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#60: The Wisdom of Your Inner Crowd

#60: The Wisdom of Your Inner Crowd

Welcome to Mindf*ck Monthly, a newsletter that doesn’t suck. If you’re not already getting these in your inbox each month, well what the fuck?! Sign up below now.

Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday, the only weekly newsletter that thinks the holidays are overrated. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to help you become a slightly less awful human being.

1. The average of a bunch of idiots is a genius – Ever play that game where there’s a jar full of candy and everyone is supposed to guess how much candy is in the jar, and whoever guesses the closest wins the jar? 

Yeah, I never won those things either. 

But here’s a cool little factoid you may not have known. If you have dozens of people guess the amount of candy in the jar, and then average their guesses, that average will usually be incredibly close to the answer. In fact, in most cases, that average will be closer than any individual’s guess. 

This phenomenon is called “The Wisdom of the Crowd.” It’s poorly-named, in my opinion, as anyone who has spent much time in crowds knows that when large mobs of people get together, everybody’s IQ drops about 30 points. 

But the Wisdom of the Crowd is the curious fact that when estimating some outcome, averaging the guesses of a large number of people gets you surprisingly close to the correct answer. The wisdom of the crowd is why stock markets tend to be accurate at evaluating businesses or prediction markets tend to outperform even the best experts. 

But what’s cool about the wisdom of the crowd concept is that it doesn’t just apply to large numbers of individuals—it applies within us as individuals as well. 

Let’s go back to the candy jar. If you’ve ever played this game, then you know most people are horrible at it. They’re way off. Often hilariously off. 

But let’s say that instead of making one guess, you make ten guesses. You pick a high estimate and a low estimate and a bunch of estimates in between, based on all the factors you can think of. What’s amazing is that if you then average your own ten guesses, that average will tend to be more accurate than any individual guess. 

Call it, “The Wisdom of the Inner Crowd.” 

This has all sorts of practical uses. Suppose you think a project may take six months. Instead of making that single estimate, you could make a “best case scenario” estimate, a “worst case scenario estimate,” and an “average case estimate.” Maybe those three scenarios are four months, eighteen months, and six months, respectively. 

Average them, and you end up with approximately nine months. Chances are that the nine month estimate is going to be far more accurate than your original estimate of six months… which, if you’ve ever worked on something you thought was going to take six months, you’ve already found out the hard way.

2. Saving us from ourselves – While 2020 has been a raging dumpster fire of a year and most of us have spent it being mopey on Zoom calls and binge-watching Netflix, one thing has quietly had one of its best years ever.

Science. 

Things are good, folks. Real good. The past few months have been a veritable pu pu platter of monumental breakthroughs for humanity. We’ve just been too busy yelling at each other on the interwebz to realize it. Here’s a taste: 

  • In the sunniest parts of the world, the cost of solar power recently broke below the cost of fossil fuels for the first time ever. The drop in the price of solar power has been so rapid that it’s now more than ten years ahead of what most expert models and projections expected and it continues to fall, with wind energy not far behind. This is a huge deal because once renewables are reliably cheaper than fossil fuels, everyone will switch. And not out of ideology or environmental concerns, but simply to save money.
  • Scientists were able to reverse aging and vision by injecting genetically-modified cells into optic nerves. But what’s even more incredible is that they did it by causing the optic cells to actually become younger. Holy cannoli, Batman.
  • A team in China built the first-ever photon-based quantum computer that is 100 trillion times faster than the most powerful conventional supercomputers. It is able to do some calculations in seconds that would take other computers two billion years.
  • In May, SpaceX sent its first manned rocket to space. SpaceX is now able to send humans to space for roughly $62 million dollars per flight. To put that into perspective, NASA’s old space shuttle missions used to cost approx. $1.5 billion per flight. That’s a 96% drop in the cost of space flight in less than 20 years. By continuing to drive down the cost of space travel, SpaceX will make entire new industries possible (space tourism, space logistics, space mining, etc.). Musk talks a lot about Mars, but flying from New York to Sydney in less than 90 minutes (and through space!!!) sounds way cooler to me.
  • Protein-folding, the biggest problem in molecular biology, has just been solved by an AI, making this a double breakthrough. I don’t totally understand the protein folding thing, but top biologists in the field are saying things like, “it’s possibly the biggest scientific breakthrough of my lifetime,” and, “I was beginning to think I wouldn’t live to see it.” Apparently it will bring huge advances in genetics, pharmacology and medicine.
  • Oh, and there is not one, but two, highly effective vaccines that will likely be approved within nine months of the biggest pandemic in 100 years. Their trial results were stellar. The story of Moderna’s vaccine is particularly impressive. On January 11th, Chinese scientists posted the genome of COVID-19 online for the world to begin working on it. By February 5th, Moderna had created the first batch of its vaccine. By February 24th, it had initiated its Phase 1 trial. To put that into perspective, there were still fewer than 50 confirmed cases in the US when Moderna had already completed its vaccine and began testing it. Incredible. 

In Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, I wrote “it may not be an exaggeration to say that science is demonstrably the best thing humanity has ever done for itself.” Most of us will remember this year for the economic uncertainty, the flailing of our political leaders, the mind-numbing repetitiveness of our days at home. 

But 2020 perfectly encapsulates what is generally true about all of human history. While people fuck things up and then spend most of their time bickering about whose fault it is (or who’s going to pay for it), science quietly continues plodding along its exponential curve of progress, unlocking the secrets of the universe each step of the way. 

It is science that solves the scarcities that drive human conflict. It is the crowdsourced wisdom of science that creates the basis for greater freedom, creativity, and health. It is science that generates most of our wealth and comforts. 

We tend to give great people the credit for historical progress. This is because our brains are primed to think in terms of people and stories. But I would argue that it is the scientific efforts of thousands of anonymous men and women that consistently saves us from ourselves.

3. What did you learn this year? – But while we’re on the topic of crowds, one of my favorite things to do throughout the years is to crowdsource life advice from my readers.

Years ago, I asked my older readers for advice when I turned 30 and produced this widely-loved article offering the best advice to other young people. Similarly, when I got married, I asked couples that had been happily married for at least ten years for advice and this popular article resulted. 

In a newsletter back in March, I wrote that because the pandemic would force us to give up many things in our day-to-day lives, it would produce a perfect opportunity for us to question our own values and learn more about ourselves. 

I’d like to conclude this hellacious year with a similar exercise. I’d like to ask you, my readers, what have you learned in 2020? About yourself? About life? About the world?

Reply to this email. Feel free to write as much as you wish. Over the next week, I’ll collect all the responses, read through them and then produce an article for the end of the year. The article will crystallize the overlapping thought patterns and realizations among thousands of people this year. And just like the average of our candy jar guesses are more accurate than any individual guess, my hope is that the average of our life lessons for 2020 will be more valuable than any individual experience. 

Until next week,

Mark