The wisdom of crowds: What researchers can learn from local communities of natural resources stakeholders

By Michigan State University

Photo Credit: Kelsi Furman

How many elephants are in Tanzania? How many trees are in the Amazon? How many tuna are in the Atlantic? While we probably wouldn’t know the answers to these questions on an individual level, new research indicates that if we collectively consider all our wrong answers, as a group we would probably arrive at the right answer.

“In elementary school, you may remember guessing how many jelly beans were in a jar – and while all individual guesses were unlikely to be correct, averaging a bunch of wrong guesses turns out to be surprisingly accurate. My colleagues and I wanted to see if, rather than estimating jelly beans, can a group of natural resource stakeholders accurately guess fish population estimates or estimate human pressures on the environment? And it turns out they can,” says Dr. Steven Gray, associate professor at Michigan State University. 

Drawing on a well-established phenomenon known as “wisdom of the crowd,” popularized by Francis Galton in 1907, the theory has been applied to many situations ranging from predicting stock market changes to guessing the winner of sporting events. In a new study recently published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Gray and his colleagues used so-called “collective intelligence” approaches to see if the wisdom of the crowd effect can also be applied to complex sustainability issues.

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Read the study in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment here: