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Learners are doers, McLuhan as teacher
May 29, 2011 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Wikipedia And The Death Of The Expert - "McLuhan prefigured the Internet era in a number of surprising ways. As he said in a March 1969 Playboy interview: 'The computer thus holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the Logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of harmony and peace' ... Wikipedia, along with other crowd-sourced resources, is wreaking a certain amount of McLuhanesque havoc on conventional notions of 'authority', 'authorship', and even 'knowledge' ... Knowledge is growing more broadly and immediately participatory and collaborative by the moment."
posted by kliuless (90 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wikipedia is very shallow and basic knowledge with severe self-imposed limitations. There's still plenty of room for experts. Death of experts hyperbole (because of Wikipedia!) sounds pretty ridiculous.
posted by stbalbach at 9:29 AM on May 29, 2011 [9 favorites]


Obligatory xkcd.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:34 AM on May 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


The Internet it great and it has made my life better, but how come it hasn't made humanity better? How come this exponential increase in accessible knowledge hasn't made us better people?

I have been wondering this for a long time.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:36 AM on May 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


The Internet it great and it has made my life better, but how come it hasn't made humanity better? How come this exponential increase in accessible knowledge hasn't made us better people?

The internet is less than 20 years old.
posted by davebush at 9:42 AM on May 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Marshall McLuhan will now step into this thread to say "you know nothing of my work"
posted by kersplunk at 9:44 AM on May 29, 2011 [21 favorites]


I've been using the Internet for 24 years now
posted by 1970s Antihero at 9:45 AM on May 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


How come this exponential increase in accessible knowledge hasn't made us better people?

Becoming more knowledgeable -- in a purely facts-and-figures way -- is easy.

Becoming a better human being takes work.

People don't like work.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:46 AM on May 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


I don't think you can really proclaim the death of the expert while at the same time heaping such huge praise on the rules-monkeys that dominate wikipedia - since they pretty much make up an expert class in themselves, even if it's primarily an expertise in wikipedia-wrangling.
posted by Artw at 9:49 AM on May 29, 2011 [9 favorites]


I don't think McLuhan's vision was necessarily referring to arcane knowledge. The internet holds the promise of universal integration of all human activity. This would attain optimal efficiency of resources and maximized awareness through a servicing feedback loop that can be described as universal understanding and unity. Alternatively, there is the promise of an optimal productivity and maximized profit and control. The latter would be the state where we are absorbed into the technology as subunits. I get the feeling we have only one shot at it.
posted by Brian B. at 9:50 AM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well fine. You know what, it doesn't even matter that my ideas about authority are embarrassingly worn and threadbare, because we're all about to die in wars about water shortages. So there.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:50 AM on May 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Knowledge is growing more broadly and immediately participatory and collaborative by the moment.

You say that like it's a good thing.

I am reminded of a departed MeFite with a medical degree whose edits to Wikipedia, on a medical condition he had studied in school, practiced on during his residency, and treated countless times during his own career as a physician, were voted down because he didn't have enough edits. Or some silly shit like that.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:51 AM on May 29, 2011 [12 favorites]


It's hell getting old. I used to be more open-minded, searching for truth when I read things like:

So long as we believe that there is such a thing as an expert rather than a fellow-investigator, then that person's views just by magic will be worth more than our own, no matter how much or how often actual events have shown this not to be the case.

Now, I just roll my eyes. Honestly, I'd prefer to be operated on by a surgeon, and cross a bridge designed by an engineer. And I'd bet that's really the case for Maria Bustillos as well.
posted by tyllwin at 9:57 AM on May 29, 2011 [11 favorites]


Man, I wish McLuhan's Wake were more easily available online.

It might be available via Netflix... It is definitely available via Veoh, but you have to install their stupid player to watch the whole thing.

It's a great overview of McLuhan and his work and stuff. You know... for those who don't already know or who need a refresher.
posted by hippybear at 10:00 AM on May 29, 2011


The Internet it great and it has made my life better, but how come it hasn't made humanity better? How come this exponential increase in accessible knowledge hasn't made us better people?

How could we tell whether it has or hasn't? We have no real way of knowing how good people are, let alone how good they would be if there were no internet.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 10:02 AM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


There is a difference between an expert and a factualist -- you can memorize things such as dates, terminology, and names by rote -- and Wikipedia has been a deathblow to people who think that if they know some little obscure tidbit of the past that someone else took decades of research and hard work to uncover, that they are somehow intelligent and have superior intellect to the rest of us common folk. They offer nothing new -- they are just knowledge leeches who add nothing to the discourse.

On the other hand, things like Wikipedia cannot touch real experts -- the innovative people who study, research, investigate, experiment, analyze and look for fresh new information or can see new facets and grains people missed because they kept misapplying their memorization skills to try to impress or belittle people.

