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Evolution and the 'Wisdom of Crowds' 804

An anonymous reader writes "An essay by a developer of recommendation systems makes a case for why so many people have trouble grasping Darwin's theory of evolution. Downplaying its conflict with religion, the essay suggests that evolution is in a specific class of "equilibrium seeking" concepts that tend to be extremely counterintuitive to most people. The hypothesis is supported by the observation that so many people reject the notion that evolution-like systems such as Wikipedia, prediction markets, and recommendation systems can actually be effective. Particularly fascinating is the description of his surprisingly simple algorithm for competing in the Netflix prize contest."
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Evolution and the 'Wisdom of Crowds'

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  • by threaded ( 89367 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:03AM (#21038625) Homepage
    Crowds contain individuals, and some of these individuals know what they are on about. Collect together a sufficiently large crowd and you will find a number of experts on many different subject.

    Isn't that the obvious conclusion?
  • by Telephone Sanitizer ( 989116 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:31AM (#21038771)
    1. People -- as a general rule -- process complex ideas granularly. People are also generally lazy thinkers who do not attempt to refine their comprehension with falsifiable methodology. As a result, individual perceptions of value are often biased towards the simplest conclusions at the greatest level of granularity that a person can casually grasp rather than on evidence that intellect and practiced reasoning might produce. In large groups, it is possible to predict behaviors through statistical sampling using assumptions based on this model of granularity and intelligence. The conclusions of such studies are, themselves, subject to individual evaluation under the same model of granular perception. People who don't understand this are stupid religious types. If those same people were smart then they would be compelled to believe in evolution.

    2. Most people can't see the forest for the trees. Everybody who is not as smart as the author needs to take remedial education and secular-deprogramming classes.

    Now you don't have to read the article.

    You're welcome. :)
  • by Chapter80 ( 926879 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:34AM (#21038801)
    Interesting discussion, but the obvious missing piece is the evolution of ideas.

    Societies may have "invented" the notion of religion because religion led to ethics, which led to less killing of their neighbors. All of the sudden, it's survival of the fittest, as non-ethical tribes tended to be killed off, while religious tribes thrived.

    An obvious second example is the notion of being against birth control (or for large families). Tribes that were for large families and passed those beliefs down to their children tended to grow.

    So my question is: Even if there is no God, and you are an atheist, is it possible that a world containing religious people is actually a "better" society than a world full of atheists? The Earth's people evolved into a world of mixed beliefs (some religious, some not), which could be argued to be the survival of the fittest idea or world. The mixed-belief world appears to be the "fittest" world, as opposed to such less-fit worlds of all atheists or all Christians, as examples.

    If we evolved to be a mixed world of beliefs, as the "fittest", perhaps we should accept that, and quit trying to convert people with arguments for our favorite religious/non-religious belief.

  • Nothing new.. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 12357bd ( 686909 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:35AM (#21038809)

    Just a n-dimensional random distribution, with small adjustment steps. The 'n' of the system being chosed by hand, not even automatically computed. It works for Netflix because the domain being modeled is not 'wild' statistically, and have a very simple topology.

    The 'presumed' relation with a 'wisdom of the crowds' concept is just coincidence, try to apply such a simple system to a really complex domain (ie: natural language syntax) and it will fail.

    On the other hand, it's true that simple statistics can be used for a lot of tasks (ie: language/topic detection), but nothing really new here.

  • Faith in people (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pzs ( 857406 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:36AM (#21038817)

    I recently had to start a Wiki for 1st year undergraduate students. I found it really hard to make it writable by everybody, since I was sure that it would result in a lot of vandalism. However, if you think about Wikipedia, the vast majority of pages can be edited by anyone and yet you almost never see malicious edits by people just dicking about. In the limit, people who visit Wikipedia prefer order. That's actually quite a comforting idea.

    Obviously the more subtle stuff [geeksaresexy.net] is harder to protect against.

