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“Star Trek vs. Star Wars”: A Weird Interview with Ágnes Horvát

You are going to explain to your grand grandfather what you are working on. What would you tell him?

I am working on two topics now. First, I study how connections and dependencies between individuals, what we call networks, affect people’s ability to make good decisions collectively. I am trying to understand under which conditions the judgment of a group outperforms individual experts. There is an especially fascinating experiment from the early 20th century. Sir Galton asked hundreds of people at a fair to estimate the weight of an ox. The true weight was 1198 pounds and the average estimate of the group was just 9 pounds off. None of the experts (that is farmers and butchers) came closer to the true weight than the average estimate of the crowd.

The modern day question is whether Web-based system can produce platforms where collective intelligence can emerge not just in simple assessment tasks like estimating the weight of an ox, but estimating the future return on an investment or the outcome of a healthcare policy. Some of the recent financial and political predictions of experts were largely inaccurate. Think about the U.S. elections or the financial crisis. In these cases, it might have been helpful to have the assessments of large groups of people.

Second, I am interested in how exchanging ideas improves creativity. Due to my background in film, I spent quite some time exploring how narrative and visual solutions in cinema spread through references between movies. Referencing is very common in pop culture, but also in science and technology. Currently, I am studying referencing patterns in various areas with the goal to predict which artifacts will be referenced most.

Great, thanks. Now moving to the weird part of the interview. If you could be any fictional character, who would you be?

Well, I’ve seen Wonder Woman recently… I liked that her roots were in a strong feminine environment, that she made a difference broadly, and that she fought efficiently for her goals and values.

If u could live in any universe, where would u choose?

I like science fiction more than fantasy so for example the Star Trek and Star Wars universes are more appealing to me, simply because they speak to my imagination when they defy the rules of physics.

Are you more of a Star Wars person or Star Trek?

Star Trek!

Do you get into fights with people about it?

No, but I am familiar with the debate and I like to use it in my class. When we talk about the role of social influence in decision-making, we do a live herding experiment. One after the other, students guess whether Star Trek or Star Wars has more diversity. Most of my students are not very familiar with Star Trek so the answer to the question is not obvious for many. As a clue, I give everyone a card with a title and I say upfront what percentage of the cards has the right answer. Students say their guesses based on their own cards and what their peers have guessed before them. Typically, students adapt their guesses to what’s been said before and often the experiment shows how misbelief spreads if only a few of the first guessers made the wrong choice.

Now is there a right answer?

There is a right answer and Star Trek has more diversity. That’s one of the reasons I like it.

Haha, good to know for future arguments. Which mythical creature would you like to have as a pet?

I like Greek mythology and I am fascinated by the figure of Proteus. He was a prophetic old man who had the amazing capability of assuming all sorts of shapes. Although this might make for an annoying pet, it would be certainly cool to surprise it and find out about the future every now and then.

Proteus, the god of rivers and oceans and a shape-shifter. 

What’s a tv show that you kept watching but also told yourself this is terrible I should not be watching this?

Friends. I’m not sure when I ended up quitting, because it was a collective watching experience and we had some great laughs. Nevertheless, it was a waste of time for at least 80% of the show.

Learn more about Ágnes’ work here.

I asked Agnes what she likes the most in her office. “I’m a fan of upcycling. This is a vase made out of an old light bulb. I found it at an art festival. It’s neat because it gives new purpose for something that would otherwise count as trash.”

#networks #scienceoutreach #interview #academia #proteus #wisdomofcrowd #StarWars #ScienceCommunication #startrek #WonderWoman


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