Once its on the Internet, it's already old news -- experts don't just find facts, but they can give us an understanding of what those facts mean so we are less likely to jump to the wrong conclusion. Wikipedia is rote and regurgitation -- and if it purifies who gets to be called an "expert" then there is a fringe benefit I'm all for...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 10:05 AM on May 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


I use Wikipedia to find links to real articles. Doesn't everybody?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:09 AM on May 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Learners are doers

There is an unbridgable gap between praxis and "I read it on Wikipedia." You cannot actually be a Panzer General, a doctor or a great artist or musician just by reading about it. Experts are the people who actually do the things that are written about on Wikipedia.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:17 AM on May 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wikipedia is great and all, but! about.com still exists, as do several other fountains of half-baked trivia and unhelpful summaries. All of the stupidity and wingnuttery on the internet will crush Wikipedia LIK BUG.
posted by sneebler at 10:18 AM on May 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Claims about historical originality lose much of their persuasiveness when the people making the claims appear to have derived their understanding of history (in this case, intellectual history) from sugar packets.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 10:18 AM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Just as the idea of an 'expert' had a beginning so it must necessarily have an ending. It'll be interesting to see the evolution of a society without experts. This concept of a 'knowledge authority' is past its sell-by debate and these days, in a world that grows more complex by the second, it does more harm than good. It has been a significant contributor to everything from illegal invasions to the financial crisis. A society where the media can't just trot out talking heads from 'The X Foundation', where there's an immediate dismissal of any assertion without supporting cites and sources, where the truth is largely a product of constant consensus and debate would be far less prone to the sort of 'neo-feudalism' we see today where self-originating institutions (media, universities) like the Church self-assert the right to deem given individuals (Wall St, CIA) the 'authority' over the masses in some given, clearly defined domain. That said such a society would, I think, be even more susceptible to propaganda and political machinations and I, for one, would like to see a lot less time wasted addressing Lanier and Carr's nonsense and more time spent understanding Wikipedia as a political entity.

(Mefi doesn't do Wikipedia well so I expect to see plenty of nonsense tyllwin's comment but thanks very much kliuless for bringing the article to my attention.)
posted by nixerman at 10:18 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Just as the idea of an 'expert' had a beginning so it must necessarily have an ending. "

Just as this wheel has lugs, so is there maple syrup in these reactors.
posted by sneebler at 10:23 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


This concept of a 'knowledge authority' is past its sell-by

Your authority to call the end of authority is being called into question.
posted by stbalbach at 10:29 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are entire worlds of knowledge which never touch Wikipedia. In my experience, there's a pretty small intersection between the set of people truly "in the know" about a subject and the set of people willing and able to fuck around with Wikipedia (and, often, documentation in general). Hell, even many hobbyist Wikis are incomplete and full of errors.

On top of that, there are many things you can't learn just by reading, not even to a beginner's level. Call me when we're all in the Matrix or on the Grid; until then (and probably even after!), "the death of the expert" is a fantasy.

on preview: a society "where the truth is largely a product of constant consensus and debate" sounds fine to me... but you're kidding yourself if you think experts (i.e. people who actually know more about a subject than most other people) won't dominate that debate. That's a big step up from the kinds of Television Experts(tm) who are paid to shill for Exxon and Altria, but it'll still happen, and chances are it'll lead right back to some kind of "knowledge authority".
posted by vorfeed at 10:35 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


We *are* better people, at least in the U.S. Crime rates, for example, continue to fall, and in fact have fallen still, counter-intuitively, in the past two years, when unemployment has gone up.

Now, there are certainly different measurements of what it means to be "good people." Those are endless, fruitless discussions. And while I doubt the Internet is a root cause of good vs. bad people, hey, it's possible.

But I categorically reject assertions that things are getting worse and spiraling downward.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:41 AM on May 29, 2011


Wikipedia is not a game where the most knowleadgeable win, but rather a game where the neckbeards with the most time on their hands always have the upper hand. That's why you get those awesome articles full of the most incredible minutiae about, say, light saber fencing. That is not a bad thing per se, but saying this will replace real knowledge and expertise is like saying being good at playing monopoly makes you qualified to be a CEO of a fortune 500 company.
posted by falameufilho at 10:46 AM on May 29, 2011 [12 favorites]


Then, please, nixerman, enlighten me.

I hold that the wires in my walls can safely carry a definite, factual, amount of curremnt before they begin to overheat and pose a fire hazard. I believe that the beams in my roof can hold a definite, objectively true, amount of weight. I actually want a knowledge authority who jhas taken the time to learn these numbers, understand where they come from, and put that knowledge into prior practice. I don't think those numbers are up for a vote, or a consensus decision. The opinion of my smart, well-educated lawyer or doctor can't change them, Wikipedia editors can't change them.

