The Wisdom of Crowds

On my flight to Baltimore about two months ago I read The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. I actually didn’t plan to buy the book–I just saw an autographed copy at Kepler’s and picked it up on impulse.

The first page of the introduction sucked me into wild intellectual romp from which I’m still recovering.

Since that flight I’ve recommended it to dozens of people and purchased it for two (to whom I owed a book). I’ve been meaning to write about it ever since, but I kept getting distracted. Plus I saw that two of the bloggers I read commented on it: Jordon Cooper and Todd Hunter (who commented not once, not twice, but thrice), so I knew the book was getting the buzz it deserved.

So what’s the big deal? What’s the idea that is still rocking my world? Simply this: given the right conditions, diverse groups of people collectively solve certain types of problems better than experts.

This isn’t a bolt from the blue: the basic idea has been kicking around for a long time, but the book is magnificent nonetheless. The anecdotes are precise and illuminating, the data is detailed, documented, and convincing, and the writing sparkles.

What Problems Do Groups Solve Better?
There are some problems you need experts to handle (problems of skill are the most important kind: landing a plane or operating on the brain are good examples), but there are several broad types of problems that groups tend to outperform experts on:

  1. Cognition Problems: questions with factual answers
    How many jelly beans are in a jar?
    Where is a sunken submarine?
  2. Coordination Problems: how do we all work together when it’s in our best interest to do so?
    How can we drive safely in heavy traffic?
    How should we deliver this product to market?
  3. Cooperation Problems: how do we work together when we have divergent goals and values?
    How can we control pollution while promoting industry?
    How can borrowers get money from lenders at the best rate for each?

Under What Conditions Do Groups Solve These Problems Better?

There are four key qualities that make a crowd smart. It needs to be diverse, so that people are bringing different pieces of information to the table. It needs to be decentralized, so that no one at the top is dictating the crowd’s answer. It needs a way of summarizing people’s opinions into one collective verdict. And the people in the crowd need to be independent, so that they pay attention mostly to their own information, and not worrying about what everyone around them thinks.
from The Wisdom of Crowds Q &A, emphasis added

Note that these criteria (diversity, decentralization, aggregation, and independence) often tend to move us towards a solution that not everyone is happy with. In Surowiecki’s own words:

The wisdom of crowds isn’t about consensus. It really emerges from disagreement and even conflict. It’s what you might call the average opinion of the group, but it’s not an opinion that every one in the group can agree on. So that means you can’t find collective wisdom via compromise.
from The Wisdom of Crowds Q &A

What Can Go Wrong?
When any of the above criteria are not met, groups often perform abysmally worse than experts or even isolated idiots. Some specific challenges:

  1. Cascades (p 40f and throughout the book): people imitate each other without understanding and everybody jumps off a cliff because all their friends did. Think about the stock market in the late 90s.
  2. Groupthink (p 36): people don’t feel free to disagree and groups reach suboptimal decisions that almost everyone can see a problem with but no one is willing to comment on. This is one of the cardinal sins of the Assemblies of God, by the way.
  3. Polarization (p184‐190): people egg one another on until the entire group adopts a more radical view than any of the members would have advocated going in.

Summary Thoughts
Surowiecki’s real contribution, in my estimation, is detailing the criteria under which groups outperform experts and the conditions under which groups fail catastropically.

Also, his endnotes rocked–they’re as good as the footnotes in Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1st Corinthians. If you read this book and didn’t read the notes, go back and read them right now!

The most stimulating idea in the entire book for me was using of artificial markets to predict future events (pages 17, 79, 103, 220–221, especially 278–280, and 285). I have no idea how it applies to my context, but it was a fascinating concept.

Learn More
You can read an excerpt from the book, read an article by the author or hear him discuss the book on NPR.

Lookout Outlook

After reading Joel Spolsky’s comments on Lookout (and the followup notification that it was now a free download) I went ahead and got it for my machine.

