Fifty-two years ago, the USS Scorpion disappeared without a trace. The missing skipjack-class nuclear-powered submarine inspired several theories, books, songs, and even movie references. Was the crew involved in a skirmish with Soviet forces? Or was it just a tragic accident? The true reason for the submarine’s loss may never be known for sure.
What we do know is that the crew never made their scheduled arrival in Norfolk, Virginia on May 27, 1968. The method used to locate this sub is both eerie and fascinating and could be used to boost online gaming wins, to bet on sporting events, or to gain an advantage in stock and derivatives trading.
On February 15th, 1968, the sub and its crew of 99 US soldiers departed from Norfolk. Over the next few months, the crew participated in several exercises with the US Navy and NATO forces and collected information about Soviet naval units in the Meditteranean.
After its primary mission, the crew enjoyed exploring ports in Italy and Sicily before embarking for their homeward journey in May.
For several days, the sub’s journey seemed to be proceeding as normal. On May 22nd, Commander Francis A. Slattery radioed that the sub would arrive back in port at 1 pm on May 27th.
They never made it home.
When the arrival time came and went, family and officials knew something was amiss. Later reports suggested that officials knew something was likely wrong earlier when the crew failed to respond to routine messages, though that information was not shared with families of the missing soldiers.
In February 1969, a seven-panel navy board of inquiry concluded that the reason for the loss could not be determined. It was, however, known that the sub was on a classified mission around the time it was lost. According to documents declassified in 1984, an accidental torpedo explosion may have caused the loss, but a clear cause has never been officially determined.
When the USS Scorpion and her crew departed Norfolk, the sub had more than 100 open work orders for fixes that needed to be performed. These included a replacement trash disposal unit latch, emergency sea-water shutoff valves, and emergency blow system. Other issues the sub suffered from included unresolved hydraulic problems and a possible defective torpedo.
These issues led the crew to nickname the Scorpion the USS Scrapiron, an ode to the steel-hulled sub’s persistent mechanical issues.
Over the years, the cause of the USS Scorpion’s loss has left family and historians alike puzzled. Did the sub sink due to a faulty torpedo? A malfunctioning trash disposal unit? Or was the sub’s loss the result of escalating Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States?
The sub was ultimately located on October 31st, 1968, nearly 400 miles south of the Azores archipelago of Portugal. The official reports do not assign a specific cause to the sub’s loss, even to this day.
What may be most interesting about the sub’s loss, however, is how it was located. Locating the sub wasn’t accomplished simply by scouring thousands of miles of the seafloor but rather by combining the “best guesses” of several experts from vastly different fields.
Typically, any data available about a missing sub would be given to several experts who would make a prediction based on their unique skill set — whether they were experts about weather patterns, water currents, or the submarines themselves.
In this case, officer John P. Craven had a different idea. He brought together many individuals from a variety of backgrounds, from salvagers to professors. He asked them to guess what happened to the sub, how fast it was traveling, how fast it descended, where it was now, and so on.
Craven then used everyone’s individual guesses to arrive at a sort of average (using a mathematical formula called Bayes’ theorem) of the sub’s current location. While the individual guesses were extremely varied, the sub was founded exactly 222 yards from the “average” of the group’s many guesses.
The successful location of the USS Scorpion opened up new possibilities not just for locating missing subs, but forecasting stock market performance, the winner of the World Series, and much more.
Here’s how the Wisdom of the Crowd works:
The main premise is that a collective is smarter and more accurate than any one person. Each person has unique skills, expertise, and thoughts — combining all that expertise together can lead to the most accurate solution to a given problem.
For example, you might poll everyone in your office about the number of jelly beans in a jar, then use the average as your own guess. However, it is not quite so simple.
To be accurate, the Wisdom of the Crowd theory requires the polled crowd to be as diverse as possible. Also: each participant must arrive at their guess independently from other participants.
You may have heard of billionaire Ray Dalio. He’s the successful founder of Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s foremost hedge funds.
Dalio has said that in order to be an effective investor and a successful entrepreneur, you need to be able to “bet against the consensus and be right.”
Three years ago, in a TED talk, he gave the public a remarkable view into one of the key factors behind Bridgewater’s success. And it looks a lot like the Wisdom of the Crowd.
Dalio encourages “radical transparency” — everyone at his company, including new hires fresh out of college, are given many opportunities to voice their opinions and even to rate his performance.
Periodically they have meetings about important questions, like (before 2016) “What would a Trump win look like for the economy?”
Along with radical candor, his team uses special software called “the dot collector.” Everyone in a meeting rates everyone else’s opinions (or predictions) using a numerical scale. Meanwhile, the dot collector uses algorithms to progressively understand each person’s strengths and cognitive style. It creates an evolving assessment of each person’s “believability.”
Once the meeting is over and everyone has had their say, the dot collector presents averages and totals and then “rebalances” these to factor in believability. This information is then used to fuel decisions.
“Collective decision-making is so much better than individual decision-making if it’s done well,” says Dalio.
“It’s the secret sauce behind our success,” he adds.
Crowds aren’t always wise and mob behavior can be ugly.
However, when captured well, the “wisdom of the crowd” presents an intriguing solution to a variety of issues. Is the combined expertise of vastly different individuals — from mathematicians to salvagers — the most accurate method to solving some of the world’s most puzzling mysteries?
The search for the USS Scorpion seems to say “Yes.”
PS: This was an article made by our friends at Commodity.com for TAP.