Don't get me wrong. I love Wikipedia. I think it's the best resource for quickly gaining a casual understanding of a wide variety of subjects that I've ever seen. I just don't see how it obviates the need for expertise or demotes expert understanding as opposed to a layman's understanding, at least in areas with a relationship to the world of things.
posted by tyllwin at 10:56 AM on May 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


> a game where the neckbeards with the most time on their hands always have the upper hand

Yes, yes; a million grillion times yes. It's yet another form of participation quest. Have you tried to edit Wikipedia or Musicbrainz recently? More often than not, you'll get your edit snapped back at you — even if you actually have knowledge and experience in the field you're editing.
posted by scruss at 10:56 AM on May 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


arrg, I further believe my typing is objectively, factually bad today.
posted by tyllwin at 10:58 AM on May 29, 2011


This article praises Wikipedia for its 'robust systems of control', and explains how Wikipedia articles are vetted for accuracy by a cadre of administrators, a committee of arbitrators, a senior committee of mediators and, 'at the top', a governing board of trustees. It then goes on to declare how Wikipedia is 'wreaking havoc on conventional notions of authority'. Notice any contradiction here? The author doesn't.

This leads to the triumphant conclusion that 'Learning no longer means sitting passively in a lecture hall or in front of a television or in a library and waiting to receive the "authoritative" version of what the experts think is up as if it were a Communion wafer. For nearly 20 years we have had the Internet ..' That's right: critical thinking didn't exist until the Internet came along. And those poor benighted souls who grew up in those long-ago, pre-Internet days (when education meant 'sitting passively in a library', imagine!) never had the opportunity to think for themselves.
posted by verstegan at 11:01 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia hasn't done the slightest to bring about "the death of the expert."

On the contrary, it's just helped bring countless new, largely unaccountable self-appointed ones into the world.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:07 AM on May 29, 2011 [12 favorites]


> a state of absorption in the Logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of harmony and peace

/b/ shall lie down with AskMe and the Light shall illumine all.
posted by jfuller at 11:12 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you can use the adverb "passively" in connection with any action performed in a library, you are Doing It Wrong.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:15 AM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Worth noting: Larry Sanger's "25 Replies to Maria Bustillos."

5. The “bogglingly complex and well-staffed system for dealing with errors and disputes on Wikipedia” is a pretentious yet brain-dead mob best likened to the boys of The Lord of the Flies.

...

11. The fact that Marshall McLuhan said stuff that presciently supported Wikipedia’s more questionable epistemic underpinnings is not actually very impressive.

posted by DaDaDaDave at 11:18 AM on May 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


(That link via several comments on Bustillos' article.)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 11:21 AM on May 29, 2011


How come this exponential increase in accessible knowledge hasn't made us better people?

Knowing everything there is to know about ThunderCats might make you a little pathetic, but it probably isn't going to make you one bit more empathetic.
posted by pracowity at 11:21 AM on May 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


My kid's response to those "Question Authority" bumper stickers is "Who the hell are you to tell me to question authority?". Perhaps the death of the expert is real.
posted by TheShadowKnows at 11:21 AM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


How can you say the Internet hasn't made humanity better? Just look at the revolutions sweeping North Africa. It's the ultimate free marketplace of ideas. Dictators and plutocrats can spend billions to market an idea, only to have it overturned in an instant by one video.
posted by atchafalaya at 11:26 AM on May 29, 2011


20th C: americans confuse the symbol with what is symbolized
21st C: americans confuse information with knowledge
posted by fallacy of the beard at 11:30 AM on May 29, 2011 [8 favorites]


Knowledge is growing more broadly and immediately participatory and collaborative by the moment

Citation required; marked for deletion
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:30 AM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


I actually want a knowledge authority who jhas taken the time to learn these numbers, understand where they come from, and put that knowledge into prior practice.

I have a feeling that, were we to put the matter to a vote, most people would agree. But then this is not the issue.

Wikipedia is not a game where the most knowledgeable win, but rather a game where the neckbeards with the most time on their hands always have the upper hand.

Well, glad that settles that. Then again, part of the question at hand is who, exactly, are the 'most knowledgeable' about a given topic? And why should these people believed? In fact this is one of the most issues Wikipedia resolves (as an encyclopedia) and it does so extremely effectively in a way that is, I think, better than any way that has ever come before it.

As for the idea that Wikipedia won't replace 'real knowledge' -- this is kinda funny. At some point, all 'real knowledge' must have emerged from a process very much like Wikipedia, that is, with a bunch of 'neckbeards' standing around and arguing with one another and backing up those arguments with sources and data. That this isn't immediately obvious reveals how deeply confused many are about what knowledge is and why the notion of an 'knowledge authority' with exclusive access to 'real knowledge' is a bit absurd.

On the contrary, it's just helped bring countless new, largely unaccountable self-appointed ones into the world.

More precisely it's revealed that there never really were any experts in the first place.
posted by nixerman at 11:40 AM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Internet it great and it has made my life better, but how come it hasn't made humanity better? How come this exponential increase in accessible knowledge hasn't made us better people?

Capitalism.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:44 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


But then reading Sanger's response it seems that's what really bothers people, this idea that what once was the 'privilege of the few' has now been seized and degraded by the unwashed masses. plus ça change...
posted by nixerman at 11:45 AM on May 29, 2011


More precisely it's revealed that there never really were any experts in the first place.