Very impressive.

If you use Outlook at all, you MUST download this program. It will make finding messages SO much easier… searching for an old message used to take forever and now it’s faster than I can keep up with.

Relevant Network Strikes Again

I’ve just received my third installment of resources from Relevant Network. I reviewed my first box, meant to review my second but got a little bit busy, and now want to tell you what came in my third (and also allude to the second when appropriate).

In both the second and third boxes I received 5 copies of the most recent issue of Relevant Magazine. Nice for handouts to students–I gave away the last ones and I’ll give these away as well.

In both of the last two boxes I received the little magazinelet Relevant Leader, which seems to be developing into something a little more than the annotated resource review it was in the first box.

As in the previous two boxes I received a good mix of books and CDs.

The CDs include:

The books are:

My criticism of the first box (that it contained almost no ministry resources) has been tended to, incidentally. The last box, for instance, contained a Highway Video DVD and a Blueprints CD from Crave Resources. I wasn’t as impressed with the Blueprints CD as I wanted to be, by the way.

This box carries on the resource trend with a DVD called That’s My King from Vertical Sky Productions. There is also a journaly kind of Bible‐study thing to accompany the Miles to Cross book.

All in all, I still think Relevant Network is the best bang for buck any ministry to collegians or twentysomethings is likely to run across.


I downloaded Groove Workspace today to see if it would be useful in our minstry training program.

Will it ever!

I persuaded Anthony to download it and give it a whirl. This software is absolutely amazing. We were able to talk over the net quite effectively and could collaboratively edit documents and do all sorts of other cool stuff. We could easily work as a team on sermon preparation or conduct web seminars or do just about anything involving ideas.

Free for personal use (with restrictions) and affordable for professional use. What a combo!

Now I just can’t wait until Groove 3.0 comes out…

Building a Professional Ministry Library On The Cheap

Yesterday I spent 10 hours in a meeting discussing training strategies for college ministers (most of whom come from secular colleges). While driving back I began thinking about the challenge a new minister without formal training faces in building a professional library. Books are expensive–the New International Commentary series on the Old and New Testaments retails for nearly $1,500 (OT, NT)! For some new ministers, building a quality library can seem so overwhelming that it’s hard to know where to start.

Inspired by a similar example, I decided to compile a solid (although basic) ministry library for under $200 (I failed by eleven cents). I priced the books (used) on on 6/18/2004. Books are listed in rough order of importance within each category.

The Reference Collection — $102.85

  • NIV Exhaustive Concordance $19.35
  • Systematic Theology, Millard Erickson $29.99
  • The IVP Bible Background Commentary — New Testament, Craig Keener $13.95
  • Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli $5.99
  • Chronological and Background Charts of the New Testament, H. Wayne House $10.15
  • Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament, John Walton $9.99
  • Multipurpose Tools for Bible Study, Fred Danker $13.43

The Personal & Professional Growth Collection — $97.26

  • Devotional Classics, Foster & Smith $6.65
  • How to Read The Bible For All Its Worth, Fee & Stuart $1.99
  • Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis $4.95
  • The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard $9.60
  • The Challenge of Jesus, N. T. Wright $10.97
  • Prayer, Richard Foster $5.00
  • A Tale of Three Kings, Gene Edwards $3.85
  • The Pursuit of Holiness, Jerry Bridges $2.49
  • Exegetical Fallacies – D. A. Carson $8.99
  • Between Two Worlds, John Stott $9.00
  • The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman $0.97
  • The Purpose‐Driven Church, Rick Warren $8.00
  • Christian Counseling, Gary Collins $10.50
  • Solution‐Focused Pastoral Counseling, Charles Kollar $12.71
  • Take and Read, Eugene Peterson $1.59

Total Cost: $200.11 (excluding shipping & handling)

I tried to end each list with a book that would lead to more books, so that this would only be the genesis of a professional library…

I welcome suggestions for replacement volumes. What do you think important for a novice minister with little theological education to read?

