By Meredith Farkas | June 12, 2007
When I read Michael Gorman’s two-part blog post (yes, I said blog post; if that isn’t the height of irony…) to respect the wisdom of the expert over the wisdom of the crowd, I thought of two people: Ayn Rand and Eric Cartman. The piece had all of Ayn Rand’s black-and-white, either-or thinking as well as her use of hyperbole. I’ll let the picture explain why I thought of Cartman.
If only Gorman could write in a more balanced manner, we would see that he brings up some interesting points. How do we know that what we’re learning (other than from experience) is true? Gorman states that learning from others (whether in a lecture, a book or even on a website) “depends on the authenticity of the connection between the teacher/researcher/author who has created a part of the human record and the person who wishes to learn from the study of that part.” If the resources we learn from just might be right, then it means that we could easily be learning things that are not true. It makes us call into question the foundations our entire worldview. Gorman blames these problems on digital maoism which denigrates the value of credentialed experts and raises up the wisdom of the crowd. This is where the hyperbole really comes in. You’ve got to read it yourself to believe it.
Digital Maoism is an unholy brew made up of the digital utopianism that hailed the Internet as the second coming of Haight-Ashbury—everyone’s tripping and it’s all free; pop sociology derived from misreading books such as James Surowiecki’s 2004 The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations; a desire to avoid individual responsibility; anti-intellectualism—the common disdain for pointy headed professors; and the corporatist “team” mentality that infests much modern management theory. Consider, for example, the computer company’s TV advertisement that shows a tweedy professor trying to explain the difficulties of publishing and being deflated by a student who explains that, because of computers, everything can be published and we are all authors now.
The main point where I disagree with Gorman is his idea that the expert is necessarily to be trusted. How many things have now been disproved that were once seen as scientific fact? How many scientific studies get published where it’s found that the data was fudged? In the sciences, it’s much easier to gauge the truth of something when all of the evidence is present. In most of the hard sciences, scientific observation leads to the truth. While our understanding of things may change, it’s usually because science has come up with better ways of observing nature. But even in the hard sciences, the truths we hold to be evident at one point are sometimes proven false upon later examination. Look at how forensic science has changed. Things that we once thought proved guilt or innocence (such as microscopic hair comparison) are now shown to be completely faulty in light of DNA analysis. Reality changes over time. Even so, science is not as open to interpretation as the social sciences.
I was a history major in college, and the course I took on historiography opened my eyes to the importance of being critical even of what was written by an expert. I had never thought much about what I read and accepted it all as fact. Then I read Hitler’s Willing Executioners, in which Daniel Goldhagen argued that ordinary German citizens were more active supporters of the Holocaust than was previously believed. I remember my father read that book and accepted it all. After all, there were references, there was evidence, he made a convincing argument. My dad was angry at the German people after reading this book. In my historiography class, I also read A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth which also used historical facts to refute the claims made in Hitler’s Willing Executioners. So who are we to believe? The authors of both books have doctorates from prestigious Universities. Goldhagen’s doctoral dissertation, on which the book is based, was even given a prestigious award by the American Political Science Association. Yet, Goldhagen’s book is almost universally reviled by historians who see it as poor scholarship and a misrepresentation of facts. And yet, isn’t Goldhagen an expert?
I agree with Gorman that the crowd isn’t always right, but neither is the expert. And sometimes the crowd does know more, as you can easily see when it comes to sharing knowledge in reference wikis and conference wikis. There is a lot of great knowledge being shared on the Web. And there is a lot of garbage. A lot of untruths. We need to teach people how to discern the difference, not to pretend that one form of knowledge sharing is definitively right and one is definitively wrong.
The fact of the matter is, we do not teach students to think critically. Maybe we do to some extent in college, but K-12 is about following rules and memorizing facts. It’s about obedience to authority. We are told what to read and what to think. It is much easier to tell a student what is a good source and what is a bad source than it is to teach them the skills they need to make that decision themselves. A commenter referring to Hitler’s Willing Executioners in Amazon wrote “this book is the reason why you should start checking the footnotes if you didn’t before. You cannot take people’s research for granted.” Well said. Experts have biases. Experts will twist the evidence to make it support their thesis. Telling students that they can’t trust the Wikipedia because it was created by a lot of people but they can trust a book that was created by an expert who may have had his/her own agenda is doing them a grave disservice. We need to teach young people how to question authority. How to critique any source. How to play detective. They shouldn’t go on believing that everything written by an expert and published by a reputable organization is right and anything they find on the Web probably isn’t.