No, only all of us deciding to dispense with the use of any information on any topic gleaned from any human being completely because all information is too unreliable to be useful would reveal that.

Until then, I'll keep accepting payment for designing and building databases and database applications, rather than just telling all my clients "Figure it out for yourself--you know as much about it as I do."
posted by saulgoodman at 11:45 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do we need to retreat to more basic principles, nixerman? I mean, I hate to sound like a character in an Ayn Rand novel, but does A=A ? If, say, I eat an apple, are we in a agreement that there's an objective reality that I have done so? Does a person there watching me at the time not have more accurate knowledge of the action I have taken? Firm ground, to say with accuracy, "no, it was not a pear?" Does that not define "knowledge authority" and greater expertise in the trivial matter of my eating habits? Is the statement of that expert knowledge not more true and correct than any consensus of the uninformed?
posted by tyllwin at 11:52 AM on May 29, 2011


Death of the expert? Pick up a trade magazine some time.

My favorite was one devoted to people who had jobs finding and marking underground pipes and wires. It was a monthly, around 75 pages. It had a bunch of "What's new" articles, and some really cool pictures of what can happen if you don't "Call before you dig". Their readers were experts.

For 99.9% of us, every call we make, every post we post, every bulb we light, every apple we eat, and every poop we flush has an army of experts behind them making sure things work they way they work. As many have noted above, when something is vital, we rely on experts. It's just that so much more of what's done these days isn't vital. Which, by the way, I'm not horribly bothered by.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:53 AM on May 29, 2011 [9 favorites]


The Internet it great and it has made my life better, but how come it hasn't made humanity better? How come this exponential increase in accessible knowledge hasn't made us better people?

Pearls before swine.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:55 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I manage a website for a non-profit, just requires attention during one period of the year. Parked on ultra-cheap hosting.

Every so often someone comes along with Ideas. They know How They Are Going To Make It All Happen. I get an email from the head of the organization, forwarded from an email from this person who knows how she wants to do the website. She can handle it. She knows how to do it. Big talk. "Give her access to the website." <christopher_lloyd>Hokey-dokey</christopher_lloyd>. I send it on to her.

A few days later she emails me and says, "I don't know what to do. Tell me how to do everything on the sight [sic]."

I email her back, with a copy of her original email attached. "You said you knew how to do it. Right there. Otherwise, you're basically asking me to pass on my knowledge and experience to you so you can cut me out of the already bargain basement price I give you because you're a non-profit. Teach you all of this, clean up your mistakes, for free? Does that make any sense for me? You said you could do it, so do it."

Nothing back for a few days. I change the password and dump the backup of the site, made five minutes before I gave her access, back over the directories. Never heard from anyone about it again. Business as usual from there on out.

The Death of Respect For The Expert.
posted by adipocere at 11:56 AM on May 29, 2011 [16 favorites]


"This leads to the triumphant conclusion that 'Learning no longer means sitting passively in a lecture hall or in front of a television or in a library and waiting to receive the "authoritative" version of what the experts think is up as if it were a Communion wafer. For nearly 20 years we have had the Internet ..' That's right: critical thinking didn't exist until the Internet came along."

When they say Internet, they must mean the WWW.
posted by idiopath at 11:58 AM on May 29, 2011


<christopher_lloyd>Hokey-dokey</christopher_lloyd>
Thank you for making my brain replay in Reverend Jim's voice.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:05 PM on May 29, 2011


There is a difference between an expert and a factualist -- you can memorize things such as dates, terminology, and names by rote -- and Wikipedia has been a deathblow to people who think that if they know some little obscure tidbit of the past that someone else took decades of research and hard work to uncover, that they are somehow intelligent and have superior intellect to the rest of us common folk. They offer nothing new -- they are just knowledge leeches who add nothing to the discourse.

Thanks. I was wondering how our famously ignorant young, so utterly failed by our pathetic education system and their own lack of curiosity, managed to preserve their all-important self-esteem.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 12:06 PM on May 29, 2011


For all his positive press, I find McLuhan kind of underwhelming. His hype focus on "non-literate" societies smacks of elitism, and the attempt to make everything media is a stretch. Media mediates reality, not the other way around, and if culture X rejects TV, it's not because TV is hot and they are cold, it's because TV mediates their experience poorly.

So too with Wikipedia I suppose.
posted by Apropos of Something at 12:19 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I like the wikipedia, but why would someone think that reading, or even writing, an encyclopedia entry about something necessarily makes someone an expert. I mean, for example, this is in the entry for Hesperiidae (a family of butterflies):

Many species of skippers look frustratingly alike. For example, some species in the genera Amblyscirtes, Erynnis (duskywings) and Hesperia (branded skippers) cannot currently be distinguished in the field even by experts. The only reliable method of telling them apart involves dissection and microscopic examination of the genitalia, which have characteristic structures that prevent mating except between conspecifics.