  • Re:typo (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Oktober Sunset ( 838224 ) <sdpage103@nOsPam.yahoo.co.uk> on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:55AM (#21038909)
    that's 12% of adults are atheists and agnostics, 24.8% of the population are under 18, and well, more kids believe in santa and the easter bunny...
  • Re:typo (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:57AM (#21038919)
    But you're cowards, so simply lamenting that the universities of ankara or teheran or baghdad for example preaches creationism, you just don't do. Because doing it, might get you actually hurt. Ok brave guy, get your facts straight: Ankara is in Turkey, a secular country where religion and state are separate. Women with Islamic head garb are not allowed into universities, let alone preach creationism at institutions of higher learning. Until we (americans) moved in, Baghdad was in a secular country, with a definite anti-religion bent. It's only because we f**ked it up that worthless religious leaders found the ability (and the arms and the encouragement) to kill people who do not think like them. Read this [blogspot.com] for a heartfelt, first-person account of what it was like before and after americans moved in. Tehran is a mess where creationism is indeed taught in universities. True secularism is probably a very foreign concept to most Americans, as the usual middle-class American experience is to belong to a church or synagogue from a very early age. That kind of education colors your thinking (and non-thinking) for life. But you just wanted to engage in bashing muslims. Too bad your xenophobia was coupled with ignorance (not very surprising). You picked 3 examples, and 2 were outright wrong. I'm sure you'll try your muslim-bashing again, in another thread. Better luck next time!
  • Re:typo (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mjorkerina ( 1158683 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:57AM (#21038923)
    Are you saying that the United States is not as civilized, as say, the united kingdom, france, germany or italy ?
    Of course. That's where the problem lies. The United States is powerful and rich but as a civilization it's more primitive than any West European country. That's why you need to mention China, India or islamic countries. Your standards are so low you wouldn't even think of comparing yourself to us.

    Here in France, I know plenty of Christians but none of them ever heard of intelligent design, and they think of young earth creationism (adam, eve et al.) as a metaphor, a "picture", not the actual numbers and reality. I never heard a french christian on a french forum ever mentioning "intelligent design".
  • Dilbert Blog (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pokerdad ( 1124121 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:17AM (#21039033)

    There is a part of me hoping this article gets discussed by Dilbert creator/evolution denier Scott Adams, and another part dreading it. link [typepad.com]

  • Re:typo (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Nursie ( 632944 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:19AM (#21039063)
    Do you have figures on the asian population and whether or not they accept evolution?

    Also, if you're going to call someone a fucktard for only considering one more continent then try mentioning more than one other. South America is largely catholic (a religion that explicitly supports evolution theory). Africa is quite diverse, Australia is evolution accepting, though australasia may not be, depending on where you draw borders, due to indonesia. Though I'm not familiar enough with indonesian islam to know what their opinions are.
  • by Chapter80 ( 926879 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:28AM (#21039119)

    Evolution is a pretty slow process... I guess 3000 years or so isn't quite long enough to breed out the religious nutjobs.
    Maybe a world with a few religious nutjobs is a more stable world than one with all moderates (or all atheists or all Christians, or whatever). Seems counter-intuitive, but that's the equilibrium that we have arrived at (although I will respect your point that maybe we're not at equilibrium because enough time hasn't passed).
  • by v01d ( 122215 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:47AM (#21039231) Homepage
    I suspect that the original humans had no notion of religion - not that everyone was an atheist, but that every human on earth had no notion of a higher being, one way or the other.

    I've wondered about that as well. I suspect that the "believe your parents" bit is partially the origin of religion. My reason is partially the fact my daugher (3.5 years) wants an explanation for everything. "Just because" does not satisfy her, but she isn't quite ready for the real explanation for a lot of things. I'm sure I could get to quit asking "Why?" with enough references to god. Humans seem to want to understand but frequently don't have the capacity or knowledge required, so left to them selves they abstract the problem away another step. ie. Saying god causes the rain isn't a explanation of how or why god would want rain, but it answers the immediate question of why it's raining.

    I really don't want to read "The God Delusion" as you suggest. Why are you pushing your religion on me? ;-) That's my point!

    Just to be pedantic I did say, "if you read." I mentioned it more as a citation for an idea that wasn't really mine.
    But in reality I do believe the world would be a better place if religion would go away.

