Finding a submarine: could a crowd find a needle in a haystack?


Can a crowd of experts make a decision better than individuals? We think the following story offers a good answer.

This story is just too good to believe. I read it in James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds but it’s actually told originally by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew in their book Blind Man’s Bluff.

At the end of 1960s, an American submarine disappeared while heading back to port. The Navy knew only the submarine’s last reported location and the time it made last contact.

So the Navy starts to search an area of the ocean. They search for it across an area of 20 miles. And the ocean’s deep. So they’re really just looking for a needle in a haystack.

## Call in the experts

Instead of just guessing, they pull together a group of experts on oceans, submarines and related topics. They ask them to make a guess (individually) on how likely a series like: how fast was it travelling? Why did it lose contact? What angle would it have descended to an ocean bed?

You won’t believe how accurate using the crowd of experts proved.

How accurate can the crowd be?

The place that the group of experts came up with in collaboration with the Navy was just 220 yards from the place where the submarine was actually found.

The individual choices, when they were combined in a group, managed a level of accuracy that just could not have been achieved otherwise.

So what’s the bet way to find a needle in a haystack? I don’t know – but I bet a group of us together could come up with a pretty compelling guess.