Thursday, February 16, 2006

Francis Galton and the ox

1822 Sir Francis Galton (d. 1911), English explorer, statistician, anthropologist, advocate of eugenics (i.e. the discredited notion of improving the physical and mental makeup of the human species by selected parenthood; he coined the term), and investigator of the human mind.

He was born into the remarkable Darwin - Wedgwood family and was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin and Charles Darwin’s half first cousin. It was Galton who gave statistics the concept of regression toward the mean.

Galton was an elitist, a believer in the power of a better class of people, noting “the stupidity and wrong-headedness of many men and women being so great as to be scarcely credible.” It will come as no surprise to the astute Almaniac that many of Galton's ideas have been used by the right wing of politics.

Galton and the ox
Some of his research seemed to show what James Suowiecki (in his book The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations) interprets as the superiority of group-think over experts. At one of England’s many fairs, he noticed a wagering competition in which people had to guess on the weight of an ox. In effect, it was like one of those “how many jelly beans in the jar” competitions. Eight hundred people wrote their guesses on slips of paper; some were butchers and farmers, while others were casual guessers.

Averaging the estimates, Galton expected the result to be nowhere near the mark, because so few of the guessers were professionals in the meat business. To his surprise, however, the crowd had come within one pound of the ox’s weight. The group as a whole had guessed that the ox would weigh 1,197 pounds, and the ox’s actual weight was 1,198 pounds.

Suowiecki extrapolates from this and other information that in order to predict winners political opinion pollsters would do better to ask people who they think will win an election, rather than who they want to win, because there is a group wisdom. In fact, bookmakers are better predictors than pollsters, because bettors tend to bet on what they think a result will actually be ...

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