The person who wrote this is not necessarily an expert. The people who inspect skipper genitalia under a microscope are experts.
posted by snofoam at 12:24 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Does this apply to all encyclopedias or just online ones?
posted by destro at 12:28 PM on May 29, 2011


His hype focus on "non-literate" societies smacks of elitism, [...]

wat
posted by Crabby Appleton at 12:30 PM on May 29, 2011


I am sick to death of hearing about the expert and the quote cited above is the reason
So long as we believe that there is such a thing as an expert rather than a fellow-investigator, then that person's views just by magic will be worth more than our own, no matter how much or how often actual events have shown this not to be the case.
It's why people listen to their GPS and drive into rivers. It's why people get poor medical treatment from doctors who might have been good once, but aren't keeping up now or are so overwhelmed by everything else that your particular oddness just slips by them. It's why assholes without two brain cells to rub together can get on TV and just because they have credentials from "good schools" can tell you
all sorts of lies and you'll believe them.

The truth is that there are no experts. Sure, everyone and their horse will tell you they're an expert but consider:

A doctor, presumably, is an expert, an engineer, presumably, is an expert. There are lots of presumed experts, but when you get down to the brass tacks, what makes them an expert? I can assure you that my wife's ob/gyn can't tell me more than I can find out on Wikipedia about my epididymis issues. An engineer just out of school shouldn't be my first pick to build me a tower to save me from the zombie hordes.

On the other hand, a quick search on the Web leads me to a trove of sites on this particular testicular abnormality and I know a guy who went to Viet Nam and built watch towers so well, the Navy came and got him to build towers for them. (he drives trucks and only has an equivalency degree).

The truth is that there are no experts, there are people who know more than you, there are people who have more experience than you, and there are people who have access to more sources than you. Your job is to find the right one of those.

Your job isn't being made any easier by the term expert because that word tell you that you don't need to think about what you're being told and that you need to trust whoever is talking.

Well fuck that. Listen well and consider what you hear, but verify too, and yes, wikipedia isn't a bad starting point for your efforts.
posted by BeReasonable at 12:32 PM on May 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


There's far better writing and thinking about Wikipedia's faults and merits in a million other places online, including many of the past Metafilter threads on the subject, than in this embarrassing essay. I had thought that breathless undergraduate pontification about Marshall McLuhan went out of style as a way of overgeneralizing about media and history sometime around the time of that scene in Annie Hall, but it seems ill-read people still make a big discovery of his existence sometimes. And this is to say nothing of the galling irony of using "I just heard of McLuhan! This explains everything!" as a ground for the argument that the writer's ignorance and philistinism are the knew state of knowledge. Can we just agree not to discuss it again when Bustillos eventually discovers Will and Ariel Durant, Alvin and Heidi Toffler, or Francis Fukuyama?
posted by RogerB at 12:33 PM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ah, well, BeReasonable, I think you and I most agree. I just use the shorthand of naming "people who know more than you... people who have more experience than you... people who have access to more sources than you." as "experts." I don't think a diploma makes an expert.
posted by tyllwin at 12:42 PM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


The truth is that there are no experts, there are people who know more than you, there are people who have more experience than you, and there are people who have access to more sources than you.

Um, but you basically just defined expert. It's someone with particular knowledge or skill in some area. It doesn't require a specific degree.

I'm not sure why some people are against the idea of experts. Not everyone can know everything, but we're better on the whole if there are people who are very knowledgeable in specific areas.
posted by snofoam at 12:44 PM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure why some people are against the idea of experts.

Neither do I. I think the problem seems to be that a lack of good education about critical thinking leads to an inappropriate democratization of opinion. Not everyone is an expert, but everyone thinks they can be.

This is made worse by the fact that we fail to denigrate people that attempt to twist facts. They're not properly refuted.

That's why this SNL skit is funny. A foolish, unsupported argument gets immediately confronted and shot down -- something we rarely see actually happen.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:57 PM on May 29, 2011


I can assure you that my wife's ob/gyn can't tell me more than I can find out on Wikipedia about my epididymis issues.

A thought occurs: mmmmmmmaybe you should see a urologist instead. You know, someone with expertise in the area of the body you're concerned with?

I absolutely support the idea of critically evaluating the treatment plan you are provided by your primary care physician. Being informed is the best option you have. However, that doesn't qualify you to write your own prescriptions.
posted by Existential Dread at 1:05 PM on May 29, 2011


Also, I forgot to add that I don't think the existence of experts means that people shouldn't question anything and just blindly accept everything they read.

I would also say that in many areas, having expert knowledge can make one more equipped to effectively challenge conventional wisdom or the consensus of past experts.
posted by snofoam at 1:10 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


One good way to build a healthy sense of suspicion about some of the material confidently presented on wikipedia is to read several articles there in a field you know quite a bit about. Usually I find about 30% of them very good, another 20% reasonably so and at least 20% horrifically, appallingly wrong - and sometimes undetectably so, as in they look good, they have cites, but you know the cites are from texts on the lunatic fringe of a field or now very much discredited. Peer review is not always perfect, but it's better than the other options.

