Trusting the experts
June 16, 2007
Many bloggers in the past few days have been writing about Michael Gorman’s two recent pieces on the Encyclopedia Britannica blog (Web 2.0: The Sleep of Reason, Part I and Part II). In these two rather incoherent posts, Gorman, who is perhaps best known as the blog-hating former president of the American Library Association, associates Web 2.0 with “an increase in credulity and an associated flight from expertise,” which he blames for such calamities as citizen journalism, Biblical literalism, and Wikipedia.
Many excellent responses have been written to Gorman’s pieces, most notably a long post by Meredith Farkas on her blog Information Wants to be Free. In it, Farkas articulates most of what is wrong with Gorman’s writing, particularly that blind respect for authority is a pretty terrible way of discerning good information, and that critical thinking should be applied to any written work, no matter how authoritative.
I’m not going to try to sum up any of the other responses, other than to say that they have been frequent, and far more interesting than Gorman’s original piece. Gorman’s writing seems to be calculated to provoke, but shows little evidence of much thoughtfulness itself.
What I’m going to focus on here is one comment Gorman makes that I haven’t seen responded to specifically in other posts. Gorman writes, in Part I:
Human beings learn, essentially, in only two ways. They learn from experience — the oldest and earliest type of learning — and they learn from people who know more than they do….It is this latter way of learning that is under threat in the realm of digital resources. It is under threat because, to be successful, it depends on the authenticity of the connection between the teacher/researcher/author who has created a part of the human record and the person who wishes to learn from the study of that part.
This statement presents a complete denial that learning is a product of engaging in a dialogue with others to exchange a diversity of ideas and perspectives. The idea of dialogue has been central to the Western concept of learning at least since Plato. To suggest that humans can learn in “only two ways,” and not to include learning through dialogue, shows how seriously flawed Gorman’s thinking is. Perhaps Gorman means to include this in the first type of learning, learning by experience, but that would render it so vague as to be meaningless. (If “learning by experience” includes “learning through dialogue,” then it probably includes “learning from an expert” as well, in which case we don’t have two types of learning at all.)
Gorman argument is based on two flawed assumptions. First, that the reliability of a text can only be established through a knowledge of its author’s credentials. And second, that the determination of authority can only be achieved through the traditional scholarly apparatus. While both of these methods are possible ways of determining reliability and authority, they are hardly the only or even the best methods. These assumptions reflect a devaluation of text and a denial of the importance of alternative points of view.
I think that the potential dangers of Web 2.0 for the “intellectual life of our society” are exactly the opposite of what Gorman claims they are. While the Internet does make access to a broader range of perspectives and ideas possible, it also encourages limiting your intake of ideas to those that support your own. Customized web portals, narrowly tailored RSS feeds, and the often limited debate within blog comments make it all too easy to ignore the point of view of those who disagree with you. Indeed, Gorman’s writing suffers from this problem. His piece is full of citations to writers whose views support his argument, but his vague, stereotypical characterization of the opposition shows a profound lack of understanding of the other side of the issue.
For Gorman, who says something is more important than what is being said. It would be nice for Gorman if this were true, because then I would be bound to trust him even though he is incapable of constructing an intelligent argument. But the fact that he is a well-credentialed library scholar doesn’t inspire my confidence, only my disappointment.
Gorman is correct in his assertion that Internet publication is different from print publication in important ways. But he is incorrect in suggesting that this reflects a decline of reasoned thought, and he is mistaken in calling, as he does, for a limitation of possible modes of expression.
Gorman suggests that “the intellectual life of our society must continue to be based on respect for expertise, the scientific method, evidence-based texts, and, above all, the value of the individual scholar, author, and creator of knowledge. ” Rather, it should be based on a commitment to a range of perspectives, critical evaluation of all texts, and the centrality of dialogue and debate. Diversity of ideas is a messy way of advancing human knowledge, but it is the only way that is truly reasonable.