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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


What is Philosophical Expertise? November 5, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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There is an interesting and important discussion going on at Certain Doubts regarding the nature of philosophical competence or expertise.

The problem arises because there have been (and still are) great philosophers whose work was clearly false and leads us away from the truth. So philosophical competence cannot consist of finding the truth about something.

So what is philosophical expertise? What qualifies someone as an expert at philosophy? (We should exclude cases of someone who is very good at reporting philosophical positions. The question under discussion involves doing philosophy, not reporting it.)

For what it is worth, my own view is that philosophical expertise involves describing logical or phenomenological relationships between concepts and developing standards for evaluating whether such concepts are true. This involves the ability to recognize and clearly express conceptual options, entailment relationships, inconsistencies, and empirical support.

The latter ability requires the help of science whose job it is to actually develop and test empirical claims. Philosophers by contrast have to recognize when those claims provide support for conceptual distinctions.

But what say you?

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


Hoops, Paydays, and Epistemology April 12, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Cross-posted at Reviving the Left 

The excessive risk-taking by banks and investment firms that caused the economic meltdown was in part the result of the skewed incentive structure of their compensation packages. Because their compensation was based on how well their company’s stock did over the relatively short term, they had every incentive to take on excessive, long-term risk if it would boost their short-term profits.

What was bad for the health of the firm was good for the stock trader or manager who pocketed immediate benefits.

NPR’s Scott Horsley, referencing a recent NY Times article by Michael Lewis on NBA star Michael Battier, compared Wall Street’s approach to compensation to compensation based on individual statistics in the NBA. Players often take poor shots in order to pad their stats, even though passing the ball would be better for the team, and many players virtually ignore defense, an essential part of the game, because it is more difficult to represent in statistical measures. If a player’s compensation is dependent on individual statistics only, they are rewarded for actions that often hurt the team.

These skewed incentives indicate a disturbing trend in contemporary society. We tend to form beliefs around data that is pervasive only because it is easy to acquire. It is easy to count and assign individual responsibility for baskets or sales minus expenses. These are convenient ways of keeping score.

However, the fact that a bit of data is easy to gather does not mean that it is providing a comprehensive, accurate measure of the health of the firm (or a basketball team). Stuff that isn’t easy to measure is not part of the calculation.

So why do hard-working, serious people take the easy way out when trying to measure performance? Isn’t it obvious to management (whether in sports or business) that the way the measure performance can be incomplete?

In a recent post, I argued that our economic problems were the result of an epistemological crisis. Our Wall St. wizards created lots of investment vehicles they didn’t understand and could not analyze.

But this tendency to form beliefs and hence policies around easily accessible data suggests another epistemological dimension to this crisis that explains why we take the easy way out.

Jerry Z. Muller writes:

From the point of view of top management, the diversity of operations means that executives were managing assets and services with which they have little familiarity. This has led to the spread of pseudo-objectivity: the search for standardized measures of achievement across large and disparate organizations. Its implicit premises were these: that information which is numerically measurable is the only sort of knowledge necessary; that numerical data can substitute for other forms of inquiry; and that numerical acumen can substitute for practical knowledge about the underlying assets and services. A good deal of our current economic travails can be traced to this increasing valuation of purportedly objective criteria, so denoted because they can be expressed and manipulated in mathematical form by people who may be skilled at such manipulation but who lack “concrete” knowledge or experience of the things being made or traded.

This is a theme that I emphasize in Reviving the Left. The pursuit of objectivity, and the resulting abstract representations, often leave out crucial data we need in order to act well, especially where human beings are concerned. Sensitive, situational knowledge that sometimes involves feelings and intuition is essential for guiding human action, but it is not well represented by mathematical models. Yet the “cult of accountability” is fast spreading throughout society. From finance and basketball to education and health care, every activity is being measured by a metric that may not capture crucial components of the activity—with sometimes disastrous consequences.