Trust Us, We’re Experts!

Published:April 30, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

At the Atlantic, Rebecca J. Rosen writes how, in the age of Wikipedia, the idea of what constitutes an expert is being redefined. She cites a study conducted by Stanford University and Yahoo Research in which Wikipedia editors’ web browsing was tracked and their expertise judged by their online activity.

Expertise, to these researchers, isn’t who a writer is but what a writer knows, as measured by what they read online.

They write (pdf):

“We define an editor e‘s interest in a Wikipedia article a as the mean similarity between e‘s search queries and a … Then we define e‘s expertise in a as the ratio of e‘s interest in a to the average editor’s interest in aIntuitively, someone is an expert in a topic if their interest is significantly above average.” (bold added)

This may be “intuitive” to those immersed in Wikipedia’s pages, structure, and data, but it’s a new and radically distilled understanding of expertise: An expert is someone who knows something.

Here’s the problem, though. Being interested in something (even really, really, really interested) is not the same thing as knowing something. The two may correlate is scientific studies, but they are not the same thing. What’s missing—and here I’m quoting my colleague Matthew Gibson—”is the idea of critical faculty, or just the ability to take all this information one is ingesting and, based on reasoning, determine the differences between what is significant, important, and wrong. The interpretive faculty seems to be one that does not matter in this equation.”

Used to be that universities taught that, and a university degree conferred expertise. Nowadays the Internet is so good at rounding up information that mere exposure to the stuff makes you an expert. Both modes of thinking are, to put it nicely, imperfect.

My own run-in with Wikipedia “expertise” was documented by the Los Angeles Times. To that story I will add this thought: if university-minted experts are sometimes driven by their own agendas (to, say, preserve the system that makes them experts in the first place), other kinds of experts are simply driven by other kinds of agendas. In the case of my entry on Bix Beiderbecke, the experts who had no training in history or biography or editing, are hell bent on preserving a version of his life that does not disturb any number of preconceptions (that he was heterosexual, that he was incapable of felony, that drinking did not kill him). I’m willing enough to call these folks experts, but for the reasons that Matthew articulated I’m not particularly happy about it!

IMAGE: A frame from Marvel Comics’ Secret Defenders series, featuring the all-knowing Cognoscenti