Relevant Network

I finally received the first installment of my subscription to Relevant Network this morning (I say finally because I expected it last week).

Anyway, I had wondered what I would get with my subscription, and now I know. I thought I’d pass it on in case your ministry is considering joining the network.

I got a magazine called Relevant Leader. It looks okay–it’s a guide to the resources in the kit (reviews, interviews with artists, etc) along with a handful of extra articles thrown in.

I got 5 copies of the most recent issue of Relevant Magazine. That was nice, but for some reason the magazine has always underwhelmed me. I’ve always felt that they try too hard. But then again, I tend to get annoyed at most things I’m supposed to find cool (like popular music and television programs), so that’s a clue that Relevant is hitting its demographic (for the record, I’m a NPR junkie. If there’s ever anything else on in the car it’s probably because Paula is driving).

I got 7 books (Red Moon Rising, The 250: Evangelism Ideas for Your Campus, Enjoying God, Enter the Worship Circle, Soul Survivor, What’s So Amazing About Grace — Visual Edition, and The Air I Breathe).

I got 2 study guides (one for Red Moon Rising and the other for Soul Survivor).

And I got 5 CDs (Anonymous: Accelerate in Slow Motion, Enter The Worship Circle: The Third Circle, Desperation, Anthony Skinner: Forever and a Day, and Telecast: The Beauty of Simplicity).

Not a bad deal. Not bad at all. I was worried I would be dismayed with my purchase, but I was actually quite satisfied.

I had hoped for some video clips (like the kind of stuff Highway Video puts out), but that wasn’t to be. Perhaps in future installments.

UPDATE: After a little more reflection, I realized that I was surprised at how few of the resources were actually ministry resources. Most were personal growth resources.

As I mentioned before, I was most anxious to receive tools (such as video clips) that would be useful in conducting worship services or planning outreaches or crafting sermons. Videos from Nooma, for example, would be really helpful. Two or three sermons on CD would be extremely useful. A bible study or two would be well‐received.

I guess I’d prefer to see 50%+ of the resources be ministry tools and the minority be personal growth materials.

Just some thoughts.

Overall, it’s a great investment. The books and CDs I received were worth far more than I’m paying for the subscription.

My College Roomie & Books

One of the things that bound my college roomate Dave Rainey and I together was our mutual love of books–especially old books.

That’s why I’m so happy to announce David’s new website: Christian Book Finder.

It’s an annotated bibliography organized by subject–very useful! The only thing I don’t like about it is that he doesn’t link directly to online book vendors… that would make it easier to act on one of his recommendations!

By the way, Dave is well‐qualified for this venture. In addition to being a lover of books, he has a Master of Library and Information Science. How cool is that?

Great Software For Missionaries

If you’re a missionary responsible for raising the funds necessary for your ministry, download TntMPD. It’s a free tool created by Campus Crusade for Christ to help missionaries reach full funding. It’s remarkable, and I invite you to experiment with it yourself.

If you’re a missionary responsible for raising the funds necessary for your ministry, download TntMPD. It’s a free tool created by Campus Crusade for Christ to help missionaries reach full funding. It’s remarkable, and I invite you to experiment with it yourself.

The Message at Gospelcom

Hey– the Bible Gateway now includes The Message translation!

Hey– the Bible Gateway now includes The Message translation!

This is great–I used to use QuickVerse for my sermon prep, but then I got a computer with Windows XP and QuickVerse wouldn’t run under XP. Shortly thereafter, we moved to Palo Alto and got broadband access.

As a result, I use online tools all the time in my sermon prep. My sole regret has been that I haven’t been able to access the Message in all that time. That’s a bigger deal than it would be with most translations, since there is no concordance to the Message. Either you search it electronically or you just rely on your memory.

Now the three translations I use most often are available using the same online tool: The Message, the Contemporary English Version, and the New Living Translation.