The Authenticity of Online Experts
by Reid Goldsborough
One of the more curious phenomena of the online world is “Internet expertism.”
The Internet is a marvelously democratic institution, letting ordinary people air their views in public and receive responses back, not just politicians, business leaders, entertainers, journalists, and the like. It’s everybody being able to stand on a stump in Boston Common and engage in spirited oratory, everybody playing the role of Demosthenes in the Athenian Agora.
The flip side of this leveling effect is that anyone and everyone can pose as an expert. You see many nonexperts talking with what appears to be great authority all over the Internet, through Web sites, blogs, and various online discussion forums.
There’s a good deal of coverage of the issue of expertise online. The Wikipedia article on experts (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expert) points out that experts can be persons “accorded authority and status” for their skills. Or they may simply know, without necessarily having professional or academic qualifications.
One thing that’s clear is that expertise can’t be had without experience, even though experience doesn’t automatically confer expertise. In gaining expertise, practice counts. What’s more important than innate skills or intelligence are learning and improvement over an extended period of time, according to K. Anders Ericsson of the Florida State University Department of Psychology.
From the Experts on Experts
Ericsson, who could be called an expert on expertise, wrote in a paper titled “Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice” (psy.fsu.edu/faculty/ericsson/ericsson.exp.perf.html) that experience is the best predictor of expertise, but that once you reach a certain experience level, further experience is a poor predictor of further expertise.
Experts online prove their expertise through evidence and reason. But all evidence isn’t created equal. R. David San Filippo wrote a paper titled “Scientific vs Pseudoscientific Methods” (lutz-sanfilippo.com/library/general/lsfmethods.html) that sheds light on the differences between credible, scientific evidence and pseudoscientific evidence.
Among other things, he wrote: “Human sciences utilize various scientific inquiry methodologies to test or explain a hypothesis of human phenomena in order to confirm the hypothesis. The pseudoscientific method of research utilizes the testing and/or explanation of a hypothesis to support the hypothesis, not to validate its assumptions. . . . A strong commitment to one side of a dispute tends to make one overlook negative evidence and overstress the importance of positive evidence.”
In other words, pseudoexperts tend to set out to support their beliefs, ignoring evidence that’s not useful in this regard, while experts tend to test the validity of a position, examining all evidence no matter where it leads, in search of the truth.
Another characteristic of pseudoexperts is certainty and the need to be right. In an essay titled “The Need to Be Right” (thebodyworker.com/psych_need_to_be_right.htm), Julie Onofrio wrote that being right “validates our self-worth and self-confidence.”
As we’ve all seen, some people are never wrong. Unlike individuals
who have the self-assurance to say, “I was wrong,” they will argue no matter how soundly their premise or logic is refuted by others. Intellectual intransigence stifles growth as well as dialogue.
True experts know what they don’t know. “Wisest is he who knows he knows not,” wrote Plato, quoting Socrates. “To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge,” wrote Disraeli more than two millennia later. And in the 17th century, John Locke wrote about the facade of certainty and how through dialogue you can expose the hollowness of the intellectual pretension behind it. The goal, according to Locke, is the admission of the limitations of our knowledge and the difficult exchange of certainty for doubt.
You see a lot of intellectual pretension on the Internet. My own theory, and perhaps it’s a bit elitist, is that a small but lively subgroup of those online aren’t quite human. Their reasoning ability and argumentative skills are unmistakable evidence of their simian nature. What I don’t know, and this is where the uncertainty comes in that Locke spoke of, is just what type of monkey they are.
I don’t believe that they’re rhesus monkeys, spider monkeys, or other lower-functioning simians. They do have certain cognitive abilities, enough even to put words together in a sentence. But when you read their sentences in the aggregate, the sad reality is not only that these creatures don’t make sense, but also that they have no idea they don’t make sense.
There’s a possibility that they’re howler monkeys, with all the racket they make. With the belligerence you sometimes see, they may be gorillas. Or they could be chimpanzees or orangutans. I’m afraid I just don’t know enough about all this monkey business to say for sure.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.reidgoldsborough.com.