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Transparency trumps credentialism

Larry Sanger has been given a bigger stage. Edge has published his latest essay entitled “Who Says We Know: On the New Politics of Knowledge“. In it he argues against “dabblerism” – a word he made up to help him define his opponents’ position of anti-credentialism. Sanger is a credentialist. He wants credentials to buy a bigger seat at the table – he thinks it’s owed to the experts.

I agree with Larry Sanger about expertise mattering when compiling ideas and opinions about a subject. I’ve said as much before – Democracy is for opinion, not for knowledge. But I strongly disagree with Larry Sanger about how those experts shall be identified and whether their expertise itself should be a proxy for facts that should stand on their own. Facts should be sourced and they should be able to hold their ground on their own terms. If it is true that 97% of credentialed experts agree on view A, then the job of an encyclopedia is to publish the statistic directly following the discussion of what view A is. Whether an expert is the one who picked the particular turn of phrase is inconsequential.

Sanger also conveniently ignores the passage of time as contributing factor for Truth. Wikipedia is not a snapshot. It is not a bound book shipped across the country and sold door to door. It does not come with a year proudly stamped on its spine – declaring at first how new and relevant and then, almost immediately, how dated and quaint the information inside truly is.

Wikipedia allows the best knowledge of the time to be condensed and parsed, argued and sourced – in plain sight. As this knowledge changes, as the facts move and shift because of new discoveries and developments, the Wikipedia changes with it. If experts happen to arrive with new information, and source it well, the Wikipedia can be convinced to publish the new information. If the experts cannot source it, cannot convince the skeptics and the masses that the new facts are indeed facts, then they are sent packing – same as everyone else – to keep digging. This is not to say the masses should have all the power, it’s that if an individual truly feels they can move the discussion forward, they have to bring the evidence – whether they be expert or not.

This is the way it should be.

Because someone comes with credentials, they are not necessarily to be believed. Opinion is where we should defer and perhaps listen to experts. They have knowledge and expertise. They have experience and judgement tested through trial and error and the passage of time. Presumably they’ve even been challenged by other experts, both professionally and at lunch, and so they should be listened to and considered. But how much deference we pay to the experts should be a personal decision. The argument remains that there is no objective truth – and we are each making up our minds as to what we believe. We each use experts as proxy. We should not be told who the experts are – we should be allowed to choose ourselves – and that has to be done on a personal level.

Finally, experts are—albeit fallibly—the best-suited to articulate what expert opinion is. It is for the most part experts who create the resources that fact-checkers use to check facts. This makes their direct input in an encyclopedia invaluable.

Yes, exactly. And I think we’d be hard pressed to find anyone to argue with that. What is at issue is Sanger’s assessment of what follows:

To exclude the public is to put readers at the mercy of wrongheaded intellectual fads; and to exclude experts, or to fail to give them a special role in an encyclopedia project, is to risk getting expert opinion wrong.

It does not follow. Why does allowing experts a spot at the table specifically mean the head of the table? And nowhere still is the process for determining the expertise of the expert defined. What’s the term limit for head of the table? How often are the midterm elections held? Is there only one table?

Here’s a little dilemma. Wikipedia pooh-poohs the need for expert guidance; but how, then, does it propose to establish its own reliability? It can do so either by reference to something external to itself or else something internal, such as a poll of its own contributors. If it chooses something external to itself—such as the oft-cited Nature report—then it is conceding the authority of experts. In that case, who is it who says “we know”? Experts, at least partially: their view is still treated as the touchstone of Wikipedia’s reliability. And if it concedes the authority of experts that far, why not bring those experts on board in an official capacity, and do a better job?

This is not a strong argument. Wikipedia stands on citations from other sources, credentialed sources, sources written by experts. This is not under debate. Wikipedia takes great pride in pointing to others and showing broad consistencies where it finds them – and inconsistencies if and when it finds them. Experts are not needed for this job.

The reliability of Wikipedia is in its transparency. A full audit of edit history and personality and language is available at the click of a button. This is the main reason experts should not be given a big chair at the table of Wikipedia. They are not needed – because the knowledge compiled in Wikipedia is not original research. It is simply a compendium of the very world in which it exists. Its job is to document – and that does not require expert opinion.

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