The weight of cattle – an extruded parable…

Published by Tony Quinlan on

Whenever I’m lucky enough to teach (DC next week for anyone who’s interested and Amsterdam in early February), one of the key points we cover on the Cognitive Edge Practitioner Foundations at the moment derives from James Suriowecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds”. It’s how when using large groups of experts the average answer is better than any single answer, iff: a) every respondent is knowledgeable about the subject; and b) answers are given independently, without seeing others’ answers. The example is that of the “Guess the weight of the cow” at country/county fairs.

The essence is this – farmers pass the stall, assess the weight of the cow standing there, write their answer on a piece of paper, fold it up and put it in the box. At the end of the day, the mean of all the weight estimates is usually better than any individual guess.

It’s one of the basic principles we use when running projects – getting lots of independent stories/feedback examples gives us a better picture than restricting ourselves to a small group. (Case in point is the current Bangladesh project, where we’re gathering hundreds of stories from rural locations about sanitation.)

This week, however, saw the weight-of-the-cow story extended by the author of one of the books I recommend and then that extension broadcast on the podcast of another of my recommended authors.

The extension was by FT columnist John Kay, author of Obliquity, an approach I’ve mentioned before. The podcast was the BBC’s excellent More or Less – hosted by Tim Harford (also an FT columnist and author of Adapt). The episode is entitled “The Parable of the Ox” and it’s a must-listen, along with the conversation that follows.

The story continues – market opportunities are seen in guessing the cow(ox)’s weight. Then things start to spiral onwards – into profits and away from the ox itself:

A new problem emerged, however. Once weight-guessing competitions became the rage, some participants tried to cheat. They even sought privileged information from the farmer who had bred the ox … Strict regulatory rules were introduced. The farmer was asked to prepare three monthly bulletins on the development of his ox … Professional analysts scrutinised the contents of these regulatory announcements and advised their clients on their implications.

And onwards. And downwards.

The point is well-made and well-presented – in part because it deals with the real problem itself obliquely by using a parable rather than explicit messages/values/rules. A point that I will return to in due course.

For now, listen to the podcast. (And while you’re at it, I’d recommend subscribing – the program is excellent at debunking statistics as used in the media and by politicians. A rational, scientific approach in a tabloid, headline-driven world…)