The Stupidity of Crowds and The Wisdom of Aspergers: Death of Innovation in America

A few posts ago I promised to write about metrics based design. The kind of stuff going on inside the social game companies who like to listen to the crowds over the designers. I was thinking and thinking and then I realized that even though it just does not feel right to me, I am a “suit,” not a game designer and I am not going to figure it out. But it led to me to think about a bigger issue. The power of the Internet and growth of social network brings an increased focus to the "Wisdom of Crowds." I've fallen for it too, writing about the hive mind and how quickly a group can come together to solve a given problem. It is easy to be seduced by the aggregated brilliance. I mean after all, how can you question the resource responsible for contributions like Metacritic, Cheez Whiz and Abba?

The crowd wisdom concept did not start inside Zynga. It is attributed to Sir Francis Galton who held a contest at a county fair to guess the weight of a cow. While the guesses of livestock experts varied widely, and none were close, the average of the 1000 guesses came within a single pound. The same experiment has been repeated over and over with people guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar and any number of random objects in equally random containers. This should give us unwavering certainty in a crowd’s ability to determine “average.” Crowds are really good at averages and lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, their power and scale make them even better at quashing new ideas, and innovation. The Japanese say "the nail that sticks up gets pounded down." While crowds can be helpful in addressing issues, they suck when it comes to framing it and we cannot confuse the power to determine mediocrity with the ability to innovate. Innovation happens on the edges of the bell curve. Crowds are the big bubble in the middle. You know, the objects of politicians and television network’s pandering.

Innovation must be strong. We like to use the word “disruptive” a lot. The crowd is a vicious predator of innovation. Crowds ostracize our greatest innovators, the people whose work advanced humanity. When Francesco Redi started his experiments, science “knew” maggots spontaneously generated from decaying meat. Abiogenisis was a known fact since the time of Aristotle. The proof was easy and obvious. Set a piece of meat on a table and few days later there were maggots. Reddi did not believe it, so he put meat in covered jars as well as uncovered jars and proved them wrong. The heretic became the hero, or in Einstein’s words, “to punish [him] for [his] contempt for authority, fate made [him] an authority.” The same can be said for Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Pasteur, Salk and Stiglitz. Pioneers of silly ideas like the Earth revolving around the sun or injecting disease from cows to cause immunity. They all made great contributions by not listening to the crowd and today, we remember their names and benefit from their conviction. You would think an educated world would spot this pattern and accept ideas from the edges, but it does not. Even though today’s scientists are no longer subject to death or imprisonment, excommunication remains a fact of life.

I first heard about the phenomenon in a lecture by Nobel Laureate Kary Mullis. Well. . . it wasn't really a lecture, it was kind of a lunch on the beach because Kary loved to surf and if people wanted to hear what he had to say, we had to go to the beach. A group of guys in suits sat at the USCD sponsored event on Wind and Sea beach in La Jolla. Kary told the story about a paper he wrote about AIDS. He started his research paper with the phrase "HIV causes AIDS." As a scientist he needed to find support for every statement, so he started to look for the study supporting the conclusion, and the only thing he could find was a CDC memo written by a non-scientist. It was a statement, not a conclusion and it was completely unsupported. Worse yet, Kary’s research disclosed cases of AIDS with no detectable HIV. When he started to ask about them, the AIDS community got very upset. Undeterred, Kary hypothesized AIDS is made up of tens or thousands of viruses, only a few are visible by current technology. He saw an HIV correlation, but no causation. He theorized AIDS was caused by a pooling of viruses, visible and invisible, through sexual contact into a giant toxic cocktail. In other words, he engaged in the scientific method. He established a hypothesis and published it to be tested. As you can find on the Wiki page about Kary, he gets the “red flag” argument: “Medical and scientific consensus rejects such statements as disproven.” The hypocrisy of the statement would be funny if it did not suck the oxygen out of every alternative theory. The support for these statements and others according the crowd sourced authority is “Confronting AIDS: Update 1988” from the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. But their argument is based on consensus, not proof:

New information about HIV infection and its apidemiology has emerged either not confirm or alter earlier impressions of the disease. One question that has been resolved is the causative agent of AIDS. HIV and AIDS have been so thoroughly linked in time, place, and population group as to eliminate doubt that the virus produces the disease. The committee believes that the evidence that HIV causes AIDS is scientifically conclusive.

