Crowds aren't stupid. Crowds aren't smart. Crowds are people.

We have this idea that physical crowds are stupid herds. Give them half a chance, and they'll form a stampeding riot mob driven by emotion. Look at history, though, and you'll see many examples of large groups of people being perfectly well-behaved. In fact, in disaster situations, like on 9/11, crowds can even organize themselves in practical ways to help others to safety.

Meanwhile, we tend to talk about virtual crowds — the kind that form online, or between physically distant members of a professional community — as smart. But if that's always true, why do these groups get caught up in financial bubbles and why isn't Twitter a more reliable place to pick up breaking news?

Physical crowds and virtual crowds are different things. But our stereotypes about them stem from a common problem. In both cases, we tend to treat "the crowd" as if it's a distinct entity — as if, at some point, individuals in a group stop being themselves and start to become limbs of a crowd creature. In my latest column for The New York Times magazine, I learned that that's not the way people work in real life. As Clark McPhail, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me, "Crowds don't have a central nervous system."

Gustave Le Bon was one of the first people to write about crowds as entities separate from the people in them. His 1895 book, “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” shaped academic discussions of human gatherings for half a century and encouraged 20th-century fascist dictators, including Benito Mussolini, to treat crowds as emotional organisms — something to be manipulated and controlled. (Perhaps a Le Bonian understanding of crowds makes us feel more comfortable about the atrocities of the 20th century.) But “The Crowd” was more a work of philosophy than of science, McPhail told me. Le Bon’s ideas were based on armchair analysis of past events, not on carefully documented studies of crowds in action. In the 1960s, sociologists began to study protests and public gatherings, and they realized that the things they believed about crowd behavior didn’t align with what took place in the real world.

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Image: Crowd, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jamescridland's photostream

How Phoenix is becoming more like Minneapolis (and vice versa)

We talk a lot about chain stores and the way their proliferation takes away the individual character of American cities, replacing it with a homogenized urban landscape of Wal-Marts, malls, and Applebees*. But some scientists think businesses and buildings aren't the only thing making our cities look more alike.

The ecology of cities could be homogenizing, as well — everything from the plants that grow there, to the number and density of ponds and creeks, to the bacteria and fungi that live in the soils. My newest column for The New York Times Magazine explains why ecologists think cities are becoming more alike, and what it means if they're right. The really interesting bit: The effects aren't all uniformly bad.

“Americans just have some certain preferences for the way residential settlements ought to look,” Peter Groffman, a microbial ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., recently told me. Over the course of the last century, we’ve developed those preferences and started applying them to a wide variety of natural landscapes, shifting all places — whether desert, forest or prairie — closer to the norm. Since the 1950s, for example, Phoenix has been remade into a much wetter place that more closely resembles the pond-dotted ecosystem of the Northeast. Sharon Hall, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, said, “The Phoenix metro area contains on the order of 1,000 lakes today, when previously there were none.” Meanwhile, naturally moist Minneapolis is becoming drier as developers fill in wetlands.

Why does any of this matter to anyone who’s not an urban ecologist? “If 20 percent of urban areas are covered with impervious surfaces,” says Groffman, “then that also means that 80 percent is natural surface.” Whatever is going on in that 80 percent of the country’s urban space — as Groffman puts it, “the natural processes happening in neighborhoods” — has a large, cumulative ecological effect.

Read the rest of the story at The New York Times Magazine

*Or, possibly, Applebeeses.

Image: Taken by Ben Schumin, used via CC.