Plus, I don't want to drive across a bridge built by someone who got their knowledge from the internet and a group of their pals, perhaps with a bit of welding experience thrown in. I want to drive across a bridge designed and built by experts. I suspect I'm not alone.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:19 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


create a perpetuity of harmony and peace...

McLuhan obviously didn't envision flame wars. Or the "Something Awful" fora...
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:20 PM on May 29, 2011


For the record, I don't particularly care about Wikipedia, although I use it all the time and have sent them money in the past.

I'm more concerned about the proliferation of sites like About.com and it's ilk, which are essentially link farms offering answers to simple questions as bait, or any number of single-issue "blogs" or self-help sites that offer simplistic solutions to everyday problems, but are actually fronts for political activism of various kinds, whether or not the site owners explicitly set out to be fronts. So far, I've only looked at sites that pretend to be about "nature", "men's issues" and Alternative Medicine, but seem to be much more concerned with promoting climate-change denialism, anti-environmentalism, and anti-vaccine wingnuttery (can you separate this from homeopathy and other forms of alternative medicine wingnuttery? I don't know).

This stuff worries me, because it's like Anti-Knowledge that feeds on the same type of curiosity that drives conspiracy theories, and at the same time, mostly exists to make money for the site owners. Never mind that there's already a constituency of people who are invested in this stuff because of its anti-authoritarian slant, and you have a recipe for the undoing and loss of REAL knowledge.

Here's an example: Here in Calgary, our City Council just voted to stop water fluoridation and remove all the equipment. Fine, they can do that - it makes sense for financial reasons, and there may be little net cost to the population. What concerns me is that the entire issue was driven by anti-fluoridation propagandists ranting about how fluoridation is a CONSPIRACY by industry to get people to pay for their industrial wastes, and it caused my son's AUTISM!!

What little substance exists with which to conduct a public debate is contaminated by the combined voices of people with an axe to grind and little to no actual information, evidence or knowledge of the subject. (For fluoridation, substitute climate-change, vaccination, creationism, colloidal silver, naturopathic medicine, or chiropractic. Etc.)

Another pet example: CBC's great science show Quirks & Quarks has chosen to turn off comments on their blog, presumably because every. single. entry. was made into a platform for climate-change denialism.

In lots of ways we're better off without the voice of authority, but it has been, let's say, a helpful tool in education: "I know you want me to recapitulate the entire history of science to show why you should believe the epidemiological evidence for water fluoridation, but I don't have time. Take your F and sit down."

But when there's money to be made by setting up as an internet counter-authority and shouting down all comers just for the page-views, I'm not sure where that leaves us as far as counting on the internet as a source of anything. How are we going to have an informed debate on anything when internet sources not only have no authority, but have been used to polarize the population in advance?
posted by sneebler at 1:58 PM on May 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


Heh.

About a year ago, one of my professors gave his class an assignment: Review a collection of articles on Wikipedia about a particular topic. I thought it was an interesting assignment because critiquing the articles required, well, a more "expert" knowledge than the people who wrote the articles. And considering that these were linguistics articles, which are in general pretty good, that made it a decent test.

I wrote near to eight pages on ways that the articles could be improved. A bit of that was about how to improve their readability, but a substantial portion was about misconceptions, about crackpot theories being put on the same level as more generally accepted theories, about statements that didn't really make sense...

I keep intending to go back and fix those errors but Wikipedia editing is a hassle and I'm wary of getting into an edit war. People take it personally if you tell them they're wrong.

I love Wikipedia despite its faults, personally. I look things up all the time. I'm not looking for "expert" knowledge; I just want a basic introduction to a topic and maybe a few references for further reading. That's what encyclopedias have always been for, right? The people who think that Wikipedia will give them expert knowledge on a topic are the same people who, ten years ago, would think that Encyclopedia Britannica would do the same.

I think what's truly revolutionary about Wikipedia, at least for most people who use it, isn't so much who's editing it (because they often are experts), but just how accessible it is.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:09 PM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Great example sneebler. The true democratisation of knowledge would be a terrible thing.

Fortunately that's not what Wikipedia is. Wikipedia is intensely curated - by a large number but small percentage of users - and that's why it is so successful. It is a model for the provision of a 21st century global public good and a test-bed for radical political philosophy ideas about participatory democracy in managing it.

One wonders what Facebook would be like if it ran on the Wiki model. Is it really necessary to transfer ownership of all my pictures, and all information about myself and my activity to some data-raping corporation just to access a social network?
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 2:14 PM on May 29, 2011


One wonders what Facebook would be like if it ran on the Wiki model. Is it really necessary to transfer ownership of all my pictures, and all information about myself and my activity to some data-raping corporation just to access a social network?

Of course it's not. Feel free to start your own social networking site based on the wiki model, instead of complaining about Facebook. I look forward to your success.
posted by happyroach at 3:15 PM on May 29, 2011


but how come it hasn't made humanity better?

