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> On the Nature and Sources of Expertise, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Wiki Systems
Jonny Cache
post Wed 27th September 2006, 6:49pm
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On the Nature and Sources of Expertise

Questions about the nature of expertise have been coming up in several of the forums where I spend my time of late, and I've begun to notice curious discrepancies among the things that different people say about it, not to mention the many divergences between those assumptions and the way that I've always thought about expertise, well, at least, for as long as I can remember. So I think I'll break the ice with that.

Just trying to resuscitate this topic that keeps coming up in parallel dialogues on both the old wiki and the new wiki, but that just as quickly keeps falling into some kind of narcoleptic coma. This time I'll try a tactic of selective cross-posting between the two wikiverses of Citizendium and Wikipedia Review.

Nota Bene. This essay is being transposted to the following two wikiverses:Jonny cool.gif

This post has been edited by Jonny Cache: Fri 29th September 2006, 5:45pm
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Jonny Cache
post Wed 27th September 2006, 7:30pm
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Cloning Somey's initial remarks on this topic:
QUOTE(Somey @ Sat 16th September 2006, 3:12am) *

As I recall, you were primarily concerned with the way Wikipedia disrespects experts in various subject areas by giving equal credence to, well, basically anyone who comes along. In other words, the fact that a Ph.D. Nobel Laureate professor of astrophysics can be easily shouted down, serially reverted, and even banned from the site by some teenager whose primary area of expertise is, ooh, let's just say, Pokemon characters, or how best to win at Final Fantasy VII.

This is an exaggeration, really, but nevertheless the question remains whether or not this is a systemic problem (as I would maintain) or a cultural one, in so far as the internet is teeming with teenage Pokemon experts while Ph.D. astrophysicists are, for whatever reason, rather difficult to find.

Ultimately, though, the real problem with Wikipedia is that they don't see this as a problem at all. Their idea of "constructive criticism" is to suggest ways to remove any hindrances to their activities, as well as their growth, and of course this criticism must take place within their own environment where the critic can be dismissed as a "troll" if he or she fails to submit to their "cluestickings", and where that person's arguments can simply be deleted if they prove to be somehow inconvenient.

So we're never really going to be "respected", at least not by them. Nor should we care, really. Wikipedia really is a cult at this point, and while we might conceivably help in some way to deprogram a few genuinely "clueful" people on occasion, the important thing is to just keep watching, interpreting, and explaining what they do, so that the public at large has somewhere to go for an alternative perspective on the whole crazy thing.

Just a few other fragments to collect ...

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post Wed 27th September 2006, 11:10pm
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Jonny Cache
post Thu 28th September 2006, 1:48am
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FORUM Image Citizendium Forums, 27 Sep 2006, Msg 200

My thoughts on this subject are even more scattered, er, distributed than usual, and many of them are really other people's thoughts, so maybe I will use this forum as a clean-room (?) for assembling the dissembled bits and bytes, as I am way too typo-prone to post anything like a finished product on the lists -- and besides, all these ''Great Expectations'' lately expressed are giving me a Dickens of a writer's blocque.

Among the pieces that come to mind, there is of course the excerpt from Hobbes' Leviathan that Larry Sanger posted a ways back on his weblog:Jonny cool.gif

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post Thu 28th September 2006, 1:58am
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Jonny Cache
post Thu 28th September 2006, 3:41am
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Re: Joey V, Supra

I don't know. I kind of like the reference to experience. Maybe it's just an age thing. But if I were to try and rationalize it, I would probably say something along the following lines:

First off, I think we need to distinguish two different senses of the word expertise.
  • Promethean expertise.
  • Epimethean expertise.
Now, when I was a certain age, 18 or so, I used to think of Epimetheus as the slow-witted brother of Prometheus. But later on -- I think it was as I began to take more and more detours off the expressways of a priori mathematics, philosophy, and purely rationalist theory and ventured onto the dirt roads and deer paths of applied maths, computer science, data bases, statistics, including both qualitative and quantitative methods of empirical research -- I came to appreciate the unassuming wallflower wisdom of Epimetheus and his non-obstrusively plodding empirical ways.

To be continued ...

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poopooball
post Thu 28th September 2006, 12:24pm
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some1 above put the prob w/sangers proj perfectly. im likely one of only a half dozen ppl who could be considered expert on a very few subjects who is online and demonstrates it. unless some ppl rise from the dead or teach 90 yr olds how to wiki, that might not chng. will sanger accept that even if my degree is in something diff?
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guy
post Thu 28th September 2006, 12:50pm
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Depends whether you can demonstrate your expertise.
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Jonny Cache
post Thu 28th September 2006, 7:01pm
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Expertise is a many, not a one
  • Talkin' 'bout my generation, 'cause that's mostly what I know, there's a level of expertise that people were supposed to have when they graduated from high school, where we learned the basics of writing research papers, "with footnotes 'n' everything!?", as we used to whine on being assigned one. I could sum up these basics in a single page of narrative, and it would be enough for all practical purposes -- far more useful in practice than the reams without reason that have resulted from years and years of autos-da-fé, extorturous wrangling, and uncivil wars that have gone on and on and on in the 3-Ring Circus that is currently ruled over by the Three Big P&G's of Wikipedia.
  • ...

