Amateur Experts

On November 25, Timesonline greeted the news that there was a persistent decline of Wikipedia editors with the observation that “this signals the end of this remarkable online resource.… It cannot happen too soon.… It is an anti-intellectual venture in its core.”

Few of the uncountable millions of Wikipedia beneficiaries would share the Times’ joy, even though they know that a perfectly competent article can be overthrown by a single incompetent amateur expert. The reason they find it such an incomparable convenience is that most of the time – perhaps almost all the time – the Wikipedia articles are correct and that is good enough for ordinary people. It is understood, of course, that it should not be good enough for academics and for anybody else – government officials and newspaper editors, among others – who must insist on the highest standard of authority possible. But ordinary people understand that the inventors of Wikipedia filled a huge gap and made large areas of knowledge available that, up to that moment, had been hard or impossible to access. Nobody is perfect.

But this is not the same as agreeing with the proposition that ordinary people have the same democratic right as experts to edit a reference work. That proposition is indeed – there the Times is right – fundamentally anti-intellectual. Experts and amateurs have the same civil rights – the right to vote, for example, and the right to express an opinion – but they are not equals in the areas in which they are experts or amateurs respectively. Otherwise the two concepts become meaningless.

Since the campus revolutions in the ’sixties, when the concept of universal participation became fashionable, there has been a great deal of confusion in these matters. The right to differ on matters of opinion has been confused with the authority of knowledge. Confusion arose as to whether people who don’t know anything about a given subject have the same right to express an opinion as those who do.

The idea that such a right may have to be earned has become profoundly unpopular. It is sometimes disputed that, if there are elections in Outer Mongolia, those who know something about the country are as entitled to have an opinion as those who don’t. Still, even some highly reputable media ask for them, on the tacit understanding that anybody has a right to have an opinion on a subject they know perfectly well few know anything about. They do it only to flatter their customers by making them feel to be the equal of experts.

This is treacherous ground. It is easy for someone with an opinion to dismiss another on the ground that that person doesn’t know anything about it. And it is just as easy for an expert who has spent half his life studying a subject to dismiss another expert with comparable experience on any number of grounds. All serious experts understand, however, when they are honest with themselves, that there can never be an end to critical examination of their subjects and that their expertise can always be challenged.

Nobody has a right to claim the last word.

The Oxford Dictionary is not perfect either.


12 responses to “Amateur Experts

  1. One of the amazing things about Wikipedia is that it profiles individuals who would never have a chance of being included in a real encylopedia. It’s here that there is a lot of giggery pokery going on. One person becomes a Wikipedia fixer, logs on and disses his enemies or helps his friends. I have seen it done. It is now said to be harder to do.
    Also climate change evangelists are said to have taken over the subject on Wikipedia, blocking any dissent.

    • This is new to me, but I live a sheltered life. I would think it’s rather hard to block dissent on the Internet.

  2. Horace Krever

    It may not follow that because experts and amateurs are not equals that, in matters requiring expertise, amateurs have no right to express an opinion. What they have no right to is to have their opinion respected.

  3. Outside of the Pope when he speaks ex-cathedra there is no such thing as infallibility. Most so-called experts have a better chance of being right based on their experience, but so many experts have been wrong so many times. BUT as a humble amateur, I like Wikipedia and hope it will continue. RK

  4. The concept that “I am as good as the ‘expert'” has led to the current crowd of unrepresented litigants choking our courts. Lay people, however, can sometimes acquire an astonishingly detailed knowledge of a limited aspect of a discipline, e.g., landlords sometimes know far more about Landlord and Tenant law than the lawyers they consult.

    • Good comment. Was it Dr. Johnson who said that he who defends himself in court has a fool as a client?

  5. And there is the ‘wisdom of crowds’ phenomenon, in which one observes that the sum of the views of independent people, not all or even mainly experts, can be more accurate than that of a smaller group of experts. This phenomenon is at work in Wikipedia, where political distortions don’t prevent that principle from operating.

  6. Yes, yes, yes. Please note Fred Langan’s comment that “climate change evangelists have taken over the subject on Wikimedia, blocking dissent.”

  7. Nice to see such a distinguished group of intellectuals breaking into the blogosphere.

    Very nice blog and some excellent dialogue going down here.

  8. Wikipedia is a kind internet version of what the pamphlets, broadsheets, radio and TV used to be to news/history.

    What is history anyway, except individual and collective biases written down and then critiqued and tweaked ad infinitum by people at Oxford and Cambridge?

    It must all be viewed with some skepticism.