Monday, March 19, 2007

The Credentials Crisis at Wikipedia

It’s all over the blogosphere. It seems that everyone — from bloggers Nicholas Carr and Jason Scott to PC World and the Taipei Times — has written about the unmasking of Wikipedian administrator Ryan Jordan a twenty-four-year-old Kentuckian who faked an elaborate online identity as “EssJay,” a tenured professor of religion with multiple degrees, including two doctorates.

In response to the scandal, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has resurrected an idea he first proposed in 2005. Wikipedians would still be allowed to be anonymous if they wished, but those who want to be identified as having “Verified Credentials” would have to submit reasonable proof.

Something like this is already in place at Amazon, which has made it possible (but optional!) for an individual to acquire a “Real Name” badge, authenticated by the cardholder name on his or her credit card. Theoretically at least, this makes good sense. After all, we’re much more likely to trust a reviewer who’s willing to back up his words by putting his own good name on the line.

Yes, credentials can be a crucial factor in determining credibility. Would you want your open-heart surgery conducted by a “cardiologist” with no M.D.? But not all credentials are created equal. Is a teacher of creationism at Bob Jones University as credible as a professor of Invertebrate Paleontology at Harvard? It’s not just being credentialed that matters, it’s the specifics of those credentials … and I’m not sure that Wikipedia will be able to go into that level of detail.

But that may all be beside the point, because Wikipedia is designed to be written by consensus … so the imposition of a single, official, “expert” point of view would be difficult to achieve, if not doomed to failure.

As Carr writes, “Many of Wikipedia’s most eloquent advocates have argued that the encyclopedia’s practice of judging an author’s work solely on its own merits without being influenced by the author’s credentials is one of the project’s core strengths, both ideologically and practically.”

My own feeling is that so-called experts are themselves subject to bias and erroneous points of view. When I was in grade school, it was widely believed (and taught!) that dinosaurs were stupid, slow-moving creatures who died out because the much smarter mammals ate their eggs. Today, experts describe dinosaurs as clever, swift-footed animals that were wiped out by a comet.

There are plenty of examples of credentialed experts who were very, very wrong:

Thomas Alva Edison, Inventor: “Direct thought is not an attribute of femininity. In this, woman is now centuries … behind man.”

Pierre Pochet, Professor of Physiology: ‘[Louis Pasteur’s] theory of germs is a ridiculous fiction.”

Dr. W. C. Heuper, National Cancer Institute: “If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one.”

Irving Fisher, Yale Professor of Economics (in 1929!!!): “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”

Phil Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs: “[Night baseball is] just a fad, a passing fancy.”

Human knowledge is always changing. Many orthodox experts have a vested interest in protecting the status quo. The internet — and Wikipedia — provide equal opportunity access to “facts,” as expounded by traditional experts, and emerging hypotheses and theories.

To my mind, Wikipedia does an important and useful thing when it allows thoughtful people to challenge conventional wisdom. It may actually telescope the time it takes for breaking discoveries to supplant old, tired, soon-to-be-debunked theories.

Technorati Tags: Nicholas Carr, Jason Scott, PC World, Taipei Times, Wikipedia, Ryan Jordan, EssJay, Jimmy Wales, Amazon, Thomas Alva Edison, Pierre Pochet, Dr. W.C. Heuper, National Cancer Institute, Irving Fisher, Yale University, Phil Wrigley, Chicago Cubs


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love what you said about challenging conventional wisdom. Knowledge really doesn't mean anything unless it's challenged by an opposing view. I think a little debate is a very good thing, and it makes people really want to learn more to prove themselves right.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007 11:47:00 AM  

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