.
If we give Tony Blair and George Bush a generous interpretation and take Blair’s word that he acted in the best interest of the country, it is worth considering why the decision to go to war was made in the face of such strong unpopularity. Regardless of what you may think of the initial decision the war has proven to be a disaster from a political and humanitarian perspective, and few would argue that it wasn’t a mistake now. So on that day in February when the streets of London were packed with protestors, we might imagine Tony Blair watching the events on television and asking himself the question ‘yes, but what would they do if they had all the information I had?’ It turns out this was the wrong question to ask, and from Suriowecki’s perspective what he should have asked himself is ‘what do they know that I don’t?’
Blair had an excess of information, while the crowd, deprived of all the intelligence reports he was privy to, had been forced to see the salient features of the war, and had instinctively judged it to be 'wrong'. As I have said I don’t think many people would have articulated it as such, but the features they picked up on were: the predetermination of the invasion (ie that the US had decided to invade regardless of what the weapons investigators found); that there was no strong evidence for weapons of mass destruction (Hans Blix was being marginalised); the unseemly haste with which the invasion seemed to be progressing; and that the justification for the war seemed mixed (the moral argument for removing Hussein came later).
With these pieces of evidence the crowd had, rightly as it turns out, made the judgement that it was a bad war. But Blair was unable, or unwilling, to detect these main features amongst all the other information he possessed. Even if he acknowledged them, the presence of so much other intelligence made it difficult to correctly prioritise them. In fact they turned out to be the key elements, and were the reasons why the post-war reconstruction was so ill-judged. In short, Blair suffered from a deficit of ignorance, which enabled the crowd, lacking the vast quantity of (meaningless) intelligence to isolate the significant factors in the build up to the war.
If you accept this argument (and there are an awful lot of other political factors which may mean you don't) then it raises the interesting question - 'is a little ignorance sometimes a good thing?'.