The Wisdom of Crowds - Jersey Cow Edition

March 11, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

James Surowiecki begins The Wisdom of Crowds* with the true fable of Francis Galton and the ox.  Galton was at a country fair where an ox was on display, and the locals could submit guesses as to what the weight of the ox would be when it was slaughtered and dressed.  Galton, a statistician and a bit of a eugenics fan, figured that the guesses of the less savvy would dilute the accuracy of the smart money guesses.  So he kept track of the roughly 800 entries. 

No individual guess had the exact weight – 1198 pounds.  But when Galton caculated the mean of all guesses, it turned out to be 1197 pounds, much closer than the best individual guess.  That was in 1906, and while Surowiecki presents other examples of successful crowd-sourcing, I’m not sure if there has been an exact repeat of the Galton-ox scenario. 
We’re many months away from county fair season in New Jersey, so we have no oxen to be weight-guessed.   But The New Republic has come close to replication: crowd sourcing the weight of the governor.**

(The ox is on the left.  For a larger view, click on the image.)

Unfortunately, TNR closed the contest with only 19 entries, a far cry from Galton’s 800.  But for what it’s worth, the mean was 334 pounds. 

* The SocioBlog has had several posts on this topic. See this one for an example and for links to others.

** I didn’t know whether I should  put the photo of the Governor behind an NSFW gate.  I even hesitated to use it, but then, Galton’s fairgoers too had to guess the weight of the ox before it was dressed.  (I found the photo here.  That site credits Wonkette.)


Anonymous said...

Ok, interesting "Wisdom of Crowds" bit, but I'm disappointed that you threw in a little fat joke ("The ox is on the left"). What purpose does that serve, other than to mock the governor for his size?

I assume you wouldn't use this academic blog to mock someone for their skin tone, their accent, or their disability. Why is Governor Christie's body size fair game?

Jay Livingston said...

“The ox is the one on the left” does not specifically refer to Christie’s body. It is a line that could be used no matter who is in the right-hand frame – Gov. Schwarzenegger, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim Tebow, whoever.

As for mocking the governor for his size, there are two dimensions to consider. One is achieved vs. ascribed characteristics. If 100-pounds plus of flab are an ascribed characteristic – something like height or skin color that he is powerless to alter – then mocking him for it is more open to criticism. But if avoiding extreme weight gain is something we have some control over, or if losing weight is something a person can in fact do, then yes, that makes him fair game.

The other dimension is power. I find it much more acceptable to poke fun at the wealthy and powerful than at the weak and poor. So I have absolutely no objections to comedians who do Schwarzenegger’s accent (or Bill Clinton’s) or to political cartoonists who do visual caricatures based on the physical characteristics of politicians and celebrities. Obama’s ears are clearly an ascribed characteristic, but I’m not going to get upset if cartoonists exaggerate them.

These aren’t absolute criteria, but they are things I think about in deciding which mocking is OK and which is not.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I accept your explanation (although it is definitely questionable whether fatness is an achieved characteristic; the research on weight gain and loss suggests that most folks are unable to adjust their weight - higher or lower - in the long term).

I think what makes mocking the governor's weight questionable is that although Chris Christie is individually privileged and powerful, as a fat man he is oppressed and discriminated against. Because of his size, he can be denied health insurance. Because of his size, he would likely encounter difficulty adopting children. It is legal to choose not to hire, or to fire, Chris Christie because of his size. For these reasons, I don't think his weight is fair game for mocking.

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