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Wikipedia on Trial August 3, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education.
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Larry Sanger is one of the founders of Wikipedia, although he quit the project because of disagreements about the quality of Wikipedia articles. He was also trained as a philosopher with a specialization in epistemology, and thus has an interesting perspective on some of the problems of using Wikipedia as a source of knowledge.

Here is an excerpt from his Slate interview:

Why did you feel so strongly about involving experts?

Because of the complete disregard for expert opinion among a group of amateurs working on a subject, and in particular because of their tendency to openly express contempt for experts. There was this attitude that experts should be disqualified [from participating] by the very fact that they had published on the subject—that because they had published, they were therefore biased. That frustrated me very much, to see that happening over and over again: experts essentially being driven away by people who didn’t have any respect for those who make it their lives’ work to know things.

Where do you think that contempt for expertise comes from? It’s seems odd to be committed to a project that’s all about sharing knowledge, yet dismiss those who’ve worked so hard to acquire it.

There’s a whole worldview that’s shared by many programmers—although not all of them, of course—and by many young intellectuals that I characterize as “epistemic egalitarianism.” They’re greatly offended by the idea that anyone might be regarded as more reliable on a given topic than everyone else. They feel that for everything to be as fair as possible and equal as possible, the only thing that ought to matter is the content [of a claim] itself, not its source.

It seems to me that this conflict between amateurs and experts boils down to a conflict between egalitarianism and credibility. You gestured toward this conflict in an essay on the Edge.com, where you wrote, “It’s Truth versus Equality, and as much as I love Equality, if it comes down to choosing, I’m on the side of Truth.” Do you find that it really is a zero-sum gamethat, as a practical matter, we need to choose between these two goods?

I doubt very much that it’s a zero-sum game. I think it’s absolutely a great thing that people regardless of their credentials can contribute to the shaping of knowledge. And I think we have to creatively design ways of recognizing both the value of amateur work, on the one hand, and the objective value of the knowledge of people who are experts in various fields.

The idea behind Wikipedia is that by pooling information held by multiple authors truth will emerge in the marketplace of ideas. No planner or centralized authority is necessary because multiple authors will be self-correcting. If one author makes a mistake, other authors will notice the mistake and correct it.

But as Sanger points out, it is not obvious that Wikipedia actually works that way. The loudest or most persistent voice is not necessarily the voice of truth. The idea that a talented amateur is in a position to trump the judgment of experts who have spent years studying a subject is a modern but pernicious conceit.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

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