David Weinberger
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Moving beyond credentials

01 March 2014

Tom Nichols is an unhappy expert. His expertise is in social science and public policy. "When I say something on those subjects, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people." He's unhappy because experts no longer have that sort of influence. This, he argues, is a problem for democracy. He's right. But there's more to the story.

In The Federalist in January, Tom frames the discussion by stating: "Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious ‘appeals to authority,' sure signs of dreadful ‘elitism' and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a ‘real' democracy."

I myself haven't run into those quarters. Have you? I see something different but related happening. As Tom himself says, we are seeing the "collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers." But, the consequence is not the death of expertise. It is the death of a reliance upon traditional methods for acknowledging expertise.

So, in many areas and many discussions, announcing that you have an advanced degree will not automatically gain you the floor or silence those without credentials. It can even work against you if you enter a discussion waving the big stick of your degree or official position. That's not a foolish anti-elitism. It's a refusal to accept a credential in preference over evidence or argumentation. The expert's claims are more often now evaluated based upon what she says and her ability to respond to those with questions or objections.

Take an easy example. At StackOverflow.com, when someone poses a problem she'd encountered when writing software, all that counts is the quality of the code of those who respond. As is proper. It'd be absurd to respond, "Fie on all the other attempts to solve this problem! I have a Ph.D. in software engineering from MIT (or Stanford or wherever) and thus my solution is correct!" No, you are judged by your contribution, and you have to show your work. Further, if someone has an improvement or a correction, your expertise hasn't been diminished. If you continue to contribute and to play well with others so that the code gets better and better, your reputation at StackOverflow will increase. Reputations are like credentials except that reputations have to be continuously re-earned.

Or at Reddit.com, someone asked why airplanes don't have dimples to reduce drag the way golf balls do (reddit.com/r/askscience/comments/1w17qq/engineering_if_drag_is_such_an_issue_on_planes). The top-voted thread was an explanation by someone named Overunderrated who began with a "a plot of the drag coefficient versus Reynolds number for smooth and rough (i.e., dimpled) spheres," and went on to talk about non-dimensional parameters and the kinematic viscosity of fluids. Oh. Overunderrated did from there give an answer somewhere below the doctoral level.

I believed Overunderrated even though I am completely inexpert on this topic. Why? First, because s/he sounded scientifical. That, of course, is a terrible reason to believe someone, for climate change deniers and anti-vaccine brayers can sound scientifical, too. But my confidence was boosted by the extended discussion that ensued that added to the explanation. This included Overunderrated responding to a comment by acknowledging that s/he hadn't been paying attention to some of the advances on the Boeing 787-9. Rather than being defensive, Overunderrated's response was, "Oh, that's cool." I trust Overunderrated not just because what s/he says sounds good, but because s/he's talked in a public spot, willing to engage with others with humility and the enthusiasm that drives experts. I trust Overunderrated because other people who seem to know what they're talking about treat what s/he says as if (to quote Tom Nichols) it "holds more weight than [the opinions] of most other people."

Obviously, this can go very wrong. Tom Nichols' points to "the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says, in sum, that the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you're not actually dumb." We all have seen echo chambers form in which conversations seem like the one about dimpled planes but with horribly wrong premises at work. We should decry this, but not necessarily despair, since so much of what has been good about the Net has been in response to these very problems.

But we should also note what I think is the most hopeful aspect of this, present in both my examples: Expertise now extends beyond the individual experts. It occurs within networks of conversation. Networked expertise enables us to extend knowledge far beyond the brains and books of individuals. The downside, which Tom correctly raises, is the price we pay for scaling expertise.