Offended by Expertise

In an interview on Slate, Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger (who left the organization) confirms the very reasons I quit having anything to do with the web site:

Q. Why did you feel so strongly about involving experts?

A. Because of the complete disregard for expert opinion among a group of amateurs working on a subject, and in particular because of their tendency to openly express contempt for experts. There was this attitude that experts should be disqualified [from participating] by the very fact that they had published on the subject–that because they had published, they were therefore biased. That frustrated me very much, to see that happening over and over again: experts essentially being driven away by people who didn’t have any respect for those who make it their
lives’ work to know things.

Q. Where do you think that contempt for expertise comes from? It’s seems odd to be committed to a project that’s all about sharing knowledge, yet dismiss those who’ve worked
so hard to acquire it.

A. There’s a whole worldview that’s shared by many programmers–although not all of them, of course–and by many young intellectuals that I characterize as “epistemic egalitarianism.” They’re greatly offended by the idea that anyone might be regarded as more reliable on a given topic than everyone else….

And later, just as accurately:

This is a general problem with Wikipedia: What is praised as consensus decision-making or crowd-sourcing often just means that the person with the loudest voice or the most time on his or her hands is the one who’s going to win.


  1. mclaren says

    “I react very badly when mediocrity throws a tantrum of entitlement.” — Lee Siegel
    “[The internet] turns the culture into a giant popularity contest, an expanded and never-ending version of high school. `You must sound more like everyone else than anyone else is able to sound like everyone else,’ Siegel writes. (..) `Popular culture,’ he argues, `used to draw people to what they liked. Internet culture draws people to what everyone else likes.’ Siegel makes the strong point that `what the Internet hypes as ‘connectivity’ is, in fact, its exact opposite.’ People sitting on their own in front of computer screens — this once would have been called disconnectedness or atomization. Siegel is blistering on the `surreal world of Web 2.0, where the rhetoric of democracy, freedom and access is often a fig leaf for antidemocratic and coercive rhetoric; where commercial ambitions dress up in the sheep’s clothing of humanistic values; and where, ironically, technology has turned back the clock from disinterested enjoyment of high and popular art to a primitive culture of crude, grasping self-interest.'”
    [“Log On. Tune out,” book review of Lee Siegel’s Against the Machine, New York Times, 3 February 2008.
    Once upon a time, every free-thinking person exploded with outrage when a clique of anonymous apparatchiks appointed by Stalin tried to dictate what facts and truth were by running roughshod over contrary evidence. This was called the worst kind of totalitarianism, the crucifixion of knowledge on the altar of mindless mob rule.
    Today, the same people swoon with rapturous delight when a clique of anonymous appratchiks appointed by some Wikipedia administrator try to dictate what the facts and truth are by running roughshod over contrary evidence. This is now called the democratizion of knowledge, the formation of a glorious new global “electronic brain.”
    Once upon a time, folks recognized that when a lynch mob grew beyond a couple hundred people, things got ugly. Nowadays, we’ve got hi-tech online lynch mobs with hundreds of thousands of people in ’em, and everyone seems to think it’s a second renaissance.
    …Except this time around, the new Leonardo Da Vinci goes by the handle Werewolf987 and his writings involve masterpieces like “F*** you, you f***ing f***!”
    I keep telling people that the larger the institution, the more impotent and worthless it is, because creativity comes from the individual human mind — never from a bickering screaming group. No lynch mob ever invented special relativity or painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
    I keep telling people this stuff, but it doesn’t seem to register.

  2. says

    I certainly take some of your points, mclaren.
    But specifically in regard to the issue of “amateurs” vs. “experts”, the problem I have with some of what Mr. Sanger is saying is that he speaks as if he has already successfully developed and tested a foolproof system that determines how we define the so called amateur or the so called expert. I’m not trying to dismiss the idea of having credentials, like having done a lot of research on something or whatever else, but at least in a broader sense it seems somewhat counterproductive to strengthen further any existing boundaries between experts and amateurs.
    Someone who knows little about a particular subject simply because they haven’t immersed themselves in the material isn’t necessarily incapable of making interesting observations or having some great insight into whichever issue. Having dates, places and names in your head or awards on your shelf doesn’t always lead to interesting thoughts or the ability for application.
    Or perhaps it’s simply the idea that when you see the word ‘expert’ next to somebody’s name, it can feel awkward because rather than getting to know a person and whatever knowledge they might have, and then subsequently making the determination yourself that that person knows what they’re talking about, we’re told first that such and such a person is an expert. It just seems a bit backwards.
    French philosopher Jacques Deridda, at a press conference:
    “We should not neglect the fact that some biographies, written by the people who have authority, in the ‘academy’, finally invest this authority in the book, which, for centuries sometimes, after the death of an author, represent the truth; the truth, eh. And someone, interested in biography writes a ‘life and works’ of, say, Heidigger-, well documented, apparently consistent, and…eh, it’s the only one, published under the authority of the ‘good press’… okay. And then, Heidigger’s image, Heitigger’s life, is fixed and stabilized for centuries.
    That’s why I would say that, sometimes, the one who reads a text by a philosopher, for instance a tiny paragraph, and interprets it in a rigorous, inventive and powerfully suffering fashion, is more of a real biographer than the one who knows the whole story.”
    It’s really the second paragraph that I’m after here, but I just wanted to give some sort of a context.
    KG replies: To answer for myself, I agree. I’m all for epistemic egalitarianism. The problem for me is that Wikipedia is NOT egalitarian. By its rules, any person on the planet can quote my published, peer-reviewed books to support a point – except me.

