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.