Have to break ...

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Jonny Cache
post Thu 28th September 2006, 8:53pm
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Seeing that the solitary impulse engines that I can muster under my command can do nothing to correct the warp-driven courses of *ships like the Citizendium and the Wikipedium, I must now return to my more remotive outpost, and serve out the remainder of my e-listment as a comedious critic of their all too fateful Enterprises.

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Jonny Cache
post Tue 3rd October 2006, 5:19pm
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I won't exactly reject the hypothesis that something there is in wikis that causes brain damage, but I will set it aside for the moment in the interests of doing something more positive, constructive, and hopefully future-oriented -- and along the lines that several reviewers hereabouts have now and again called for -- namely, thinking about how wikisystems ought to work, if, and it's a big if, the kinks in the heads of their human users can ever be detangled.

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IronDuke
post Tue 3rd October 2006, 6:49pm
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I will opine here that in your discussion of expertise you are addressing less than half of the issue. Expertise is (as has been noted) domain-specific: an expert on chemistry may not be an expert on Pokemon, or vice-versa. While age, training/education, and experience often yield expertise, they do not always. It has also been pointed out that there are those who are experts in fields far from their training (musician/mathematicians, for example), and a well-read and balanced editor can often successfully channel the expertise of others.

However, the source of great issue on Wikis is that expertise is in the eye of the beholder: the expertise of PhD evolutionary biologist is of no meaning to a creationist, and even the direct observation of (e.g.) an astronaut does not convince a flat-earther. Expertise, simply, is not enough.

Ultimately, we trust an encyclopedia or other reference work to represent the majority/consensus view of a topic and to represent or mention significant minority positions according to the reputation of their proponents.

Thus, far more important than "raw" expertise is the reputation of the proponent, i.e. the trust placed in him or her by others. A young PhD may validly claim to be an expert, while another individual with less expertise but a better reputation is more believable. Forgive the out-of-date reference, but one might trust Richard Feynman's pronouncements on space-shuttle design more than certain "rocket scientists". While there are pitfals in this approach (cf William Shockley), it is the dominant one in our society.

On Wikipedia, there is no good way to determinate or establish either an editor's expertise or reputation -- this is clearly unacceptable. A long history of correct repair of spelling mistakes or vandalism reversion does not qualify someone for expertise in any given field (other than spelling, I suppose). I would also guess that a reputation established only within an online community is too easily disposable to be a real asset, so the only alternative is real-world reputation.

Young people have less-developed real-world reputation, and this is where the ageism/credentialism/Ivory Tower debate kicks in. A college education may or may not yield expertise, but it conveys a certain reputation: if you have a PhD from Oxford or Harvard or Princeton you are expected to have a certain amount of training in critical thinking, scientific method, etc, and perhaps a better reputation than if you have no degree, have not completed high school, or are a graduate from Podunk College.

So I tend to agree with Larry's elitism: most topics in an encyclopedia should be edited, when possible, by people who have a reputation for expertise in a field (as distinct from simple, stated expertise).

This post has been edited by IronDuke: Wed 4th October 2006, 2:55pm
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Jonny Cache
post Tue 3rd October 2006, 7:21pm
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IronDuke & All --

I'm trying to remember how I got into this discussion of expertise, as expertise is not really a word that I use a lot, but it seemed to be the word that people kept interjecting into the discussions that I kept finding myself in -- going back to discussions with other disgrunts at Wikipedia, then again here at the Review, and yet again on Sanger's blog, the Textop wiki, and Citizendium. So I tried to go with the hermeneutic flow, being EZ as I am, but maybe it's now time to buck it.

What you say about expertise is more or less copacetic with me, and it's one of the reasons that there's a big ellipsis in the outline that I started above, as I was preparing to detail the varieties of expertise that a person may acquire through many different phases of life -- but I got distracted with the booming and buzzing of the startup at Citizendium. Well, I'm done with that now, so back to the grinstone.

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post Tue 3rd October 2006, 7:57pm
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Jonny Cache
post Tue 3rd October 2006, 8:53pm
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I do not normally think of myself as an expert in anything. I think of myself as a person who does not know anywhere near as much as he wanted to know about all of the things that he wanted to know about. But I do on occasion find myself in discussions with people where I come to realize that I have at least read about many things that they have not, and where I realize that I have had some actual hard-knocks practice in many areas that they have not. And when that happens there's no use being so humble and, er, "non-elitist", as to kid anybody about it -- indeed, it's irresponsible to do so, as it disrespects the lives and the works of those authors and teachers who took the trouble to pass on that knowledge to little ole me.

