"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
January 9, 2015
The Deadly Wisdom of Crowds
by Jeff Lindsay

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki (Anchor Books, 2004) was a significant exploration of the way information can be processed by groups in ways that sometimes surpass individual genius. "Crowd sourcing" and various social media tools reflect what can be achieved with the collective power of large groups.

I enjoyed the book and have often reflected on its lessons. On the other hand, for those of us living in large cities, though, crowds rarely seem to have much wisdom Surowiecki. Sometimes they are just ugly and frightening.

Crowds, unfortunately, often take you places you don't want to go. I learned this on my mission in Switzerland, when my companion and I attended a densely packed annual event in Basel known as Fasnacht, a three-day celebration rich in Swiss culture and food (and some popular beverages that we carefully avoided).

At 5:00 AM on the opening day, as first of the ancient Fasnacht parades began, the crowds in downtown Basel were surging through the streets and separated me from my companion. We met up again about an hour thereafter at the local LDS church, where a breakfast was scheduled.

Along the way I met a lone sister missionary who had also lost her companion, and I escorted her safely back to the church — a temporary scene that was possibly awkward in light of missionary rules but that was obviously the right thing in that situation. That morning, all of us learned how hard it can be to stand against the surging power of a crowd.

Crowds, as we learned in Shanghai a few days ago, can do far more than cause brief separation. They can suddenly transform a happy occasion into a tragedy.

On New Year's Eve, nearly 40 people were killed in one of my favorite spots in Shanghai, just a short walk from where I work. As excessive crowds converged from different directions and surged back and forth with tremendous force, tragedy struck when people began falling on the steps leading to the large viewing platform of Shanghai's famous Bund (the region along the river through downtown Shanghai).

Nearly 40 were killed, mostly young people. One of them was a young coworker of my home teaching companion.


The Bund at night in Shanghai, photographed when the crowd wasn't too heavy. The tragedy occurred across the street from the Peace Hotel the building with the green pyramid on top.

Initial reports of the tragedy blamed a local bar that was tossing out fake money from a window overlooking the Bund, but further investigation has ruled that out as a cause, for it was too far from the scene of the fatalities.

Rather than a tragic lesson about the dangers of foolish giving, as I wrote over at Mormanity, the incident is more obviously just a tale of the danger of crowds.

The dangers we face are more than just the physical ones. In our society, there are crowds surging in directions that we never would have imagined 20 or 30 years ago. Basic principles of morality and integrity are sometimes challenged by the crowds of our day.

Stampedes of grief have occurred in so many ways throughout history, especially when there are powerful political or cultural movements that stir up hate of others and lead crowds to justify mass violence.

Is resistance futile? It may be if you are caught up by the crowd. Babylon is a city of constant stampedes, and sometimes the only recourse is to flee it. Sometimes, though, those who are wise and courageous do more than avoid danger themselves, but help others avoid disaster.

In Shanghai, some wise souls saw what was happening and yelled to others nearby to stop or back away to prevent more harm. A few leaders who stood up and stood out saved many lives, according to our local newspaper. But they themselves were first out of harm's way and thus were able to help guide others when they recognized what was happening.

May we be prepared for the ugliness of crowds in our own lives and in the lives of our families. Core teachings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ direct us to take paths that are far less crowded. They brace us for the influence of crowds, the peer pressure and the mocking that may come as we pursue our own course, or rather, the course the Lord has laid out for us.

They give us an iron rod to cling to when we cannot see clearly ahead and would otherwise have nothing but the voice of the crowd to guide our way into danger.

The Gospel reminds us to prepare and, in an orderly manner, flee from Babylon while rescuing as many as will listen to our voice. May we be leaders who help others avoid the destructive power of crowds, and not allow the increasingly debased pop culture of crowds to influence where we go and who we are.

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.


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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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