Um hello... facebook?
posted by the noob at 3:32 PM on May 29, 2011


I'm a better person because of the Internet. Or at least a slightly less creepy one.
Pico Iyer thinks the reason we don't respect McLuhan is because we're living in his world
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:06 PM on May 29, 2011


Great post! Thanks.
posted by goalyeehah at 4:22 PM on May 29, 2011


I'm against the idea of experts because no one is truly an expert in the way that society seems to want to have them be. I'm not an idiot, I wouldn't ask an ob/gyn about my balls, but imagine instead this entirely too common scenario.

You're at a party and someone mentions that the tall fellow down there is a doctor. So you mosey on down to ask him about this tickle in your throat you've been having. Well, the good doctor takes a look at you, maybe even consents to take a look at your throat and says, "Ehh, sinuses. They're bad this time of year. Take an Allegra and you'll be fine." Now, of course, he omits that he's a podiatrist because really, you're bothering him in the middle of a party and hell, most of the time it is sinuses.
So you asked an expert and you're satisfied, until you start getting sicker...

What I don't like is that people hear the word expert and that's it, their thinking stops. Whatever that person says is all that needs to be said on the topic. This especially occurs when the expert's opinion matches with yours. The problem is that expert isn't necessarily right or even in the ballpark of right (for numerous possible non-evil reasons), but no one goes any further because the expert said it was so.

See, Wall Street, politics, war, or sports for proof of my assertions.
posted by BeReasonable at 4:30 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


What I don't like is that people hear the word expert and that's it, their thinking stops.

I completely agree with you on this point. I would posit that the problem does not lie with experts, but with people who do not apply critical thinking and trust others to do their thinking for them, or only believe that which confirms their biases. A counter-anecdote could be one of any number of occasions that my wife, an MD, has seen patients who come armed with 'knowledge' from the internet about their medical condition. My wife has spent 11 years developing her expertise in the field of medicine, but has difficulty convincing these people that the self-diagnosis they have developed from WebMD is, in fact, incorrect.

An informed patient is a patient who stands the best chance of becoming well again. However, a misinformed patient who is unwilling to entertain challenges to their certainty is at much greater risk.
posted by Existential Dread at 4:59 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


nixerman: "At some point, all 'real knowledge' must have emerged from a process very much like Wikipedia, that is, with a bunch of 'neckbeards' standing around and arguing with one another and backing up those arguments with sources and data."

No, while that works for some areas, for what now makes up what we think of as our (technological) civilisation, that sort of thing was pre-modern natural philosophy and hermeneutics and scholasticism and it can only take you so far and then you get stuck when your knowledge plateaus, too many errors of fact are accepted as dogma, and people are arguing over endless dialectic re-treads. It was not until the Islamic systematisation of the empirical, iterative, inductive process we now call the "Scientific Method" that we were able to move past that era and create our modern world.
posted by meehawl at 7:19 PM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Straight Outta Cambridge
"The ruinous authority of experts [...] was McLuhan's lifelong theme."—Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger


A note to curious youth: Philip Marchand's excellent overview is probably a better introduction to the ideas of McLuhan's philosophy than picking one of the Marshall's books at random and starting right in.

(That Marshall what strode into that lawless Western town, and gave all of those poor townsfolk an integrated media theory).
posted by ovvl at 8:23 PM on May 29, 2011


You're at a party and someone mentions that the tall fellow down there is a doctor. So you mosey on down to ask him about this tickle in your throat you've been having. Well, the good doctor takes a look at you, maybe even consents to take a look at your throat and says, "Ehh, sinuses. They're bad this time of year. Take an Allegra and you'll be fine." Now, of course, he omits that he's a podiatrist because really, you're bothering him in the middle of a party and hell, most of the time it is sinuses. So you asked an expert and you're satisfied, until you start getting sicker...

So, your argument against experts is that if you ask someone who is not an expert about your medical condition, when they are at a party, then they might be wrong? If a drunk boat captain doesn't want to give you a ride home from the party in his car, does that mean there's no point in learning how to drive a boat? If possible, go see a doctor. If, based on what you know, you don't agree with his diagnosis, get a second opinion from another doctor. If this is not possible, the problem is not with medicine or with expertise in general, it's with how your country distributes medical care.
posted by snofoam at 9:14 PM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


the noob: "but how come it hasn't made humanity better?
Um hello... facebook
"

N00byliciously eponysterical. How has re-creating a walled content garden behemoth pseudo-AOL, tarted up for the broadband and mobile post-noughties, made humanity better? I can now get updates about what my friends had for breakfast but, you know, in the 1990s I could get that on powwow.
posted by meehawl at 9:44 PM on May 29, 2011


meehawl: I took the comment as "facebook is why the Internet hasn't made humanity better".
posted by idiopath at 9:48 PM on May 29, 2011


Perhaps this is my own prejudice, but when someone says they don't believe in experts, I hear them saying "I possess no deep and complex skills."

