The Madness of Crowds, the Wisdom of T-shirts

The Madness of Crowds, the Wisdom of T-shirts

Written by Bill Leebens

It has probably become evident after 85 (!!) of these columns that I distrust snap judgments. Unfortunately, I also distrust my inclination to distrust snap judgments. As you can imagine, this is a problem.

After decades of attempting to be rational and logical while barely containing a boiling cauldron of emotion beneath that thin veneer of Spockishness, I have come to the conclusion that my subconscious mind may be a lot wiser than my conscious mind. The subconscious mind takes in and processes massive amounts of data and impressions in milliseconds. If I were to attempt to subject that information to my usual categorization, list-making and outlining….well, the time for a decision would’ve passed before I’d even decided upon my organizational strategy.

I have also admitted to myself that in spite of that distrust of snap judgments, my initial impressions of people, projects, whatever, are often correct. The purest reactions come before the filtration and editing that comes from considering the opinions and beliefs of others around me.

That doesn’t mean that I have wholeheartedly abandoned my prior constraints and given way, willy-nilly, to a newfound, gushy emotionality. It’s a struggle for me to just accept my initial takes and not lapse into an endless loop of self-analysis and appraisal.

There are dozens of versions of this t-shirt, which perfectly captures my mindset—so apparently I’m not the only one prone to this problem. Or issue. I don’t even know what to call it:

So what, you may well ask, has this got to do with audio? An excellent question, and thanks for interrupting my loop.

Well—can you think of anything this side of politics that is as overexamined and nit-picked to death as audio? I’m not even talking about the big, theoretical issues in audio; those have gone largely untouched since the early days of Western Electric, aside from some rare, useful forays into psychoacoustics.

I’m talking about the endless loops you see on forums, the back and forth angsting over “should I clean my amplifier’s output terminals with Deoxit, or something else? Has anyone out there A-B’d the difference in sound between the two?” Or, God help us, “which is better? Silver or copper in cables?”

And of course the whole cable debate alone is able to cause most forum websites to stall out permanently. The ironic part of all this is that much of the “debate” isn’t really overthinking, it’s dogmatic recitation of something somebody else once said somewhere on the internet. We attempted to resolve some of these non-debates by running articles on the actual physical and electrical issues involved in cable design, but as meaningless debates generally do, the whole “all cables are the same” stuff is still busily pulsing across the ether. Oh, well.

Funny thing: I came to the internet in the late ’90s, and you could take entire threads from Audio Asylum of that era and post them on some forum today, and they’d blend right in. It doesn’t seem to me that much has changed, or any of the issues resolved.

One of the few phrases I recall from high school German (other than “the grass is high and thick”, always a useful one) is an all-purpose answer to almost anything: “Es kommt darauf an”. Meaning? “it all depends”. My pat answers to almost all things audio are “everything matters”, and “it all depends”. Spike those speakers or damp them? It all depends. Which is better, USB or S/PDIF? It all depends. Do different cables make a difference? Everything matters.

Such answers do not make for lively debate—mostly, they just foster annoyance. But, for a chronic overthinker like me, having a few reliable reductionist koans to fall back upon is useful. Seriously, though: much of audio is trial and error. There’s no way to analyze to death a particular combination of gear, accurately predicting results without trying it. Few questions are as simple as “do FLAC files sound better than MP3s?”, and yet, even that is debated ad nauseum. Dude: try it, and see. Just freaking TRY IT. The end.

There are two schools of thought regarding group thinking: the first, as propounded by political scientist Philip Tetlock in his very interesting book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, says that given the same data, a group will reach more accurate conclusions than an individual. Tetlock staged trials in which individuals and groups were given very specific questions in which they were asked to predict outcomes of current issues in international politics. The best, most meticulous individual forecasters were dubbed “superforecasters”, and yet, their percentage of correct outcomes rarely exceeded those of groups consisting of not-so-super forecasters. And when the superforecasters were gathered into groups, their accuracy improved—once the battles and ego issues were resolved.

This all took place in carefully-controlled circumstances, with individuals who devoted a great deal of effort to their forecasts. I can see how things would improve if group members were thoughtful, and truly dedicated in their work. While there are extraordinarily-dedicated amateur audio reviewers, they are the exceptions—and I’m not sure that the pile-ons and flame-fests of many audio forums could be said to represent such groups.

What about a group of average schlubs gathered at random off the street? As a teenager I concluded that any human endeavor involving more than twelve people was screwed from the outset. In the decades since then, I’ve concluded that the actual number is far lower than that—say, four or five. Beyond that, says cynical me, things get crazy.

The second school of thought regarding group thinking runs along those lines, and is most famously represented by Charles Mackay’s 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, regarded as a seminal work in crowd psychology and economics. (A variety of editions of this work are available free online if one is inclined to read a 400 page book on a screen. I am not, but if you do so, be sure to find a replica edition complete with the original engravings.) Mackay writes about beliefs in alchemy, witch hunts, the Crusades, and economic bubbles such as the Dutch tulip frenzy. His description of financial bubbles has made the work of significance to economists and investors, and should give one pause about some of today’s markets.

Do we ever have mass hysteria in audio? I think of the wholesale abandonment of LPs for CDs, the ready acceptance of certain questionable audio codecs or processes, and perhaps even the latter-day resurgence of vinyl as examples of group behavior in audio.

The irony of latching on to a popular t-shirt slogan as an example of wisdom is that it’s an example of groupthink, as are internet memes. So now I’m back to square one.

…Or am I overthinking it?

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