I experienced a bit of manual trackback yesterday, as I followed a trail of links that started with this post from BoingBoing, to this op-ed by Larry Sanger, and finally to this response by Clay Shirky.

Shirky writes about expertise, and Sanger would have us believe that the wikipedia crew thinks about expertise as if it were a bad thing. Not just with a lack of respect, what Sanger refers to as anti-elitism, but as if expertise were actually a problem, a social ill for which wikipedia is the cure. Which I thought was strange, in light of BoingBoing’s comment about Shirky is that he is “himself an academic.” Curious, I read his bio: he’s an adjunct professor, which of course means that he is not a professional academic but rather an academic consultant, for lack of a better way of putting it. Of course merely pointing this out is likely to get me labelled as an elitist, especially as I am a professional academic myself. But look, if you’re a teacher, it helps if you actually know something about your subject… which is to say, have expertise. I pity Shirky’ students. Heavens knows that not all experts are good teachers, and by the same token not all experts are likely to be good contributors to a reference work. But to not respect the fact that someone else knows more than you about something, well, that’s just pompous.

It seems to me that this anti-elitism an upshot of living in a society that thinks of itself as egalitarian and classless. Even though it isn’t either of those things at all, really, but that’s another discussion entirely. I find myself edging dangerously close to advocating philosopher kings or a world council of scientists here, so I think I’ll leave this rant alone.

Shirky also writes:

…if you want to vote against it, don’t use it. Everyone else will make the same choice for themselves, and the aggregate decisions of the population will determine the outcome of the project.

Ah, what a happy Panglossian outlook on life! If only collective decision-making inevitably led to the best of all possible worlds! If only elections actually led to the best-qualified candidate becoming President! Just because people think that seasons happen because the Earth is closer to the sun in summer doesn’t make it true. Of course saying this is also likely to get me labelled as an elitist.

And this brings me to Shirky’s one good point, which is this:

The project may yet fail because there is no sweet spot between openess and co-creation at Wikipedia scale.

I actually do believe in open projects (despite what this post has sounded like so far). Not only do I use wikipedia myself, but I’ve discussed and even recommended it in my Reference course. But now I’m thinking I should break myself of the wikipedia habit. If Shirky is correct and “wikipedia makes no claim to expertise or authority other than use-value,” then it’s use-less. Let’s even grant that wikipedia isn’t intended to be an encyclopedia, that it’s only intended to be “a site of argumentation and as a near-real-time reference.” Even granted that, a reference source has to be accurate, for crying out loud. If it isn’t that, then it’s not a reference source, it’s a work of fiction.

Of course expertise and authority are not the only ways of achieving accuracy. But is argumentation a way of achieving accuracy? Sometimes, sure, but only with reference to, you know, actual facts. I suppose this gets back to the “self-healing” quality of debate. It seems to me that I’m painting myself into the elitist corner more and more here.