  • by TobascoKid ( 82629 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:48AM (#21039233) Homepage
    Religion is hence, more of a survival tool for a society that shields away a person's insecurities.

    Alternatively, it is a tool used by some in society to control others. Use some peoples fear, uncertainties and doubts and offer them an easy, quick fix and watch the wealth and power flow in.

    1) invent god(s)
    2) market said gods
    3) profit

    If it is a "survival tool", it's the survival tool of a few at the expense of the many.
  • by rucs_hack ( 784150 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:54AM (#21039275)
    IMHO, the reason why this is so difficult is because of the awe and wonder (and fear!) we feel when we see the magnificent complexity and interconnectedness in the nature around us

    Apart from the fear thing, I have exactly that reason to explain why I have always believed in evolution (since reading about it myself in a book at 7). Even then I was struck by the vastness of the universe, and the idea that some god person had made it all seemed a bit too simple. Even then I was utterly fascinated by astronomy, and looking at the night sky, especially in Australia, where we actually had a visible star scape, was an experience that filled me not with religious conviction, but with a determination to find explanations for what I saw. 'God did it' was never an option.

    Having grown up now I realise why so many people need to believe in the biblical creation myth. Believe that and everything becomes easy, simple enough that you don't have to worry about it. Reject it and boy have you got a lot of work to do. For one thing you actually have to understand things, not pass it of as 'the work of god'.

    I find it amusing that creationists/ID'ers seem to want a stupid god, incapable of anything but focusing on one planet in the vast universe, as interested in the fall of birds (why is it always bad stuff?) then the formation of galaxies. I prefer the idea that if god exists, he was smart enough to set things in motion at some point (at the start of this universe? a previous one, no idea), and it all works without intervention. Of course this implies that there is no god, since a system that does not require a god to run doesn't need one to exist at all.

  • Re:typo (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Atzanteol ( 99067 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:59AM (#21039323) Homepage
    You realize that "most" people aren't in "western" nations don't you? That chart ignores the Middle East, South America, Canada, Africa, Australia, and that little scrap of land called Asia.
  • by WileyC ( 188236 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @08:12AM (#21039439)
    If I'm reading this correctly, the reason that religious folks reject evolution is the exact same reason why leftists reject free markets and are champions of central planning. One side is a God figure and on the other, that figure is subsumed by an all-wise, all-knowing State that will run things. Both have no faith, to use a loaded term, in the wisdom of the masses. Iiiiiinteresting!

  • by liquidpele ( 663430 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @08:17AM (#21039493) Journal
    That's pretty much what I tell people when they start preferring religion to science - they are the same thing! Do you really believe God was too stupid to create a universe that didn't have to be held together with magic? Studying science is studying God's work, and thus you are in fact learning about God.
  • be fair, be fair (Score:3, Interesting)

    by misanthrope101 ( 253915 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @08:55AM (#21039945)
    The percentage of Christians who support violence against unbelievers is vastly smaller than the percentage of Muslims who support violence against unbelievers. There is just no comparison.

    Pat Robertson said what he said, and was condemned by many Christians. How many prominent Muslims have openly condemned the contract on Salman Rushdie's life?

    Yes, the Bible contains a lot of violence, and yes, many Christians say they believe "every word," but in reality they aren't going to kill their kid for reading a book on Wicca. Well, there might be one nutjob out there who would, but every other Christian would consider the thought horrific. You don't see Christians in Colorado City stoning people to death for adultery or for breaking the Sabbath. How many are stoned to death in Muslim nations?

    There are Christian nutjobs, and some have been caught with nerve gas, bombs, whatever, but the fringe of the fringe of the fringe of Christian zealotry is not comparable, size-wise, to the support the suicide bombers find in the Muslim world. I'm an atheist and I'll argue all day that faith undermines rational thinking, that Christianity doesn't make you moral, and that we should keep US society secular, but it is just vastly wrong to conflate the scale of violence perpetrated by the faithful of each of these communities qua their faith. Violent rhetoric isn't violence.

