In 2002 I served as the "phone a friend" for the popular television series Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. When my acquaintance was stumped by a question, however, he elected to "poll the audience" instead. His choice was wise not only because I did not know the answer but because the data show that the audience is right 91 percent of the time, compared with only 65 percent for "experts."
Although this difference may in part be because the audience is usually queried for easier questions, something deeper is at work here. For solving a surprisingly large and varied number of problems, crowds are smarter than individuals. This is contrary to what the 19th-century Scottish journalist Charles Mackay concluded in his 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, a staple of skeptical literature: "Men, it has been well said, think in herds. It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." This has been the dogma ever since, supported by sociologists such as Gustave Le Bon, in his classic work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind: "In crowds it is stupidity and not mother wit that is accumulated."
This article was originally published with the title Common Sense.