Another report, from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease applied the Koch postulates to determine whether HIV caused AIDS. The postulates were developed in the 19th century as tests to prove a link between putative pathogenic agents and disease. But even in this report cited as conclusive evidence, the support for the third postulate -transfer of the suspected pathogen to an uninfected host, man or animal, produces the disease in that host – is given as “the polymerase chain (PCR) and other sophisticated molecular techniques have enabled researchers to document the presence of HIV genes in virtually all patients with AIDS, as well as in individuals in earlier stages of HIV disease.” I am not going to address the irony of the reference to the test Kary invented being used to undermine his credibility because the focus should be on the word “virtually.” This means some AIDS patients do not have HIV. Why attack the person who questions why? The purported support is not based on science, it is demanding faith in consensus. No matter how many wrong people agree upon the same wrong thing, it remains wrong. While Kary’s theory made logical sense, in light of the knowledge, or lack of knowledge available in the early nineties, it was too late. The research community latched on to the idea of HIV causing AIDS and research dollars were only available to studies pursuing the HIV/AIDS link. In fact, the pull was so strong; cancer researchers were reframing their cancer studies as AIDS research into Kaposi's Sarcoma and other cancers common to AIDS patients. As a result, AIDS research since the eighties has deviated little from the HIV connection. The very definition of AIDS has evolved from a syndrome to a disease defined by the occurrence of HIV.

I don’t know whether HIV causes AIDS or whether AIDS is a syndrome or a disease. I do know that after the billions of dollars spent in a single direction we are yet to find a cure or vaccine against a disease that’s been killing people since the early eighties. Sure, we can point to prolonged lives for HIV positive people, but if Kary and others are correct, they never would have developed AIDS in the first place. What would be wrong with allowing a couple of Galileos to have a look in a different direction? When no one has an answer, are the pursuit of alternative theories and the consensus theory mutually exclusive?

Through the control of dollars, consensus rules every area of science. I found this really neat website with all different ways to visualize complex data sets. The site displayed this image addressing the scientific consensus around human caused global warming. The image powerfully displays the consensus counter argument against new ideas. In this case, climate change. It kind of gives you and idea of what it is like to be the guy with the alternative hypothesis. "All the cool kids say your wrong." Reliance on consensus must be seen as a red flag in any argument.Sometimes, we get battling armies of scientists from both sides as if the volume of scientists in agreement make a difference. Science is beautiful because no matter how many people believe something to be a certainty, it only takes one person to prove them wrong. It is true 90 percent of published climate scientists surveyed believe in "human caused" global warming. But, as Richard Lindzen, one of 11 scientists responsible for the oft cited 2001 National Academy of Sciences report on Climate change said:

But--and I cannot stress this enough--we are not in a position to confidently attribute past climate change to carbon dioxide or to forecast what the climate will be in the future. That is to say, contrary to media impressions, agreement with the three basic statements tells us almost nothing relevant to policy discussions.

Like Mullis, Lindzen, despite acknowledged brilliance, years of research and peer reviewed support often carries the word “naysayer” when his name appears in print. But he is right. The agreement is characterized as “human caused warming” because they do not agree carbon is the cause and they do not even agree with the pace of warming. In the presence of such great uncertainty and cataclysmic peril, unsupported facts get mixed in with scientific data, and when spun around and repeated enough, they become "true." Just as in the case of the AIDS infrastructure rising from an unsupported fact, in its 2007 the IPCC included a similarly unsupported statement that the glaciers in the Himalayas would melt entirely by 2035. The finding came from a popular British magazine, not from peer reviewed literature. Even though it was unsupported the statement provided a much needed visual to a cause in need of public support and understanding. All of the focus on carbon created a financial, scientific and political industry around management and reduction of carbon, which is suffocating any other analysis or efforts in the area of climate studies. In reality, our climate system is one of the most complex systems we will encounter in our lifetime. Carbon may be the cause, or it may be something we cannot even see or comprehend.

