Tag Archives: authority

Shirky FTW!

Clay Shirkey with a brilliant, well-reasoned reply to Gorman, for the win!

He even makes the same analogy I did regarding translations of the Bible. 🙂

If Gorman were looking at Web 2.0 and wondering how print culture could aspire to that level of accessibility, he would be doing something to bridge the gap he laments. Instead, he insists that the historical mediators of access “…promote intellectual development by exercising judgment and expertise to make the task of the seeker of knowledge easier.” This is the argument Catholic priests made to the operators of printing presses against publishing translations of the Bible — the laity shouldn’t have direct access to the source material, because they won’t understand it properly without us. Gorman offers no hint as to why direct access was an improvement when created by the printing press then but a degradation when created by the computer. Despite the high-minded tone, Gorman’s ultimate sentiment is no different from that of everyone from music executives to newspaper publishers: Old revolutions good, new revolutions bad.

More excellent responses at:

UPDATE: Clay Shirky (and Gorman by association) makes BoingBoing.

Gorman, again


Karen Schneider twittered the latest Michael Gorman insanity, written on (no surprise here) the Britannica Blog. Long time readers of this blog might remember that I’ve publicly disagreed with Gorman on a number of things, and this latest rant isn’t any different.

In Web 2.0: The Sleep of Reason, Gorman rambles over the landscape of authority, truth, and web 2.0 like a lost puppy, not quite sure where he’s supposed to be going, but sure he has a destination. And that destination is TRUTH. I believe that he has no idea what he is talking about re: Web 2.0, and that his article clearly illustrates the significance of his misunderstanding.

Let’s begin with some examinations of his quotes, shall we? The opening paragraph is a doozy:

The life of the mind in the age of Web 2.0 suffers, in many ways, from an increase in credulity and an associated flight from expertise. Bloggers are called “citizen journalists”; alternatives to Western medicine are increasingly popular, though we can thank our stars there is no discernable “citizen surgeon” movement; millions of Americans are believers in Biblical inerrancy—the belief that every word in the Bible is both true and the literal word of God, something that, among other things, pits faith against carbon dating; and, scientific truths on such matters as medical research, accepted by all mainstream scientists, are rejected by substantial numbers of citizens and many in politics.

I suppose we’d be better off, Michael, if journalists were required to get a governmental approval pass before they could write? The US has a long history of “citizen journalism”…if Thomas Paine were alive today, he’d have a blog.

And to equate the social movement inherent in Web 2.0 with creationism and alternative medicine is not only a category mistake of the largest sort, it is also just insane. It isn’t that there is a “flight from expertise”, Mike…it’s that we are re-defining “expert”. You sound like the Catholic loyalists railing against the Protestant movement…only the priests are allowed to talk to God! Bibles will only be printed in Latin!

The fact that information changes forms or source has no effect on its Truth. Truth judgments arise because the information itself is reflective of the world at large, testable and reproducible in the case of claims about the world (scientific claims) and verifiable in the case of claims about information itself. The goddamn source of the information has absolutely no bearing on the truth of it. None. Zero. Nada. Ziltch.

Ah, but Mike has a bit about that:

Print does not necessarily bestow authenticity, and an increasing number of digital resources do not, by themselves, reflect an increase in expertise. The task before us is to extend into the digital world the virtues of authenticity, expertise, and scholarly apparatus that have evolved over the 500 years of print, virtues often absent in the manuscript age that preceded print.

The reason that the “scholarly apparatus” evolved isn’t because of some desire to desperately produce only the best knowledge…it evolved because of economic pressures. In print, not everything can exist. Print costs money, and in the world of the academic the things we put our financial faith in, mostly, are things that pass the “scholarly test” of peer review. We have to have some limiting process because there is only so much money, NOT because the process itself is holy.

In the digital world, money is often the least of the concerns of information production. That simply means that we have to critically examine each piece of information as it lies with the web of knowledge, and draw coherence lines between the pieces. But we don’t want to get bogged down in the old way of doing things just because it worked in print. Digital is different, and demands different processes and analysis.

The structures of scholarship and learning are based on respect for individuality and the authentic expression of individual personalities. The person who creates knowledge or literature matters as much as the knowledge or the literature itself. The manner in which that individual expresses knowledge matters too.

