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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Why reputation matters. Reply to Larry Sanger

This is a short comment to the fascinating article Larry Sanger (philosopher and founder of Wikipedia) wrote for Edge. It is the first time since I started to write on epistemology that I have the feeling that all this has something to do with the real world!

I like the idea of epistemic egalitarianism that underlies the Wikipedia projet. But, as an epistemologist interested in the impact of Internet on knowledge, I won’t bet on epistemic egalitarianism as a stable outcome of Web 2.0. So I share Larry Sanger’s scepticism about the equation between Equality=Truth. The Web is not only a powerful reservoir of all sort of labelled and unlabelled information, but it is also a powerful reputational tool that introduces ranks, rating systems, weights and biases in the landscape of knowledge. Systems as different as the PageRank algorithm in Google - based on the idea that a link from page A to page B is a vote from A to B and the weight of this vote depends on who A is - and the reputational system that underlies eBay, are powerful epistemic tools insofar as they not only provide information and connect people, but sort people and information according to scales of value. Even in this information-dense world, knowledge without evaluation would be a sad desert landscape in which people would be stunned in front of an enormous and mute mass of information, as Bouvard et Pécuchet, the two heroes of Flaubert’s famous novel, who decided to retire and to go through every known discipline without, in the end, being able to learn anything.

Here is my modest epistemological prediction: The more knowledge grows on Wikipedia or other similar tools on the Web, the more crucial the mastery of reputational cues about the quality of information will become. An introduction of tools for measuring “credentials” seems thus the most natural development of such a system. But of course we may disagree on what counts as “credentials” for expertise. And here I would like to invoke a parallel notion to that of epistemic egalitarianism so cherished by the Wikipedia community, that is, the notion of epistemic responsibility. What counts as a credential, how credible is the reputation of an expert, is something we may be able to rationally measure by handling in an appropriate way the huge amount of indirect criteria, reputational mechanisms and recommendation tools available today inside and outside the Web. An epistemically responsible subject is someone who is able to navigate the immense corpus of knowledge made available by the Web by using the appropriate reputational tools, as a competent connoisseur of French wine is not one who has drunk the largest number of different bottles of wine, but someone who is able to make sense of labels, appellations, regions, names of grapes and also who is able to discriminate the advice of experts and charlatans. So, if credentials are academic titles, a responsible epistemic subject should check the institutions that have delivered these titles, or check whether the holder of 15 different degrees and awards has a citation rate higher than 5 in the ISI Web of Knowledge. I can also compare the past records with the credibility gained “on the spot”: someone’s holding three PhD in the best American universities who write inconsistencies tells me something on these three prestigious institutions.

An efficient knowledge system like Wikipedia inevitably will grow by generating a variety of evaluative tools: that its how culture grows, how traditions are created. What is a cultural tradition? A labelling system of insiders and outsiders, of who stays on and who is lost in the magma of the past. The good news is that in the Web era this inevitable evaluation is made through new, collective tools that challenge the received views and develop and improve an innovative and democratic way of selection of knowledge. But there’s no escape from the creation of a “canonical” - even if tentative and rapidly evolving - corpus of knowledge.

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