Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Crowd wisdom vs. polling

It being election season in the US, I couldn't help noticing that the classic Oscar(TM) party example of crowd wisdom looks an awful lot like polling. For that matter, so does the "ask the game-show audience" example. What's the difference?

As far as I can see, the main possible differences are in the type of question being asked and interpretation of the results. Otherwise, the processes look largely identical. In polling, you're generally asking people's opinions (do you like so-and-so, do you favor such-and-such) in order to estimate a result you don't know yet. In wisdom-of-crowds scenarios, you might be trying to answer a more objective question (is the answer a, b, c or d).

But the more I think about it, the less sure I am that there's any substantive difference at all. Asking a dozen people at an Oscar party their picks is a poll. The only difference is that you're not polling the actual voters. In the game show, the contestant is asking the audience for the exact same reason that pollsters poll voters: to get an estimate of a result not yet known.

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