August 27, 2021

No Gurus: Finding Wisdom in the Collective

The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.
— ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

It’s among humanity’s biggest questions: as education becomes more universal in a wired world where problems assume global proportions, how do we make wise decisions? In the most recent Big Ideas presentation, city planner emeritus and noted bibliophile Jennifer Phillips cited several books with refreshing views on humanity’s ability to thrive.

Phillips — a veteran of decades of urban problem-solving, and of the Bahá’í community’s development processes — focused on James Surowiecki’s 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few. He argues that “under the right circumstances, groups are…often smarter than the smartest people in them…. it’s almost as if we were programmed to be collectively smart — especially under conditions of uncertainty.” Ms. Phillips helped an online group of 65 to explore this encouraging notion, and how the Bahá’í experience reinforces it.

Given the Bahá’í Faith’s absence of clergy, its systematic collective learning, the Ruhi training institute that now informs Bahá’í spiritual education across the globe, its non-partisan and revolutionary electoral process and governance and, finally, the Bahá’ís’ distinctive approach to consultation, their community exemplifies much that The Wisdom of Crowds advocates.

“The crowd’s judgment,” writes Surowiecki, “is going to give us the best chance to make the right decision….[T]raditional notions of power and leadership should begin to pale…” Surowiecki presents numerous contemporary examples from business, politics and the social sciences, offering five conditions for a “crowd” to demonstrate “wisdom”.

The contributions of participants must be independent; in many groups, talkative people influence others through the phenomenon of “group-think.” The process must be decentralized, drawing on local, particular knowledge and not imposing hierarchies of decision. There must be a clear method of aggregation, turning personal judgements into a collective decision. Crucially, members must trust that the group’s work is for the benefit of all. Finally, the principal guarantor of success in the “wise crowd” is the diversity of thought present. “Even having a single dissenting opinion,” Phillips noted, “makes the group wiser.”.

Has Surowiecki studied the Bahá’í model? His findings certainly support and amplify it. (Journalist Amanda Ripley’s High Conflict specifically praises the Bahá’í administrative system as an antidote to toxic contention.)

Consider Surowiecki’s call for independence. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, son of Bahá’í prophet-founder Bahá’u’lláh, described the consultative process designed by His Father in this way:

Consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion…

Such “contribution to the consensus” promotes independent thinking, discouraging blind adherence to some influential person’s viewpoint. Bahá’í communities act locally, and then reflect, consult and study in periodic cycles, avoiding the poor decisions that follow prolonged study and planning by “experts."

Decentralization values local knowledge. Phillips described the Bahá’í world’s network of study institutes: the Ruhi Institute, which began in rural South America, has produced materials that are used globally to build local community resilience, spiritual capacity and shared knowledge.

The Bahá’í model brilliantly addresses Surowiecki’s next criterion: aggregation of information. The Faith’s administrative structure encourages grassroots feedback in regular group consultations that often focus on a single village or neighbourhood. Local findings are collected and shared, and its internationally elected council provides encouragement and guidance that weaves small-group experience with the principles and goals of the global community.

Trust is key for a group to decide wisely. Those who consult must be confident that all are in search of mutual benefit. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s advice on consultation goes even farther than Surowiecki: “[T]rue consultation is spiritual conference in the attitude and atmosphere of love. Members must love each other in the spirit of fellowship in order that good results may be forthcoming.” Much contemporary research demonstrates that, in the aggregate, cooperation is more rational than competition.

Last comes the standard that Surowiecki most values: diversity. The Bahá’í teachings place great importance on respect, even love, for the differences that exist within the human race. It’s not merely a pleasant thought. As The Wisdom of Crowds proves, and as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá insisted over a century ago, diversity of thought is essential to discovering truth.

Jennifer Phillips skillfully summarized Mr. Surowiecki’s argument, and the light it sheds on what the Bahá’í community has undertaken. Its dedication to “unity in diversity” is a fine distillation of the insights that The Wisdom of Crowds offers.

Home     Contact   Site Map    Web Support

© The Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Ottawa, Canada