Ummm…no? After holding up the Scientific Method so often in his article, you’d think he’d understand it a bit more. The point of the scientific method is to eliminate the person and make it about the knowledge, writ pure. The person does not matter, can not matter when it comes to the expression of the knowledge…keep in mind, we aren’t talking about the native intelligence necessary to invent or have insight. We’re talking about the information itself.

This is a rambling, nearly incoherent piece of writing when you try to connect logical lines between his arguments. He moves from comparing Web 2.0 to Creationism, to how his research on Goya done via print is the best way to do it, to comparisons between Web 2.0 and Maoism, to finally accusations of antihumanism.

I can’t decide if the whole article is best described as a Straw Man, Questionable Cause, or if it’s just one enormous fallacy of Appeal to Authority (yes, Virginia, that is a faulty method of thinking).

And let’s not ignore the final indignity: this is an essay decrying Web 2.0 posted on a blog, with multiple RSS feeds, and a Share This section for adding it to del.icio.us, Furl, Reddit, and Digg.

Irony, much?

Goodbye, Mahalo

A new “search engine” went live this week calling itself Mahalo. How does it distinguish itself from the big guns of search (Google, Yahoo, Ask, MSN)?

Mahalo is the world’s first human-powered search engine powered by an enthusiastic and energetic group of Guides. Our Guides spend their days searching, filtering out spam, and hand-crafting the best search results possible. If they haven’t yet built a search result, you can request that search result. You can also suggest links for any of our search results.

Yep, they are human-indexing the web! Disregarding the “first human-powered search engine” bit, since they aren’t a search engine (they appear to be an index, with a search on top) and they clearly aren’t the first in any case (Yahoo started out exactly the same way, and the Librarian’s Internet Index is the same thing done by information professionals).

I wonder what Weinberger might think of their attempt?

In their FAQ, they handily tell you they selection criteria. Here’s the couple that stood out to me:

Sites they will not link to:

… sites of unknown origin (i.e. we cannot establish who operates the site).
… sites which have adult content or hate speech.

Establishment of “who operates” the site on the Internet? Really? Does a nom de plume count? How about a site whose authors must remain anonymous for political reasons? And that’s setting aside the longstanding legal precedent that anonymity in speech is a necessary for free speech. (see: McIntyre v. Ohio or Talley v. California)

Restricting Adult Content and Hate Speech makes it sound like those are two very clear categories. I’m always wary of groups who feel like they should be the ones making content decisions…one of the reasons I’m so happy to be a librarian.

They will link to:

… sites that are considered authorities in their field (i.e. Edmunds for autos, Engadget for consumer electronics, and the New York Times for news).

I swear on a stack of pancakes, I will get off my ass this year and write that article that’s been rattling around in my head about how Authority as a criteria for ANYTHING is old and busted.

More on authority

I just had to laugh at one of the more recent posts on the ACRLblog about questioning the standard spiel of authority in Information Literacy instruction. Mark Meola says:

This is very simple advice yet I seldom see it recommended outright in the checklists. It’s a tricky balancing act, but in our drumbeat for students to “use authoritative sources” let’s not forget to recommend questioning authority.

I seem to remember someone talking about it at length over the course of the last few years.

Indeed, that is the focus of an entire class that I do, using the sources on this slide (also, up for many years).

Information evaluation without reliance on authority is being taught, and I maintain it is the way it should be taught. Authority is the thing we used to have to use as an explanation, back when actual verification wasn’t possible except for those willing to spend weeks/months/years doing so. We relied on the magical word “authority” in the same way we relied on phlogiston and ether. And just like those, authority is just an explanatory shortcut that is no longer needed.

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.

Scholarly Publication

Here’s a series of questions for anyone reading this: Was my Master’s Paper published? Would you consider my paper scholarly? How would you cite Perils of Strong Copyright? What do you think would increase the “authority” or “respectibility” of Perils? Does something need to be published in a peer-reviewed journal? Why or why not? Does the fact that 3000 people seem interested in it make a difference?

These are questions that I am currently wrestling with…the whole framework of scholarly publication is flawed, I think. Not only in the cost/access sense of the world (although I think my feelings on that are clear), but also in the judgement of what counts.