More mistakes with authority…

It was brought to my attention today by uber-librarian Catherine Pellegrino that there has been a bit of a dust up regarding authority in regards to the Flu Wiki. David Mattison over at The Ten Thousand Year Blog has called into issue whether or not the information in the Flu Wiki is trustworthy/true/factual/valid. David says:

…I still question the validity, accountability and transparency of their exercise. As to their leadership, who are the editors and what expertise to this subject do they bring? The only person associated with this wiki who’s chosen to reveal anything about herself is the publisher Melanie Mattson. Why are editors DemFromCT, Revere and Cassandra still hiding behind e-mail addresses?

And, my favorite bit:

But would you trust your life to information on a wiki? How could you guarantee that the information you’re reading is authentic and trustworthy even if the people are identified? How do we know these people are who they say they are? This is one of the most problematic areas with information from the Internet, whether you can trust it. A wiki simply compounds this issue to the point where the information ceases to be of value unless you yourself happen to know that it’s true.

My question would be: Do you trust your life to the information from any single doctor? If your physician told you that you had an inoperable tumor and 1 month to live, I’d be willing to bet that you’d probably get a second opinion. Why? Because, as I’ve said so many times in the past, no single source of information should be trusted.

In one of his comments on a comment, David says:

Again, the questions of legitimacy, accountability and authority all come to mind, and are concepts librarians and other information professionals stress when it comes to accepting information on the Internet.

Speak for yourself! As one of those librarians and information professionals, I certainly do not stress authority as it pertains to accepting information on the Internet. Actually, I think that Melanie is much closer to the root of the matter when she says:

We’ve established our credentials with the quality of the information. I spent the day watching PhD scientists and MDs making complete asses of themselves all over the blogosphere. The credential is the quality.

The credential IS in the quality of the information..and in the ability to check sources of said information. This is, I believe and will argue, the key advantage to a wiki structure in judging its infmormation quality. The ability to link out from the wiki to other sources builds a web of information that is stronger than any single “authoritative” source could ever be. It is this coherent web of information that lends credence to any single piece of information on the site, and allows a judgement of truth/validity to be made. Not “does the writer have a PhD?” Not “is this published by a reputable source?” Those questions give false support to facts…this is why, as scholars, we insist on a bibliography. We want to be able to verify the information for ourselves, and track back towards the originating facts.

This is part of the intrinsic nature of the web…the ability to cross link information into supporting webs of information. This is what makes the Internet such an amazing source. Not whether the person posting a page is an expert, but the ability to quickly and easily check other pages on the subject and determine if the person has support for their position. This is the key to judging information in the current age. In the age of print, it wasn’t easily done..scholars spent years traveling from library to library, painfully piecing together fragments of material in hopes of building a case. Now the case is built for you, because of the very nature of the information structure. This is something that I feel strongly that librarians and information specialists will have to come to accept if we are to stay abreast of the new, collaborative, bottom-up sorts of information sources that will be the rule, and not the exception, very soon.

11 thoughts on “More mistakes with authority…

  1. Thanks for your critique Jason. I’m glad you gave people the links. Funny how you didn’t pick up on DemFromCT’s first comment: “OTOH, if there were such a site run by, let’s say, CDC, we wouldn’t need a Flu Wiki. it is precisely because CDC does not that we do. We’ll be happy to take Flu Wiki off-line when a comparable official or authoritative source appears. In the meantime, Flu Wiki’s links page will take you to offical resources, experts, etc.” So obviously even one of the contributors recognizes that there’s a distinction between this grassroots effort and an “authoritative source”. So much for not appealing to authority when you need to. As far as checking information on the Flu Wiki, have you actually examined some of its pages and tried to check or verify the information? Can you imagine in an actual pandemic people visiting this site and doing cross-checking of the information? Try this page http://www.fluwikie.com/index.php?n=Consequences.Vaccines and look in the block at the bottom under Pregnant Women. Do you see any sources cited for this information? There’s a lot to be said for “authority” and authoritative information, and yes, it is found on the Internet. There’s a big difference between an appeal to authority and learning how to distinguish what’s authoritative and what’s worthless information. One criterion is who or what is making the claim or stating the “fact”. Would you believe information on a university Web site authored by an evolutionary biologist over a Creationist or an Intelligent Design Web site? I’ve said I appreciate and admire the work the Flu Wiki people are doing, but they’ve given no one any reason to trust the information that’s there.

  2. Sometimes I wonder (read: worry) whether people are simply believers and non-believers when it comes to wikis, blogs and similar technologies.

    First, regarding your comment that “even one of the contributors recognizes that there’s a distinction between this grassroots effort and an ‘authoritative source’,” I think the distinction they’re pointing out is that the hypothetical “authoritative source” does not exist—or is not acting quickly, efficiently, and transparently enough to provide information. I emphasize transparency because I think that’s one of the primary benefits of a wiki. You man not know who people are in real life, but you can see every revision they’ve made and judge them thusly. We are not often accorded the same liberty when it comes to traditional authority. (Here I’m thinking Supreme Court Justice nominations, etc)

    To answer the question, “Do you see any sources cited for this information?” I would answer that with a question: Did you leave a comment to that effect? Did you go find a source and add it to the wiki? (As of my leaving this comment, that answer is no)

    See that’s the difference (between the believers and the non). Traditional source authority creates a sort of passivity in people to respect “authority”. Since you’re used to obeying authority, your first instinct isn’t “I should fix this.”