The truth is, we just do not know and the pursuit of a carbon-based solution may be pushing a solution deeper into the future. More significantly, the research and propaganda are leading the public to believe that if we change enough light bulbs and drive enough Priuses, things will get better. Unfortunately, this is sadly untrue.

If the scientists claiming carbon is the major contributor to warming are correct, we are too late. Reduction to zero will not impact the warming trend during our lifetime or likely even our children’s. If the carbon folks are right, the planet is getting warmer and reducing carbon will not help. If the carbon folks are wrong, the planet is still getting warmer and this will not be the first time. We are only parasites to an Earth to an uncaring Earth.

This picture is Edwards Air Force Base desert just outside Los Angeles. It is built on “Lake” Rodgers. The climate changed and this lake, along with the arid farmland a world away in the Sahara disappeared. When the lake dried the shrimp living in the lake burrowed into the ground and waited for rain. It only happens every 25 years or so, but when it rains, they came out. There were no climatoligists around to talk about warming and no scientists theorizing on how to stop it. The shrimp adapted to the hotter, drier climate, and the people adapted. Why aren’t we looking to do the same? There is no reason to stop the carbon research or to be more conscious of the footprint we make, but should the efforts toward living in a changed world be dwarfed so greatly by the hundreds of billions and perhaps trillions of dollars going into carbon reduction? How about some of those dollars going to living in a warmer world? Some more can go to relocating those folks who are losing their entire countries in the Pacific?

So who are the crazy ones? When the crowds are so vocal, a special superpower is often used to fight against them. The very people who are shunned by the crowd for being different are the ones who move us forward. Fortunately, people with these powers have been walking around for years. They were described by a guy named Hans Asperger:

"for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential. The essential ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simply practical and to rethink a subject with originality so as to create in new untrodden ways with all abilities canalized into the one specialty." (Asperger 1979, p.49.)

Einstein agreed when he said “A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”

Asperger defined a syndrome characterized in part by an inability to understand peer pressure or be political - one half of the wonder twin power that makes people with Aspergers so valuable in the face of mob rule. The very attributes causing them to be shunned from the crowd are accompanied by the power to ignore the crowd. The other half is the ability to recognize patterns others do not and focus on details while unable to see the big picture. When those powers touch in a person who is willing to spend long hours alone in a lab or in front of a computer, you get very different, and often great results. It should be no surprise then that in his book Asperger’s and Self Esteem: Insight and Hope through Famous Role Models. Norm Ledgin, claimed Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Mozart all had Aspergers – his earlier book, Diagnosing Jefferson, described why Thomas Jefferson likely had it. Others have added Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Darwin, Galileo, Picasso, Benjamin Franklin, Margaret Mead, Aristotle and Bill Gates to the list of contributors aided by Aspergers, and according to Wired Magazine, a growing chunk of Silicon Valley.

It is irresponsible to believe everyone diagnosed with Aspergers or some other spectrum disorder is going to change the world., But social media is elevating metrics over innovation and connecting and amplifying the voice of the status quo, and by extension the march toward mediocrity. We should all aspire to embrace a little Aspergers into our every day thought. Some times lowest common denominator is not the answer.


XIX said…
Metrics can be a wonderful source of feed back for a designer or a sword of Damocles threatening their very existence.

It's not the tool that's the problem.


"Guns don't kill people, rappers do."
Yaron said…
The only problem I ever had with the theory of evolution is the claim that humans evolved from apes. From what I have learned thus far, it is more probable that humans evolved from sheep.

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