The thesis can be put to less prosaic uses than during the summer fair. He cites the value of collective wisdom in locating missing submarines, uncovering risks in space flight and predicting the outcomes of volatile political elections.
However, for the crowd to show collective intelligence, four conditions need to apply. The group must exhibit: diversity (to ensure that different information is used to make the decision); independence; decentralisation (to ensure no one person dictates the decision, and that people feel free to use their own minds); and the ability to assemble opinions into a collective view. A failure to meet these conditions tends to spoil the wisdom of groups.
Could it be that God has made us more intelligent in groups? Those who think I am daft even raising the question may not have spent enough time serving on committees! There is also a powerful strand in our faith, rooted in the dissenting tradition of the prophets, which trusts the faithful individual over the vagaries of popular opinion. And yet Surowiecki distinguishes the wisdom of groups from the decisions of committees because the latter rarely exhibit the four conditions needed to make them wise. Committees are often not diverse enough, because they only attract certain kinds of people, and their decisions are sometimes controlled by powerful personalities, or people who are deemed to be more expert than the group itself.
When we make decisions in churches, we pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and thank God he speaks to us in spite of our inadequacies. We deceive ourselves, however, if we think all our decisions are rooted in the will of God, rather than the will of sometimes stubborn people or blandly homogenous groups. A little more attention to diversity in composition and the pooling of ideas in the groups we create might make us wiser still.