The, Er, Wisdom of the Crowd
(December 15, 2020)
Did you know that that is a Real Thing? Or at least it's real enough to be considered by some of the current crop of thinkers as a Real Thing. The "wisdom of the crowd", or the idea that a bunch of people can put their heads together and turn out a better end result than one single expert, has been kicking around for a while now and tends to present itself on the occasions when experts or expertise either fails or proposes something that sounds unpalatable.
It makes SOME sense. Anyone who's successfully hashed out a problem with another person or persons, or been involved in a productive brainstorming session, has experienced it. But conversely, anyone who's ever been one of a bunch of yahoos (for example, high-school students) who've collectively come up with a great idea that turned out to be absolutely the stupidest ever is going to be rather suspicious of it.
I would be more inclined to be one of those suspicious types. Just think about how stupid the average person is, and then realize that half the people out there are stupider than THAT, and your faith in the wisdom of the crowd is going to be a little shaken. (My thanks for that analogy to the greatest thinker of the 20th century, George Carlin.) Like the old proverb says, the camel is the horse that was designed by a committee.
Yet camels can do quite a few things that horses cannot. So what I think that it all comes down to is this: how good your expert -- or your crowd -- is at the task you want them to accomplish.
Any time you pick ONE PERSON to make a decision about something important, you have to deal with whatever individual issues they are bringing to the table as well. Do they have a personal interest in you taking the advice that they're giving you? Do they have background or expertise in the subject? And if you're on the internet, do you really know who they are? How is that bending the information they're giving you?
This is all very relevant in someone's personal medical decision-making because it's a whole lot more democratic than it used to be. The days are long gone when a doctor, out of paternalism or authoritarianism or whatever, could compel you to do anything. Even if it IS the best thing that you could be doing.
What YOU think about your problem is now so important, medically and legally, that unless you want to do something outrageously harmful to yourself, most doctors will go along with what you want to do. They can try to talk you out of it (or into something else). They can flat-out refuse to do something you want them to. But they cannot bully you into anything. (That is worth remembering if you are one of those people who is wary of the Medical Establishment. They have lots of information they can provide to you, and they can't force you to do anything.)
You want to see your doctor turn bright red, tell him/her what you saw on the internet about your problem. They're thinking that some joker who they have no idea who he is got to you first and is going to screw up their perfect diagnosis and mess you up good. And they might be right. The problem with the internet is that all the information looks the same to someone without any background in the subject, and it's easy to be seduced by a plausible-sounding line of bull. Most doctors do know their job -- drugs and surgery. But if there are viable options for a condition that AREN'T drugs and surgery, they often aren't very good at knowing them.
If you've got a health issue that is at all serious, you WANT to talk to more than one person about it. Here's what the people who believe in the "wisdom of the crowd" say about the members of a crowd that is trying to come to a decision.
1) They should be diverse; they should vary in their approach, experience, thought processes, and private information.
2) They should be genuinely independent of each other. (Meaning if you're thinking about a surgery, you get a true second opinion that is NOT from another surgeon in that practice.)
3) They should beware of emotionality. (That applies both to you and to anyone close to you who has an interest in your health.)
Here's an example. If you've got a problem with insomnia, you can treat it with medication, one or several lifestyle modifications, environmental changes, acupuncture, herbs, nutritional supplements, or cognitive behavioral therapy. (Maybe there are other options too -- the ones I listed all just off the top of my head.) So you could consult experts in any or all of those fields to help you solve the problem.
But in the end, it's not the crowd that is actually making the decision, it's you. And you bear the full consequences of that decision. So make the best one you can, and maybe this will help with that a little.
--dr. diane holmes
Copyright © 2020