  3. mclaren says

    Shorter Jacques Derrida:
    “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” — Through the Looking Glass, Charles Dodgson, 1871
    See Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 1966.

  4. Samuel Vriezen says

    That strikes me as the Derrida caricature of academic pop culture, not the Derrida of the subtle and playful analyses of the metaphysical tradition, the critique of hospitality and of the act of forgiving, the reader of Celan and Rousseau, etc. etc. But for a critique of Humpty Dumpty and of the Hunting of the Snark, see Deleuze’s “Logique du sens”.

  5. says

    In the sciences, consensus is formed by empirical observation — i.e. agreement that the both of us are seeing the same thing. Wikipedia is a very good source for science related articles and technical/factual information for that reason.

    As you move toward the humanities, disputes and revisions become more and more common due to its subjectivity. I think out of all the fields out there, art-related Wiki articles are probably the worst in terms of its accuracy and usefulness. Why is there such a big gap between the two in terms of their credibility?

    In some ways I fee like this is a result of the art world’s own doing. I went to art school for graduate work, so I’m familiar with that attitude of “everything is subjective”, which is supposed to empower the will of individual interpretation. Well, if that’s the case, here’s a middle finger to you, Mr. Art Critic.

    The avant-garde spent much of their time questioning what was and wasn’t art — maybe it’s time we started asking ourselves what is and isn’t good? There’s no way to establish a point of reference if we don’t at least have some sort of standard to fall back on…

  6. mclaren says

    Wikipedia’s non-science articles are dismal because Wikipedia has a fundmentally mistaken notion of how we arrive at knowledge.
    Wikipedia’s failed and foolish concept is that everyone debates and arrives at a consensus which gets embodied in a single definitive reference work. This is insane. It’s as though you tried to arrive at a consensus about what to eat for dinner, and you suggested a steak and potatoes and the other person suggests bubonic plague and broken glass. What’s the middle ground — steak with a side order of broken glass?
    The way knowledge develops in the real world, as opposed to the delusional and dead-end fantasy world of wikipedia, is that different scholars produce reference works advocating their own interpretation of the evidence. Then, over time — and this is crucial — those references get cited by different numbers of other scholars, and eventually a loose general consensus develops involving a small number of reference works…which may even contradict one another in important ways. But (and this is equally important) that consensus ususally changes over time, more slowly. The general consensus over 100 years is completely different than it is today. This occurs because of new evidence, because of the advance of science, or simply because a particularly powerful personality advocates some new interpretation of the evidence with especial force.
    Wikipedia’s failed model for generating knowledge proves fatal. You get ignorant sociopathic 14-year-old screaming crazy crap and scholars citing evidence, and a definitive article is supposed to arise from these two people talking through their differences and arriving at a single coherent compromise. Doesn’t work. The compromise between “Minimalism isn’t classical music” and “Minimalism has the following definable characteristics…” turns out to be sheer lunacy. And because the 14-year-old has infinite amounts of free time to shriek insults, the scholars usually wind up walking away.
    Wikipedia doesn’t work. It was designed by community college dropouts who have no idea how scholarship actually functions. Wikipedia is the teenage programmers’ encyclopedia of pop culture, where the article on Pokemon is larger than the article on Shakespeare, and the Russian composer Alexei Ogolevets cannot be found in any entry (because he’s “not notable” even though he composed and performed groundbreaking microtonal music for 40 years) but every episode of the TV show The Brady Bunch is listed and broken down in detail.

  7. says

    Well, even the most pretentious of scholars I know will begrudgingly admit that Wiki has its usefulness — a fairly reliable source of non-controversial factual information, and it also has the ability to act as a general indicator of where the public is getting their information from. Maybe it won’t always live up to its original intensions, but since cultural matters tend to run on narratives rather than truths, it doesn’t hurt to check up on what’s happening there either way.

    Wikipedia is a good source for science related articles, but I believe that this is mostly because those who believe in the scientific method believe in knowledge as the pursuit of Truth with a capital T. They believe that there is basically only one world, and that it is our job as human beings to figure out how it works. This is in alignment with the goals of what the site is attempting to accomplish.

    I do not believe that most artists, especially contemporary artists, share this kind of dedication toward the objective concensus. It has been advancing the idea of individualized subjectivity for a very long time now, which is why most recent artworks tend to focus on the personal and sensational, rather than, say, meaningfulness or agreement. Contemporary musicians tend to obscess over how the music sounds (timbre, texture), as opposed to wanting to make a statement of some sort. (Not all, just most.)

    All I’m saying is that with the way the art world works right now, what you find on Wiki is likely to be bad because the humanities has an agenda that runs counter to the site’s intensions. Should the pendulum swing the other way, I’m fairly certain that the quality of the articles will improve greatly. Wiki doesn’t care about what we think about them, obviously, but this is something that we can actually do something about on our end if we wish to be part of that process.