    I'm not saying Christianity is violence-free. There IS violence (Matthew Sheppard getting stomped to death, etc) but it isn't as prevalent, sanctioned, or, well, normal as it is in Muslim nations. I'd say that religious killing in the Muslim world is probably as frequent, if not worse, as race lynchings were at the ugliest point in US history. No, I don't have the numbers to support that, but I think the scales are similar.

  • by KnightTristan ( 882222 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @08:55AM (#21039947)
    I have two things to say:

    1. Religion does _not_ lead to ethics. There was moral before religion. You don't _need_ religion to have ethics. Religion is just a _very_good_ selling argument for ethics. Without religion, you actually have to think why this or that ethic view of point is a good one. With religion, ethics get a virtual "absolute" character so it gets much easier to impose it over a large number of people without them questioning you.

    2. The "fittest idea or world" (or using Richard Dawkins word "meme") is not necessarily the one that is "best for the people". Just like there are "evil" viruses than spread over the biological world but that are very bad for its hosts, there are "evil" memes that can spread over the world, catch on, but are very bad for the population itself (politics of fear, limiting freedom for the sake of [...])

    It is however still an interesting question whether it would be better to have a society of "fooled" people who might just be happy, or a society of "aware" people that now have a bit more trouble understanding their world.
  • by bWareiWare.co.uk ( 660144 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @09:04AM (#21040033) Homepage
    Actually Darwinian evolution makes that extremely unlikely. Anything as common as religion can not poses a selective disadvantage.

  • actually... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by misanthrope101 ( 253915 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @09:14AM (#21040145)

    Even if there is no God, and you are an atheist, is it possible that a world containing religious people is actually a "better" society than a world full of atheists?
    Well, no [creighton.edu]. Japan, Holland, Canada, and a slew of other nations have a lower instance of religious belief, and a lower rate of crime, lower infant mortality, etc. Even within the USA, the Bible Belt states (actually the Red States in general) have higher infant mortality rates, lower productivity rates, higher crime rates, worse education systems, along with being worse-off in a range of other criteria. It isn't a stark difference--I'm not saying they're in the dark ages--but the difference is easy to spot if you look at the data.

    And in one way or another, we're all atheists. Is the world worse off because people don't believe in Thor anymore?

  • by mdwh2 ( 535323 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @09:19AM (#21040213) Journal
    Do you really think you're an atheist because of some great factual insight on your part, or because you grew up acculturated to an extremely atheistic society? How can you consider yourself any better or wiser than the American kid who gets sent to Jesus camp?

    I'm an atheist, because I've yet to see evidence to persuade me of existence of God - or alternatively, I didn't grow up acculturated to a theistic society.

    Saying that me not believing in God is caused by secular society makes no more sense than saying me not believing in fairies is caused by living in a society that doesn't promote a belief in fairies.

    It should also be added that, whilst European countries may be "secular" in the simple sense of having more atheists, many are most certainly not secular in any political sense. Unlike the US, many (all?) countries have no separation of Church and state, and countries such as the UK are legally required to have daily Christian worship in all schools, even state ones.

    So in fact, I'm an atheist despite growing up in a society that, despite the significant proportion of non-believers - still pushes religion everywhere, including onto young children.
  • Re:typo (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Tom ( 822 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @09:53AM (#21040681) Homepage Journal

    Not all religions ban the teaching of evolution. Pope John Paul II never condemned evolution.
    No, but the current pope is moving backwards in time with astonishing speed on this and other issues.

    Background info:
    "Evolution, a doctrine that Pius XII only acknowledged as an unfortunate possibility, John Paul accepts forty-six years later "as an effectively proven fact." (ROA, 82) "

    And then:

    "(Associated Press, Nov. 11, 2005)

    VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI has waded into the evolution debate in the United States, saying the universe was made by an "intelligent project" and criticizing those who in the name of science say its creation was without direction or order." "

  • Re:typo (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @09:57AM (#21040737) Homepage Journal

    they do the entire bible in 90 mins or somesuch. *Everytime* I have seen it there have been jossling, abusive Christians outside telling me I was going to hell for watching it.
    Did they blow you up, put a video of you being beheaded on the internet or chase you into hiding by putting a fatwa on you?

