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Aristotle and Sunstein on collective intelligence

by Michael Nielsen on November 5, 2008

From Politics, as quoted in Cass Sunstein’s excellent Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge, Aristotle suggested that when diverse groups

all come together… they may surpass – collectively and as a body, although not individually – the quality of the few best… When there are many who contribute to the process of deliberation, each can bring his share of goodness and moral prudence… some appreciate one part, some another, and all together appreciate all.

Sunstein goes on to discuss the many ways in which Aristotle got it wrong (and right), detailing in particular many ways in which deliberation can make group functioning worse. The short summary is that deliberation often produces more confidence, a greater sense of legitimacy, and more homogeneous thinking, but doesn’t get it right as often as processes like voting without discussion. The most striking exception is for very well posed problems (“What is the population of Singapore”), where deliberation can help (“I took a course on Singapore in College, and the population is…”).

This is thought-provoking for anyone interested in collective intelligence online, and suggests the great value of providing independent objective measures of quality.

  1. i discovered you and your work on friendfeed … thanks for this small post on collective consciousness …

    i predict a maturing of understanding around “group mind” and “collective consciousness” to the degree that political and social processes will be naturally seen as an expression of these things …

    this will impact many concepts we have now such as ideas about leadership, free will, decision making, culpability … (and it could be that the wisdom of crowds is not so wise sometimes, as you talk about above)

    i am looking for a way to integrate western science and eastern mysticism, though i dislike that word … i have spent the last 15 years in india, and every time i read some new discovery in neuroscience, i can see that some yogi said the same thing about 800 years ago … 🙂 .. so, am getting a blog going at to explore this arena

    the materialist, reductionist viewpoint is too partial to carry much effective weight for very much longer .. i imagine a lot of rueful smiles on the faces of elderly gentlemen when they contemplate the beliefs of their youth, or even of their mid-career writings …

    thanks for you time here

    enjoy, gregory lent

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