Monday, May 3, 2010

Wisdom in and of crowds

A few days ago I stumbled on a current events quiz at (I forget what blog or news site had the link.) I wondered how my students would do on it, and then I realized that I could use it for an experiment, to see if there really is wisdom of crowds.

I gave the quiz to three different classes. The first class got nine of the twelve correct, and only one student of 17 claimed to have a better score. My next class was a disappointment because as a group they only got five correct. They were reluctant to tell me how they did individually. The last class got eight correct, and three of 14 said they did better than that and seven said they did worse. The wisdom of crowds seems to depend on wisdom in crowds.

One question that all three classes missed was, "During the entire year of 2009, do you happen to know if there were more fatalities in Afghanistan or Iraq?" By an almost 2-to-1 margin they chose Iraq. The coverage of the wars by the press may explain this result. It publicized every casualty in Iraq while Bush was president but became silent after the surge led to military success. The press seems to have lost all interest in body counts now that Obama is president. The news no longer starts with the cumulative death totals, as it often did during the Bush years.

I cannot explain why almost none of them knew that Harry Reid was the majority leader of the Senate.

The one question that they all correctly answered was "Do you happen to know who Stephen Colbert is?" It may be true that Comedy Central is the major source of news for the young.

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