Virtual Voices

Wisdom in a crowd

Culture

According to the Iowa Electronic Markets, things aren't looking good for John McCain. For those unfamiliar with the IEM, it's fairly straightforward: If you believe Barack Obama will win the election, you purchase a contract that will pay $1 if he emerges victorious. Those who want to bet on McCain can do likewise. As I write this, you have to pay about 82 cents to get someone to sell you an Obama contract. McCain contract holders, however, are willing to sell for just shy of 19 cents. That price has been steadily declining these past few weeks.

I like this approach because it relies on a broad group of people to put their money where their mouths are. No "man on the street" interviews. No Cokie Roberts opining from an NPR studio about what people think is important. No polls asking future voter and non-voter alike whom he'll hypothetically choose. No wonder the IEM has a track record of accurately predicting elections.

James Surowiecki's fascinating book on this and other "prediction markets" goes by a title I like less and less, however: The Wisdom of Crowds. What he describes are systems, like the IEM, that harness the dispersed knowledge of people, just as a market does to set prices for toothpaste and baked beans. I take issue with the title because knowledge is, I think, very different than wisdom. Knowledge is a collection of facts, whereas wisdom is a deeper and more profound understanding. It takes knowledge to deliver a baby, for example. But it takes wisdom to train him up in the way he should go.

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I encounter knowledge all the time, but wisdom seems scarcer and scarcer, not only in my country, but within myself. I used to think I was approaching wisdom, that a few more years of study would get me to that exalted place. Now I see how quickly I, who so often profess to be wise, can become instead a fool.

Knowledge can cut you in two ways. Sometimes we let it falsely substitute for wisdom-as political wonks do, for example, when they imagine that it is mastery of facts that will yield better solutions. Even when we avoid confusing facts for wisdom, there is the reality that every increase in our knowledge of this world, while perhaps edifying, is like a slap in the face, because it draws our chastened minds to how little we actually know.

So where might the crowd, newly capable of drawing on its combined knowledge, go for wisdom? The Psalms say to God. I suppose that's not a knowledgeable answer these days. The sophist immediately injects questions: Which God? What God? God where? Who are you to tell me? What he really means is: Have God present himself before me and reconcile himself to my knowledge, and then I will consider him.

The frightening thing is that we Christians can be guilty of the same vanity. Some of us are snared by pride, others by ear-tickling doctrines, others by an indulgence of intellect over spirit. More than once I've been captured by all three at the same time. Thankfully God brings us repeatedly back to that place where wisdom is eminent, reminding us that His ways are not ours, that the cross of Christ is foolishness to the world, that the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord.

That's not a fashionable belief among the crowd. Fear of God is so . . . Old Testament. But even back in those days the call was definitive: Believe in this unfashionable I AM, or trust in what the crowd of kings and shamans and weak-willed men hold dear.

Sound familiar?

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