“Think For Yourself!” & “The Wisdom of Crowds” — How Can Both Be True?

“Think for yourself!” is an inspiring slogan.  Look at the people in the Milgram experiment who did not go along with the experimenters and administer enough shock to kill a person. Admirable!  We should think for ourselves, and encourage our children and mentees not to be sheep.  “Just cause everybody jumped off the Brooklyn bridge doesn’t mean you should.  Sage advice!”

And yet — want to know how many people live in the Czech republic?  Look it up on Wikipedia.  Ask authorities — demographers, historians, map-makers.  Failing that ask a hundred people and average and you will get pretty close.  This is the concept of crowd-sourcing, but it goes much deeper.  It is impossible to think for yourself on every issue you have to think about.  No one human brain holds all the knowledge necessary to run our civilization. No one person knows all the languages, and how to irrigate a lawn, and how to talk so teens will listen, and how the bones of the ear evolved from the bones of the jaw (or is it the other way around)?

How can both be true?  That’s easy.  As Bohr (or was it Heisenberg?) said — a sign of a really deep idea is that the opposite is also true.  The true is the trustworthy.  Why shouldn’t there be linguistic formulations that provide guidance whose negations are true as well.

More to the point — what do we do about it?  To take a recent political example if everybody says a cyber attacks was perpetrated by Russia and the politician who think it could have been a guy in New Jersey says “Think for yourself!  Don’t be sheep!  Don’t listen to what professionals and the media say — they have lied to you before” how do we navigate it?”  How do we say “I trust the experts” without falling into the error of being sheep?

Who wants to be called a sheep?   The shepherd and the sheepdog lie to the sheep but they end up slaughtered, their biological drive to follow the head-sheep manipulated by a hostile species for its own benefit.  The argument “Don’t listen to the experts!  Don’t be a sheep!” seems sound.

We need to ask — who is calling us sheep and why?   Is our ego being manipulated in the appeal to think for ourselves?

The “think for yourself” button is so easy to access in our culture where the fear of being ordinary is the most ordinary thing of all.  We need to be wary of who is pressing it and why.

Another example: white supremacists talk about being able to think through media manipulation by referring to the movie “The Matrix” — a popular Hollywood movie.  Nothing sells better (well almost nothing) than the narrative of the brave individual seeing through the lies he is being told to sell him things.



4 thoughts on ““Think For Yourself!” & “The Wisdom of Crowds” — How Can Both Be True?

  1. The ‘don’t be sheep’ argument reminds me of that kind of adolescent phenomenon of trying to fit in by being ‘different’. When we’re in a context where it is cool to have a weird haircut or be vocal about specific kinds of unusual ideas, plenty of us will bravely stand out from the crowd. But far fewer of us are willing to be different in ways that aren’t well-received, or even be an ally to people who are different in those ways. So I think that when people decide to listen to a maverick politician or rely on established wisdom or just go with their own fantasies depends much more on what they think the herd in their little bubble will approve of than anything else. We refuse to be sheep when that’s what our herd wants — because that’s what good sheep do.

  2. good point! but sometimes people really do think for themselves and it’s a good thing, and sometimes being told “don’t be a sheep” (or don’t be like one of the rule followers in the Milgram experiment) can help encourage them to think for themselves.

  3. It is impossible to think for yourself on every issue you have to think about. No one human brain holds all the knowledge necessary to run our civilization.

    Not quite getting that – why do I have to think about this thing you call civilization? (“Because it’s a great series of games!” Boom-ting!).

    I mean, what is this thing that means I have to turn off my critical thinking circuits? Not that I haven’t gone with the flow in the past and regretted it latter. But it sounds like you’re talking about something more than just going with the flow?

    But yeah, in the end teaching out children not to be sheep is to activate the sheep response in our children to mold them. You can’t really teach someone not to be a sheep, when teaching itself relies on sheepdom in the subject.

    No, what you need is a good, hard betrayal.

    When I was in cubs they told me the tale (I’ve never checked it’s veracity) to explain why new cubs wear a white scarf to begin with is that ancient tribes would, as a coming of age ceremony, paint their child white all over their body and push them out into the wild – and for a week, if anyone in the tribe saw them, they could kill them! Being painted white made it harder for the child to just hide.

    That story has always stuck with me and I’ve felt different ways about it over the years.

    And I wonder if its the truer lesson about sheepdom. It’s not about avoiding being a sheep. Just about avoiding being a dead one. Or an amoral one.

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