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Innocence & The Wisdom of Crowds

A couple of months ago I was called up for jury service. I have to say I was excited - human interest, curiosity at how decisions were made behind the scenes, and a little bit of "see how groups work" enthusiasm. I also have to say that, when I was "behind the scenes", I surprised myself by doing something I cannot remember doing since I was seventeen (barring at loved ones). I shouted long and hard someone.

The case was a short one, thankfully not rape or murder, but still had the possibility of a five year sentence. We sat and listened to the witnesses, barristers and judge for 4 days.

Now, the first thing that I found odd was that in many cases people came into the jury rooms with their minds already made up - there were various "oh he definitely did it"'s mentioned as asides. But ho hum, each to their own. We debated in our jury room long and hard for a day and a half - no unanimous verdict was reached - and so on the judge's orders we went to majority verdicts of ten to two. (No Twelve Angry Men scenarios here).

It was at the end of the third day that I yelled at a fellow juror. Partly out of frustration, I had asked a facetious round table question "Does anyone here think that the defendant might be innocent?". And to that, the soon to be yelled at juror said, "I think you'll find that's straight speculation - the judge made it very clear that we shouldn't be doing that".

What? WHAT?! There was a man outside waiting to find out what we had decided and we were saying we had to assume he was guilty? Isn't it meant to be the other way around?

Now, this isn't meant to be a getting it off my chest therapy session. But I though about it later reading "The Wisdom of Crowds". I agree, fundamentally, with the notion of trial by your peers. And I think that the aggregated "wisdom" of crowds of jurors, on average, allows for better, more neutral decisions than the aggregated wisdom of barristers and judge. What I hadn't taken on board until the case was this: being part of that crowd is not necessarily pleasant. In some cases, it is hard, very hard to see yourself as just another "outlier" helping towards a better aggregate decision.

And on that note, I'll treat myself to some Lapsang.


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I can understand your frusration. The crowd may be wise and the individual... less so!

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