Guessing an Ox’s Weight and the Future of Democracy

In 1906, British scientist Francis Galton discovered the “wisdom of crowds” at a country fair contest, in which individuals tried to guess the weight of an ox. No one’s guess, no matter how expert that person might be, was as accurate as the collective guess of the crowd. The average of the 787 guesses from the crowd proved to be perfect. The ox weighed exactly 1198 pounds. Galton’s remarkable experiment contradicted popular assumptions that human groups are like herds, easily influenced and likely to make rash, emotional decisions.

Those who wrote the American constitution also had doubts about the wisdom of crowds. They created an “electoral college,” so that instead of voting for a candidate, citizens in each state vote for delegates who meet to select the president and vice-president. The founding fathers assumed that the electoral college delegates would be more thoughtful and well-informed and act as a “filter” between the people and the reins of government.

But Galton’s experiment demonstrated that large groups of diverse people can make excellent decisions. Galton, himself an elitist, later admitted that he hadn’t expected his result to so clearly demonstrate the trustworthiness of democratic decision-making.

James Surowiecki, in his award-winning book, The Wisdom of Crowds, explains why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies and nations. He shows that large groups are better than individuals at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions and predicting the future, but three critical conditions must be met: To be intelligent the group must be diverse, independent and decentralized. How ironic that political parties demand the exact opposite conditions.

Because the sole purpose of a political party is to win elections, if we chose legislators by lottery instead of election, we would shrink the influence of political parties. Selection by lottery mathematically guarantees true representation of all citizens in their legislature. There would be no professional politicians serving term after term. There would be no one buying influence with campaign donations because there would be no campaigns. There would be no attack ads, name-calling and nasty accusations. Instead, we would imitate the original democracy in ancient Athens, which selected ninety percent of its public officials by lottery.

For those who wonder whether ordinary citizens selected at random can be effective legislators, political scientist James Fishkin can point to his more than 70 experiments in 21 countries which demonstrate exactly that potential. Called “deliberative polling,” his process is different than traditional polls that ask unprepared citizens to respond to issues that they may not understand or even recognize. Instead, people are brought together in person from a random sample scientifically selected to reflect the target population and then polled on the issues they’ll be facing, before they get additional information. Over the next couple of days they meet in large and small groups, get print materials, hear experts with conflicting perspectives, ask questions, have discussions and ultimately respond to the same poll for a second time.

Fishkin says, “The public is very smart if you give it a chance… If people think their voice actually matters, they’ll do the hard work, really study their briefing books, ask the experts smart questions and then make tough decisions. When they hear the experts disagreeing, they’re forced to think for themselves. About 70% change their minds in the process.”

For the last two decades, deliberative polling has tackled challenging issues, from alternative energy planning in Texas to healthcare decisions in Italy to closing segregated Roma schools in Bulgaria. Fishkin’s projects persuasively demonstrate that ordinary citizens can deal with complex problems and make thoughtful decisions — free from the influence of money and the corruption of party politics.

Let’s make this the next step in the development of democracy.