Nate Silver discusses crowd wisdom in his book, both how it can be right and how it can be wrong (the underlying issue with bubbles). This concept has a fairly specific meaning but I’ll misuse it a bit in this post since that fits in with the substance of the post.
This article caught my eye. Without clear indication who is actually writing the article the source of the information seems to be from the Merriam-Webster website’s logs. The article, in case you don’t read it, is discussion of the ten most looked up words of 2012 and it provides some grist for the mill of cutting comment.
First, they indicate that the words capitalism and socialism are the most looked-up words. You’ve got to be kidding I thought, people need to go to a dictionary to find out what these mean. But then again look at some of the signs the stupid tea baggers display, utter nonsense if you actually know what words mean. But of course tea baggers hear Sarah Palin (who also doesn’t know) say some word and quick as a flash it’s on the sign, verbal diarrhea spreading from the stupid to the gullible. It’s not just that it’s amazing people have to look these up, that’s bad enough, BUT, they’re going to a dictionary! How about Wikipedia or some other source. The couple of lines of definition is a dictionary is actually going to explain something if they didn’t already know what these words meant. Here’s M-W’s definition of capitalism:
an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market
In contrast here’s the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article:
Capitalism is an economic system that is based on private ownership of the means of production and the production of goods or services for profit. Other elements central to capitalism include Capital accumulation and often competitive markets. There are multiple variants of capitalism, including laissez-faire, welfare capitalism and state capitalism. Capitalism is considered to have been applied in a variety of historical cases, varying in time, geography, politics, and culture. There is general agreement that capitalism became dominant in the Western world following the demise of feudalism. Competitive markets may also be found in market-based alternatives to capitalism such as market socialism and co-operative economics.
Needless to say the Wikipedia article goes on at length to explore this topic but even it is a condensation of a great deal of material.
But back to the MW definition, what did our intrepid members of the public learn by getting the definition. Well, mostly a bunch of circular definitions. If you didn’t know what ‘capitalism’ means are you actually going to understand the concept of ‘economic system’, as in, what is ‘economic’, what is ‘system’, who defines the system, is it part of the internet, did the black helicopters and the Trilateral Commission decree it, etc. But the worst is ‘free market’. When I hear this bandied about 90% of the time the person saying it is actually clueless what this means, say for the aspect of Economics 101, see Microeconomics, Markets. So the definition tells you almost nothing unless you already understood the concept (and just needed to refresh your memory) and obviously you didn’t understand the concept if you’re looking this up. Sheesh, people, and you get to vote!
The article continues with other examples of words people are looking up:
Second, we got such hard to understand gems as: democracy, globalization, marriage and bigot. I wonder if any of the people who looked up democracy could then deduce that the U.S. is not actually a democracy but a republic and what the difference is, or whether anything one could label as a ‘democracy’ has ever even existed. Now I admit ‘globalization’, while literally obvious, might actually be subtle enough to justify looking up and getting:
the act or process of globalizing : the state of being globalized; especially : the development of an increasingly integrated global economy marked especially by free trade, free flow of capital, and the tapping of cheaper foreign labor markets
Amusing definition, probably not exactly what I would have said, but functionally literate, but again who much did anyone who looked up this definition learn. And finally my sarcastic response to ‘bigot’; if you had to look this up you probably are one.
Third, OTOH, looking up malarkey makes sense. Biden’s use of it triggered the interest and this word is tied to region, class and age so I suspect lots of reasonably informed people would have to turn to the dictionary for this. And meme, now that’s deserving of a lookup, but I wonder how much they learn from the definition, instead of the wonderful description of it in its actual original use in The Selfish Gene, one of the all-time great books by a fantastically brilliant guy, my man, Richard Dawkins.
an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture
This definition makes it sound a lot more like a virus rather than Dawkins’ original concept of it paralleling the gene, especially including the idea of mutation in the meme as it gets fixed in the population.
Fourth, as contradiction to my basic theme here, the stupidity of the public, is that schadenfreude made the list. No surprise most people would have to look this up, but the remarkable part is that they could spell it enough that the MW website could supply this definition:
enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others
I assume the people who looked this one up recognized: a) this describes the Republican party in general, b) it specifically describes Mittens and especially Ann, and, c) it is literally the founding concept of Ryan and his mistress Ayn Rand. But somehow I doubt that connection was made by many who looked this up.
So what does this all mean? Are crowds stupid (or perhaps more accurately ignorant) that they’re looking up words like these? I think so, but the interesting part is that at least they took the time and effort to look them up which gives me hope. I don’t recall the exact quote (or its origin), but something like: “ignorance can be cured, stupidity can’t”. So my title is probably too harsh and I was too quick to judge since at least they’re trying, even though it still bugs me that someone who has to look up the definition of democracy or capitalism gets to vote, but as Winston said, democracy is the worst system, except for all the others.
So I salute the people who looked up words, at least those who had a genuine desire to learn something.