Wednesday, January 17, 2007

 

Collaboration and expertise

Abhijit, in the comment area to my earlier post, made a comment that touches on something I've been meaning to write about. He pointed out that his earlier essay about collaborative (to use the non-political term we've agreed to ;-) work "was to ponder on whether Wikipedia can be suitable for all kinds of subjects. It was more from a personal perspective rather than a social. A lot of people have tried to discourage Wikipedia because of the inaccuracy in some cases."

One thing I have noticed about Wikipedia, and the more I ponder it the more I am convinced that it is a valid observation: Wikipedia's coverage of topics reflects, in many ways, society's interest and knowledge in those same topics. Wikipedia (if one could talk about it as a force, and not as a collection of people) can't force its contributors to work in areas or on topics they aren't interested in. The reason why Wikipedia's coverage of topics like, say, Star Wars or Harry Potter is far more comprehensive than, say, 19th century American novelists, is that there are more people interested in those two areas than in the last one: and even if Wikipedia's selection of volunteers were somehow unrepresentative of the larger society, the presence of so many people familiar with Stars Wars and Harry Potter means that errors in those topics are caught and fixed much faster than errors about 19th century novelists.

So on one axis, Wikipedia's coverage and amount of detail is drawn into areas where the knowledge of its audience is rich. Yet the corollary is also true: Wikipedia's coverage and depth of certain areas will rarely be richer than what could be found in a adequately-stocked library. One of the overlooked weaknesses in man's accumulation of knowledge is that the number of professional experts -- academics, researchers in business, serious amateurs -- are thinner on the ground than many people suspect. I learned this many years ago from reading Howard Ensign Evans' Life on a Little-known Planet, a book which appears at first is about insects but further reading reveals is an extended meditation on just how little we actually know about topics we think we know a lot about -- in this case, the science of insects.

One telling point is when Evans mentions that he's "something of an specialist on the family Bethylidae" -- just one group of the many kinds of parasitic wasps. He then admits that "to be a specialist on these wasps really is not much of a distinction; only one other person in the world is actively working on the group." Further, Evans mentions another family -- Dryinidae -- which at the time he was writing (1968) lacked "a single authority in the world".

Larry Sanger is well-known for his criticism of Wikipedia, that it should be written, either partially or mostly, by experts. So if we were to embrace his attitude, and all of the experts in the world were to then discontinue their current projects and focus their efforts to review and improve Wikipedia's content, their combined efforts would fail to improve more than a small portion of the whole.

This hypothetical solution does not take into consideration the fact that experts disagree with one another, and sometimes let their emotions and biasses override their reasoned judgements. One serious example of this was the effect that one expert -- J. Eric Thompson -- had on preventing the successful translation of written Mayan inscriptions. Michael D. Coe, Breaking the Maya Code (published in 1992) tells the story. Because the field was so small, and because Thompson's influence was so pervasive, the first serious solutions only came outside of the mainstream of Mayan studies -- from Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov, a graduate student at Moscow University, inside the Stalin-era Soviet Union. Even then, only after Thompson died was Knorosov's pioneering work built upon, and only in the last few decades have these inscriptions once again been understood.

Please note: Wikipedia would not have been able to prevent this, even if it had existed 30 or 40 years ago. We merely try to report the facts, and offer starting points for further research. At best, maybe Knorosov's work could have been mentioned in the appropriate article with a cite -- but it would still take a brave soul to buck the established opinion on the matter.

And as a further note, if Wikipedia had the undivided attention of the world's experts, there are some articles they should pay attention to before others. For example, I do not need an expert on Ethiopia like Richard Pankhurst or Donald Levine to write the series of articles on woredas that I am working on -- or someone at the Ethiopian Central Statistical Agency -- although I welcome (if not beg for) their opinions and advice on any or all of them. An amateur like me is competent enough to write them; I would prefer that they write articles on topics I feel intimidated by, such as the history of slavery in Ethiopia, or the history of 19th century Ethiopia -- complex subjects where their expertise is badly needed.

Let me close by paraphrasing Krishna's pregnant comment once again: "The irony about Wikipedia is that its greatness can not exist without its flaws. If you try to remove one, the other goes too." What makes Wikipedia valuable is that it accepts no appeals to authority; ex cathedra statements are not accepted. In many ways, this refusal to acknowledge expertise is a good thing; however, in many ways it is a bad thing. Belief in Wikipedia means that one believes that the good outweighs the bad with this refusal. And the policy of ignore all rules means that we are not dogmatic about this refusal.

Geoff

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