Blind respect for authority has led to a lot of terrible things and the questioning of authority has led to many advances. We should never blindly trust authority. I see the questioning of doctors to be a good thing (which I see as being very different than questioning scientific fact). When I was a psychotherapist, there was one psychiatrist who used to diagnose a lot of people with narcolepsy, which is a rather unusual ailment. He would often put kids on three or more psychotropic drugs right after his first visit with them. Whenever one of my clients (all kids) had an evaluation with him, I would always come along because, more often than not, the kids’ mothers would think that the word of a doctor is like the word of God. I remember this guy asking my client if he’s sleepy during the day and if he falls asleep in school. He was about to diagnose the kid with narcolepsy when I said “you didn’t ask him if he has trouble falling asleep at night.” The child had problems sleeping at night and that’s why he was so sleepy during the day. Insomnia and narcolepsy are two very different diagnoses and this ten year old was about to get prescribed narcolepsy medication because this doctor had a bad case of confirmation bias.
It’s bizarre to me that Gorman blames Web 2.0 for ideas such as intelligent design, biblical literalism and denial of global warming. To me, that is a result of people uncritically accepting the word of the people they respect as experts (be it George Bush or their religious leader), and not listening to more than one channel of information. That is something to be concerned about and it’s something I think most of us have issues with. Too often, we all only listen to opinions that confirm our worldview. We subscribe to the blogs that we agree with. We read or watch our liberal/conservative news depending on our political leanings. Narrowcasting and the echo chamber really are things to be aware of and concerned about. But I see that less as a problem with Web 2.0 and more of a problem with our society and people who don’t want to be challenged or think critically. We all should be casting a wide net when it comes to where we are getting our information from. I’m not saying that I’m going to start watching Fox News, but I think I would probably be well-served if I didn’t only get my news from NPR.
I think Web 2.0 has opened up new channels for dialog and learning. I can’t tell you how much I have learned from my peers in this profession through conversations, blog posts, wikis, instant messaging and other means. It’s a beautiful thing. What I thought was so amazing about Five Weeks to a Social Library was its constructivist foundation. We got rid of the notion of the expert and created an environment where people could learn from their peers and from a variety of types of resources. The six organizers weren’t teachers, we were facilitators. They were just as likely to get a good idea from us as they were to get a good idea from one of their classmates. It’s a very different way of thinking about teaching and learning and one that is both scary and liberating for the traditional teacher. Web 2.0 has also brought so many talented people to our attention whom we never would have known about before. And while collaborative tools like the Wikipedia do create resources that reflect the knowledge of hundreds, thousands or even millions of people, they also allow every individual to contribute. The reason I created the Library Success Wiki was because I knew there were so many success stories that weren’t being written up in the professional literature. I wasn’t trying to subvert the professional literature; I was trying to supplement it.
And I think that’s what Gorman fails to understand; that there can be both the professional literature created by the “expert” and the literature created by the “amateur” or the crowd. It’s not an either-or proposition. Whenever I give a talk and mention the idea of tagging in the catalog, I always get asked “you want to replace Library of Congress Subject Headings with user-generated tags?” Of course not! Why can’t both methods exist side-by-side? People can still search for subject headings or they can search or browse tags.
I think it’s very unfortunate that Michael Gorman chooses to express himself the way he does. He is obviously a very intelligent man who has contributed a great deal to the profession. And he brings up many interesting questions, though in a way that often leads people to discount them entirely. It’s not just about being an expert that makes people take something from what you write; it’s the way you express yourself. And Gorman sadly comes off as someone who is deathly afraid of being pulled off his pedestal as the “sage on the stage.” He’s proven he’s not afraid of technology; he’s afraid of the amateur. But maybe, Mr. Gorman, the measure of an expert isn’t only that they have the right letters after their name.
Honestly, though, the thing that makes me most wary of the idea of the “expert” is the fact that I am sometimes called one. I can be wrong. I can give bad advice at times. I’m happy to help people, but the idea that something I say is taken as the gospel is a little bit scary to me. Just because I, or someone else, may know more about a certain topic than you do does not mean that we have all the answers.
But, without a PhD, perhaps I’m not really qualified to make any of these judgments.