Software Musings

Universal Suffrage

Posted on: 16/07/2006

I go to the Globe and Mail web site most days to read about the latest disasters in the world but also find a multiple-choice voting form on the right-hand side.

Today’s vote, for example, asks me to decide the question “Will the G8 summit this weekend achieve anything?”. A few days ago I was asked “Should native bands be given the responsibility of educating their own children?”. This latter question, by the way, from its context has to be considered to be about groups of people indigenous to Canada rather than to musicians.

According to the results of these two votes, 10477 (so far—voting is still open as I write this) of the readers of the Globe and Mail’s web site knew the answer to the G8 question and 13195 knew the answer to the education question. I sit in awe of these people. Think how much one needs to know to answer the G8 question: starting with the elementary knowledge of which countries are in the G8 and rising through layers of abstraction to the motives of the countries and even negotiators. Those 10477 people have taken into account the trade imbalances between the countries (an order(n squared) problem so it’s good that it’s not the G256), the likely stances to be taken of the wars in the middle east and Asia and the level of pain that the lead representative of Japan is experiencing from his gout and have processed all of these factors and, after presumably long and detailed study and modelling, have come out with a “yes” or “no” answer.

Now, it is possible that some of those 10477 people didn’t do all of that analysis—they guessed. But the question didn’t ask “Based on your extremely limited understanding of how the G8 works and what its current tensions are, given further your inability to define what ‘achievement’ means in the context of such a body (e.g., would maintaining the status quo represent an achievement), would you guess that the G8 summit this weekend will achieve anything?”.

That would have been a valid question but it was not the one posed. This is an example of the failure of the “wisdom of crowds”. As we are repeatedly told, crowds are good at estimating the weight of the ox or number of jellybeans (whatever they are) in a jar but, if we are to believe the wisdom of crowds answering the G8 question, 83% of the G8 conference will not achieve anything but 17% will. The podCast from ABC’s Philosopher’s Zone for 8th July 2006 was a particularly one-sided and polemical attack by Jaron Lanier on the Wikipedia, not just on the normal grounds of inaccuracy of articles but also on the whole philosophy of the crowd knowing more than the expert. The podCast was so full of technical inaccuracies and misunderstandings that I shouted out on my morning commute to work, even hoping that someone also broadcasting their iPod to their car radio on 88.1 MHz would pull up alongside me and blot it out with raucous pop music, as often occurs.

Mr Lanier appeared to reach the correct conclusion, that the wisdom of the masses cannot write an authoritative encyclopedia any more that it can answer questions about G8 conferences and native education, from the wrong premises by way of an invalid argument. Most, if not all, of the 10477 people reading the Globe and Mail website who believe that they can answer definitive questions about the G8 conference epitomise democracy’s threat to our society. There have been calls to restrict suffrage to those who can pass some form of test at least since the time (1861 according to the wikipedia and who am I to argue?) of Mill’s Considerations on Representative Government:

“…In regard, however, to reading, writing, and calculating, there need be no difficulty. It would be easy to require from every one who presented himself for registry that he should, in the presence of the registrar, copy a sentence from an English book, and perform a sum in the rule of three; and to secure, by fixed rules and complete publicity, the honest application of so very simple a test. This condition, therefore, should in all cases accompany universal suffrage; and it would, after a few years, exclude none but those who cared so little for the privilege, that their vote, if given, would not in general be an indication of any real political opinion.”


“The ‘local’ or ‘middle class’ examination for the degree of Associate, so laudably and public-spiritedly established by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and any similar ones which may be instituted by other competent bodies (provided they are fairly open to all comers), afford a ground on which plurality of votes might with great advantage be accorded to those who have passed the test.”

I hope that such a test would ensure that most of those 10477 people who know so much about the G8 conference would be excluded from voting in our next election.


2 Responses to "Universal Suffrage"

My company is encouraging us to rewrite erroneous bits of Wikipedia that relate to our work in work time – but we have to use the name of the company a lot, so it’s a form of advertising. The hope is that our competitors aren’t doing this and therefore when people look things up, they’ll then go to us. I’m not sure this is in the original spirit of Wikipedia.

One of the things that annoys me is the rise of “citizen journalism” – with 24 hour news channels to be filled, especially when there is a war on, there’s a tendency for speculation, comment by members of the public, etc. Before there would be a twice daily summary, rationally thought through and well presented by knowledgeable experts. I remember watching TV after the 7th July 2005 tube bombings in London – and not really knowing what was guess and what was tested facts – and yet all the other programmes I wanted to watch had been cancelled to make way for 24 hours of guess work.

I’ve often thought about the need for an exam prior to an election – and even more so, prior to a referendum – to show that people aren’t just voting because the newspaper editor tells them to, or because “their” party is for or against the referendum, but because they understand it. The problem is – who writes the exam questions? How do you ensure those exam questions are fair and don’t just choose people who will vote one way?

One other thing – I read the first 157 pages of the Wisdom of Crowds on a train journey once. I found the first premise quite interesting – and felt it did explain why the brainstorming we do all the time at work doesn’t actually work. But somehow, after that train journey, I never finished the book – I have become increasingly suspicious of books that have a message that is supposed to explain everything.

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The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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