Guessing the Weight of a Cow

Francis Galton was a statistician in England who discovered the value of people thinking independently together. His story is told in James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Jacob Goldstein and David Kestenbaum of the Planet Money podcasts and blogs summarized the story like this:

“One day, Galton goes to a country fair. This was about a hundred years ago in England. And there’s this contest going on at the fair – guess the weight of the ox. Galton’s a scientist and a statistician. And he figures, hey, I can do an experiment here, right? He figures, I’m going to take everyone’s guesses, take the average and compare that to the actual weight of the ox…The ox weighed 1,198 pounds.” The average of the estimates was 1,197 pounds, only one pound off!

Goldstein and Kestenbaum repeated the experiment by posting a photo of a cow on line and asked people to give their estimate of the cow’s weight. The average of the more than 17,000 who responded was 1,287 pounds. The cow in the photo weighed 1,355 pounds, a difference of only 48 pounds!

How can a group of people, almost all of whom know nothing about cows guess the weight of a cow so accurately? Goldstein and Kestenbaum summarized it this way: “…Every person’s guess is contributing some new, little piece of information. Everybody is different. Everybody thinks slightly differently when they’re trying to guess the cow’s weight. Maybe one person studies that photo of the cow from the side. Some people are probably trying to figure out how many Jacobs would fit in the cow. Someone else might know how much a horse weighs and kind of go from there.”

Guessing the weight of a cow is not on most of our agendas, but we do have a lot of other issues and problems that need solving. We can benefit by getting the input of others in trying to figure things out. It takes humility to ask for the input of others, but it’s the way the Good Lord has set it up in order for us to make wise decisions and find the best solutions to our problems.

“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” Proverbs 15:22

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