    Get back to me when that happens.
  • by liquidpele ( 663430 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @10:16AM (#21041041) Journal
    "Retailers in the U.S. are in the red all year up until "Black Friday" -- the day following Thanksgiving. This is mostly due to the existence of multiple religious holidays where gift giving/exchange is encouraged that fall on or around the winter solstice."

    I know for a fact that for many retailers this is not true - unless you have a source I call BS.

    Your other examples are rather meaningless as because there is a demand for the bible and other books, and so people write and sell them. That's just economics. You'd be better off pointing out the amount of money Churches take in every year from donations and not paying taxes.
  • by junglee_iitk ( 651040 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @10:29AM (#21041245)

    If it is a "survival tool", it's the survival tool of a few at the expense of the many.

    This is such a narrow view of a skeptic. To every person religion offers something, and that is why it is a survival tool for everyone. Like this forum, religion is a form of sub-culture, a way people bond without knowing each other. Like every tool it is mis-used, and it might very well be a product of some "evil" brain, but it sells and continues to sell because at the end, people buy it. If it a survival tool for just a few, just a few would have survived religion/religious commitment. But that's not the case now is it?
  • by stjobe ( 78285 ) on Friday October 19, 2007 @12:04PM (#21043131) Homepage

    The psychology, philosophy and physicality of man hasn't moved on in thousands of years.
    Rubbish. We are physically different from our ancestors even a few hundred years back (average height [wikipedia.org], for example), there's a whole field of psychology [wikipedia.org] concerned with our psychological evolution, and you're plain ignorant of philosophy if you claim with a straight face that our philosophies haven't moved on in thousands of years.

    The old saw-horse that we're no different than our caveman ancestors is simply not true. It's just another religious weapon in the fight against science.
  • Re:actually... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by VenTatsu ( 24306 ) <ventatsu@gDEBIANmail.com minus distro> on Friday October 19, 2007 @12:23PM (#21043459) Homepage
    I've seen a few of those studies and they never really address causation. It is just as valid to assume that pour living conditions tend to promote a need for social and psychological support networks often found in religious institutions leading to religious belief, as opposed to religious belief causes pour living conditions.
  • by Rimbo ( 139781 ) <rimbosityNO@SPAMsbcglobal.net> on Friday October 19, 2007 @03:27PM (#21046677) Homepage Journal
    This comment will probably be lost in all of the stuff that happens anytime anyone even casually mentions "God" in any context, but one minor quibble with TFA. And I think you'll find it actually weakens his argument to say this, and what I'm about to say actually strengthens what TFA is saying. From the article:

    ...evolution by natural selection -- the strongest argument against an Old Testament-type creator...

    Evolution by natural selecton isn't the strongest argument against an Old Testament-type creator. The story of Creation as given by the Old Testament follows the form of Hebrew poetry. And the author of it clearly could not have been at the point of Creation. Those who say that the author was somehow inspired to write the exact sequence of events of the creation of the world by God such that they would be exact are... well, putting things into the Bible that aren't there. Trying to apply scientific logic to fails even in the absence of evolutionary theory, given that there is day and night as early as the first day, but no sun until later. Only the dim-witted would consider the Creation myth a literal retelling of the story of Creation.

    The theory of Evolution, our growing understanding of our universe and how we apply it are, if anything, fulfillment of Genesis 1, verses 27-28: "(27) So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (28) God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'"

    So it's hardly accurate to call Evolution a strong argument against an OT-type Creator. The text of Genesis 1 itself is the strongest argument against Creationism, but hardly any argument at all against the existence of a Creator as the Bible describes.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but Young Earth Creationists can claim that their interpretation is derived from neither a literal nor an educated interpretation of the Bible. Creationism is ultimately anti-Biblical. But it's taking that silliness to an extreme to then say that Evolution somehow is an argument against the existence of a God.

God made the integers; all else is the work of Man. -- Kronecker