    I liken this participatory authority to voting in our presidential elections. You’ve got to believe that your individual vote, though practically meaningless, contributes to something much bigger, en masse. That’s the authority, or more accurately the quality of a wiki. You’ve got a step back and see how every little change and contribution achieves a collective truth, and the authority is captured in the transparent access to the hundreds or thousands of revisions.

    The truth is that you, David, know something, and the something you know is that the section on Pregnant Women needs a source. So you’re faced with several options:

    1) Do nothing
    2) Do nothing and complain about lack of authority (which inadvertently may bring attention to the flaw which someone else will fix)
    3) Fix the problem yourself

    Finally your comment “they’ve given no one any reason to trust the information that’s there” I would refute by saying, “Yes they have, the reason they’ve given us to trust the information is that they’ve put together a wiki”—such that qualified people, yourself included (based, frighteningly I know, on self-appraisal), can improve the information at any instant, without any “red tape”—and we can all track the changes, correct mistakes, etc.

  3. The funny thing is that as much as we hem and haw about the authority of these newfangled wikis, we forget that traditional authority is not without its flaws. I’m reminded of a *gasp* wikipedia article I read the other day on the Matthew Effect:

    In sociology, Matthew effect was a term coined by Robert K. Merton to describe how, among other things, eminent scientists will often get more credit than a comparatively unknown researcher even if their work is similar; it also means that credit will usually be given to researchers that are already famous: for example, a prize will almost always be awarded to the most senior researcher involved in a project, even if all the work was done by a graduate student.

  4. Finally a question for my librarian friends: we talk of [traditional] authority as if it can be measured. But my understanding is that it’s much more in line with the Matthew effect above, in other words, it’s essentially subjective. Is that the case? Do you measure or compare the authority in some kind of empirical way?

  5. Thanks for this discussion. I’m one of the Flu Wiki editors that commented on David’s blog. I consider this a friendly dust-up… all parties are thereby educated. The authority question is a good one in terms of philosophical and practical approaches.

    The philosophical: Argumentum Ad Verecundiam is a well-known logical error.

    The practical: when authoritative sources differ (e.g. different state health departments have varying advice for health providers on stockpiling Tamiflu), is it not best to catalogue the advice and then consider on the differences? Which ultimate authority does one refer to? An educated reader ought to be capable of taking that information to their own provider and be able to have an intelligent discussion, thereby coming to a tentative conclusion, which might change as more data becomes available.

    That doesn’t make the wiki an authoritative source… or does it, if it has more data than a local health department web site? How would you characterize a health library vs a doctor’s office, and is that a proper analogy? In either case, the striving for authority is not the goal… it’s dissemination of information. How it’s used is up to the user. But this is not done in a vacuum. Health departments use the wiki, too. It’s an easy way to keep track of what everyone else is doing.

    Reviewing Kapoun’s criteria, we strive for all of the above. What we achieve is up to others to evaluate; criticism is welcomed, not shunned. In fact, input is even more welcomed. It’s a wiki, after all.

    Cheers!

  6. Admittedly many games such as Halo, Final Fantasy, and Zelda (100 hours!) have long or infinite gameplay, but I think they’re the exception and not the rule.

    Alex

  7. Sometimes I wonder (read: worry) whether people are simply believers and non-believers when it comes to wikis, blogs and similar technologies.First, regarding your comment that “even one of the contributors recognizes that there's a distinction between this grassroots effort and an 'authoritative source',” I think the distinction they're pointing out is that the hypothetical “authoritative source” does not exist—or is not acting quickly, efficiently, and transparently enough to provide information. I emphasize transparency because I think that's one of the primary benefits of a wiki. You man not know who people are in real life, but you can see every revision they've made and judge them thusly. We are not often accorded the same liberty when it comes to traditional authority. (Here I'm thinking Supreme Court Justice nominations, etc)To answer the question, “Do you see any sources cited for this information?” I would answer that with a question: Did you leave a comment to that effect? Did you go find a source and add it to the wiki? (As of my leaving this comment, that answer is no)See that's the difference (between the believers and the non). Traditional source authority creates a sort of passivity in people to respect “authority”. Since you're used to obeying authority, your first instinct isn't “I should fix this.” I liken this participatory authority to voting in our presidential elections. You've got to believe that your individual vote, though practically meaningless, contributes to something much bigger, en masse. That's the authority, or more accurately the quality of a wiki. You've got a step back and see how every little change and contribution achieves a collective truth, and the authority is captured in the transparent access to the hundreds or thousands of revisions.The truth is that you, David, know something, and the something you know is that the section on Pregnant Women needs a source. So you're faced with several options:1) Do nothing2) Do nothing and complain about lack of authority (which inadvertently may bring attention to the flaw which someone else will fix)3) Fix the problem yourselfFinally your comment “they've given no one any reason to trust the information that's there” I would refute by saying, “Yes they have, the reason they've given us to trust the information is that they've put together a wiki”—such that qualified people, yourself included (based, frighteningly I know, on self-appraisal), can improve the information at any instant, without any “red tape”—and we can all track the changes, correct mistakes, etc.

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