The fact is, there are a million things which require experience and study to acquire, beyond a simple recitation of facts. If I ask a non-expert to write a network-based application listening via the telnet protocol will not be able to do it. No amount of reading Wikipedia will fix that problem. It will require study and practice beyond what a "non-expert" can provide.

The same is true of building bridges, or wiring a house, or fixing a severe plumbing problem. Anything which requires action requires expertise. This includes thinking deeply about a subject. Assuming that expertise is irrelevant is the equivalent of a 17-year-old deciding that he knows everything about the world.
posted by sonic meat machine at 11:52 PM on May 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


Most of what is interesting about Wikipedia does not have to do with any idea of the "expert". It's really about the rest of us.
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:12 AM on May 30, 2011


What I don't like is that people hear the word expert and that's it, their thinking stops.

What makes you think it ever started?!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:42 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've often used Wikipedia as a starting point for things I know nothing about, but I've never looked at the article on the one subject that I can claim significant knowledge of: the playwright who was the subject of my thesis and is now the subject of my book. So I did.

It's godawful. It's mostly taken from a 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica article, so the critical approaches are 100 years out of date, and it comfortably repeats a series of outright errors about his religious convictions, his employment and his political affiliations. There are no citations in the article itself, and the bibliography mostly contains stuff from the 20's and 30's.

This may not be the best example of Wikipedia's approach, but it refutes the article's claims. The entry is founded on outdated 'expert' work, and it pretty much ignores the work done by later scholars and critics; there's no evidence of knowledge of the complex and interesting scholarly debates that have built actual 20th century knowledge of the subject.
posted by jrochest at 3:12 AM on May 30, 2011


I'm not sure why some people are against the idea of experts. Not everyone can know everything, but we're better on the whole if there are people who are very knowledgeable in specific areas.

I was confused about this as well, until I realised they weren't concerned with expertise per se, but rather with claims of authority based on expertise, which is quite a different kind of animal really.

More broadly, I think the notion of the death of the expert is really just an overblown and unnecessarily polemical way of saying that people have greater access to information. This leads to some people concluding that people are less reliant on experts these days, which is a workable theory until you realise that information, and the knowledge that it is based upon, doesn't spontaneously self-generate, but is largely the work of experts. As jrochest's comment demonstrates, Wikipedia is just as reliant on experts, both to curate the articles, and for the sources they cite.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 3:57 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Internet is great and it has made my life better, but how come it hasn't made humanity better?

Because everyone cares about making his/her own life better, not making humanity better. It's like asking, "This hammer is great and has built my house, but how come it hasn't built all the homeless houses?"
posted by Rykey at 5:26 AM on May 30, 2011


The standard I use for Wikipedia articles is not "how does it compare to the best scholarship extant", but "how does it compare to knowing nothing". On that basis, many are quite good.

Though it's scary to think that some people treat Wikipedia as the final arbiter. But hell, plenty of people think Sarah Palin is our leading expert on relations with Russia, donchaknow.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:21 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


You don't need to read far in AskMe to run across IANA [expert], This is not [expert] advice. Followed by exhortations to consult one. So lots of people on the internet believe in experts. Not just people, but MeFites (i.e. expert internet users).
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:16 AM on May 30, 2011


No wiki is ever going to make you an expert at drawing but I'm sure the Internet (with it's anonymity and it's lack of authority figures) is a wonderful thing for all the young, future drawing experts out there.

To be a teenage art student in the pre-internet 80s was to be dropped into the midst of the crabby, "endless experimentation towards no descernable end" modernism of the 70s. If you didn't find it compelling, it was because you were just a kid or a rube.

For technical stuff, like bridge building and dentistry, I still laud the experts.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:20 AM on May 30, 2011


yea, 'the death of the expert' was -- a bit! -- hyperbolic (like the math messiah - the math of khan... titles can be hyperbolic? ;)

The Death of Respect For The Expert

maybe not respect, but more like reflexive deference? deconflating authority with expertise given that information and knowledge are more diffuse, distributed and, hopefully overall, more abundant.

oh and, speaking of authority...
Iran Vows To Unplug Internet
In Censorship Move, Iran Plans Its Own, Private Internet
posted by kliuless at 8:45 AM on May 30, 2011


This leads to some people concluding that people are less reliant on experts these days, which is a workable theory until you realise that information, and the knowledge that it is based upon, doesn't spontaneously self-generate, but is largely the work of experts.

And navigating the immense amount of information itself is, itself, one of the things that can be difficult/impossible if you aren't an expert. I have access to nearly as much information as my linguistics professors, but they know far more about what is important, what isn't important, what is current, what isn't current... they have a practical knowledge born from experience, which just reading will not give me. Of course, that doesn't mean that they're always right and I'm always wrong, but it does mean they have more tools for discerning what's right than I do.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:17 PM on May 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


Charles Pierce scooped this four years ago:

In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a preacher, or a scientist, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.
posted by Mayor West at 6:26 AM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sven Birkerts responds to Bustillos in a long essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books
posted by RogerB at 10:01 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


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