So if I were free to pick the terms of discussion -- a freedom that I may take back in a moment -- I would almost certainly replace talk of expertise with talk of experience and knowledge, and then I would almost certainly replace talk of knowledge with talk of the process by which we acquire knowledge, to wit, inquiry.

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post Tue 3rd October 2006, 9:45pm
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Jonny Cache
post Tue 3rd October 2006, 11:49pm
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Referring once again to Somey's earlier remark on this subject:
QUOTE(Somey @ Sat 16th September 2006, 3:12am) *
As I recall, you were primarily concerned with the way Wikipedia disrespects experts in various subject areas by giving equal credence to, well, basically anyone who comes along. In other words, the fact that a Ph.D. Nobel Laureate professor of astrophysics can be easily shouted down, serially reverted, and even banned from the site by some teenager whose primary area of expertise is, ooh, let's just say, Pokemon characters, or how best to win at Final Fantasy VII. This is an exaggeration, really, ...

Actually, it's not all that much of an exaggeration from what I've seen. Delete the qualifier Nobel Laureate, and you have described a scenario that gets played out on a daily basis somewhere or other in Wikipedia. Replace PhD with MA and you've pretty much described my average day's trials and tribulations on every article that I ever worked on, where numerous years of pertinent background experience could not stack up against some tyrannous tyro whose argument invariably began, "I don't know anything about this subject, but ..." -- and that's all it took to get some 3rd opinion's okay to destroy weeks or months of work.

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Jonny Cache
post Wed 4th October 2006, 3:01am
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QUOTE(Joey @ Tue 3rd October 2006, 5:45pm) *
A person with topical experience and knowledge might not be the best person to communicate that experience or knowledge. The editor with less knowledge about a topic might better appreciate the view of readers who also have little knowledge of the topic.

This is of course one of the mantras of the Wikipedian Persuasion. Take a taxi out to Citizendium Terminal and you can hear it being chanted all over again, which is why I drove on by and hopped the first train out of town. Yes, we've all had teachers who could not explain their way out of a paper bag. But this little bit of mythology grossly oversimplifies what is in fact a much more complex problem in communication. I tried to start a more nuanced discussion of the communication process involved in this situation under the heading of Transversality : Communication Across Levels Of Experience, but the Citizendium Forum quickly degenerated into a techie chat room with no real dialogue on core social issues.

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Jonny Cache
post Wed 4th October 2006, 3:47am
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QUOTE(Joey @ Tue 3rd October 2006, 5:45pm) *
Sanger had some form of complex editorial hybrid at Nupedia; maybe he'll find a better equilibrium for that mix of expertise and editorial skill with a somewhat more open but still managed participant list at Citizendum.

What can I say? Nupedia failed. One of the reasons that it failed was the one-person pain in the bottleneck that sat on the top of the hierarchical pecking order, if you don't mind my mixing a whole string of metaphors. The average potential contributor mailed off a vita to Nupedia Central Control, hoping for some "responsible authority" to courier back a visa post haste, and no doubt some them still wait in Casablanca, and wait, and wait, and wait ...

But the real problem with this picture of a division of labor between subject-matter savvy and copy-editor skill is the false dichotomy that it tries to draw between experts and editors, as if it the distinction were a matter of hard-&-fast, cut-&-dried ontology, sifting essentially different types of persons into caste-in-stone sorting bins, and not merely a matter of the shifting roles that a person can take up in sliding from one context of communication to the next.

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Somey
post Wed 4th October 2006, 3:50am
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QUOTE(Jonny Cache @ Tue 3rd October 2006, 10:01pm) *
I tried to start a more nuanced discussion of the communication process involved in this situation under the heading of Transversality : Communication Across Levels Of Experience, but the Citizendium Forum quickly degenerated into a techie chat room with no real dialogue on core social issues.

Well, this is really the crux of the matter, isn't it? These are fundamentally social issues, not technological ones, and technological solutions to social issues can only take you so far. (And in many cases, they can make bad situations worse.)

I keep saying this, but Wikipedia is just too big. Meaningful, working trust relationships simply can't be developed and maintained in a community that large. People like Dave Gerard will say things like, "working with idiots is not optional," and Phil Sandifer will say "in any online community there will be a large percentage who are idiots," and so forth, but the fact is, the clear (if not vast) majority of people are not idiots. They only seem like idiots to the high-level admins, because they're overwhelmed by the enormity of the project, the immense size of the community, and the bewilderingly arcane terminology and mixed-up conceptual framework of the internal culture.

The only way to save the English Wikipedia from itself is to break it up into smaller communities, presumably based on topic areas. They ought to be able to do that without breaking up the actual content - in fact it should be a relatively simple technical detail, an additional layer of abstraction, basically. If they can bring themselves to do that, there's a chance that the people involved can get to know each other, build comfortable subcultures, and work together constructively. Sure, some of the subcultures may fail, but better to have that, even from their perspective, than the self-destructive mess they have now.
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