Deferring to the experts

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Crystal wordprocessing.png This is an essay. It expresses the opinions and ideas of some wikimedians or Meta-Wiki users, but may not have wide support. This is not policy on the Meta-Wiki, but it may be a policy or guideline on other Wikimedia projects. Feel free to update this page as needed, or use the discussion page to propose major changes.

January 3, 2002, 1:26 PM -- A very quick column here. I am curious about your opinion, and whether my attitude on an issue is generally shared.

On the one hand, I think it is a grand thing that Wikipedia is so open. That explains Wikipedia's growth and even, to some extent, its quality (many editors). It's important that we feel we can edit any article--within, of course, the general constraints of Wikipedia's community norms, as hopefully codified on the "Wikipedia policy" page. If an expert in some subject comes along and wants to own an article and prevent others from working on it, so much the worse for the expert (since he'd just be wrong about Wikipedia policy) and for us (since he won't contribute to the project).

On the other hand, I think most of us believe that actual experts, when talking about their areas of expertise, generally have little patience with nonexperts holding forth at any length, and even less patience for conversation and debate with nonexperts. They have, they think--and they're probably right--better things to do with their time. They believe their training and knowledge entitles them to be treated with particular respect, at least when they are writing about their area of expertise, and at least by people who do not have their expertise. And most of us accord them that respect, and think that others ought to do so.

So, I think there is a natural tension between, on the one hand, Wikipedia's openness, and on the other hand, the fact that most of us think we should politely defer to experts when they're writing about their areas of expertise.

But what about those uncomfortable cases in which the expert also has little respect for some essential aspect of Wikipedia policy, or is a "rogue expert"--e.g., when he insists on reporting on his own research (when it is not very important, or when other research is woefully underrepresented), or when he uses Wikipedia to grind his own ax (in violation of the neutrality policy)?

My view is that in this sort of case, it would be ideal (though we shouldn't expect to live up to the ideal always) if we would make a special point to treat the rogue expert with respect--not descending to anger, coldness, rage, condescension, etc.--while taking care to present those points of Wikipedia's policy that the rogue expert is violating in their best light. The goal is to keep the expert on board while making a convert to the policy. We might not be able to do either--but it's worth a try.

Tough call, Larry...just to play devil's advocate, what if the rogue expert is an expert in something that is at best a pseudoscience? I agree that politeness is important, but i think some of the recent "rogues" have been putting out research that really isn't -- it's just an attempt to force through an acceptance of a rant.
In general, though, I think that you're right. I also hope that the general feeling out there is that even experts can still learn...it's the balance that I think is so difficult to find. This difficulty is compounded when you start to think about the fact that people who tend to achieve real expertise in something tend to learn other things equally well, because they've mastered the learning process. Thre are people working on the site who are bona fide experts in several fields -- and still they can't convince the axe grinders. I think where people get frustrated is not so much in a lack of respect for an expert opinion (although that's part of it), as the fact that there are a huge number of discussions that turn on appropriate sources and methodology -- there seems to be a huge lack of respect for actual evidence, the use of legitimate sources, knowledge of current trends, and (ack!) scholarship. Most of the people who have acquired their expertise via an academic career are USED to people arguing with, criticizing, and correcting them, for Pete's sake! I don't think it's the argument, it's the lack of respect for the work put into getting there.
There also seems to be a trend of people writing articles, not with supporting evidence, but with the very disrespectful attitude of "prove me wrong -- you find the evidence, if you disagree." Of course, this usually comes from rogue experts, so....I guess I've come full circle ;-)
Anyway, that's how I see it, but take it with a grain of salt, because I'm still pretty disillusioned. I think you're absolutely right in that there needs to be more of a spirit of true collegiality and respect, or we'll lose valuable people. But I also think there should be some mechanism to prevent reversion wars and the like -- I just don't know how that would work without making LS look like a dictator in some people's eyes, or adding fuel to the idea that there are cliques and cabals at work.
You can't force people to know their neighbors -- but maybe you could encourage it through a pop-up page for first-timers that actually forces (in a programming sense) a series of guideline screens before allowing an edit. It wouldn't appear if the user has logged in (after the first time). Also, I think that it would be great to encourage people to put more about themselves (or at least their interests) on their pages -- that way, a person could check out where the other wikipedian is coming from BEFORE jumping all over them. Lordy -- run on and on and on again... sorry all, it's a touchy point -- that's why I passed the salt! JHK

I think the key point in dealing with academic experts is a) if they do demonstrate expert knowledge in a topic, not try to deny it, but b) point out that Wikipedia is not the forum for axe-grinding or debating contemporary research. If they are unable or unwilling to do so, what kind of academic experts are they, anyway? --Robert Merkel


This is not directly related to the debate, but I'd like to comment on a couple of the sentences above.

"I think most of us believe that actual experts, when talking about their areas of expertise, generally have little patience with nonexperts holding forth at any length, and even less patience for conversation and debate with nonexperts. They have, they think--and they're probably right--better things to do with their time."

I beg to disagree with the last sentence. I believe perhaps the most important aspect of Wikipedia in terms of long-term usefulness is to make knowledge accessible to learners who want it. For this to become a reality it is necessary that experts acquire (through theory and practice) skills for communicating to a larger public. This would include, for instance, learning how to explain in simple terms why laymen's preconceptions or alternative theories are considered inadequate. So, with an eye towards favoring knowledge propagation, it seems to me that (respectful!) dialogue with nonexperts is a very good thing for an expert to do with his time, especially if the dialogue becomes public record, so that potentially many people can benefit from it. --Seb


Seb, you've got a good point. If I, a nonexpert about (for example) bioinformatics, were to read an article about bioinformatics and find a number of points confusing, that could be made clear to me, conversation about that with a bioinformatics expert would be very useful (it would result in an improved article). So I'd have to limit my claim to one about conversation and debate with nonexperts about the merits and accuracy of various views in their area of expertise--as long as we can put the very legitimate concerns about bias aside for the moment. Suppose a student who has read a little about epistemic circularity as part of their first class in epistemology comes along and wants to revise my (as yet unwritten!) article on that subject. When I point out numerous errors in the revisions, I (who could probably be considered an expert about epistemic circularity) should not be expected to spend inordinate amounts of time arguing with the student--again, as long as I am not pushing my own idiosyncratic view of epistemic circularity.

The fact that people of all levels of knowledge about many different subjects are working together more or less as equals on the project does not mean all of their opinions on all subjects are of equal weight. If my old dissertation adviser, an expert on George Berkeley, shows up and points out that Berkeley believed such-and-such, then, unless we've got good reason to dispute this, we should just nod our virtual heads in agreement (for now). This is just common sense, but sometimes common sense needs to be spelled out! --Larry_Sanger