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2008 May 6 - 12:00 am

Technology Today: Is All That Internet Expertise Merely Monkey Business?

One of the more curious phenomena of the online world is “Internet
expertism.”

The Internet is a marvelously democratic institution, letting ordinary people air their views in public and receive responses back, not just politicians, business leaders, entertainers, journalists, and the like. 

It’s everybody being able to stand on a stump on Boston Common and engage in spirited oratory, of anybody playing the role of Demosthenes in the Athenian Agora and having your voice heard.

The flip side to this leveling effect is that anyone and everyone can pose as an expert. You see many non-experts talking with what appears to be great authority all over the Internet, through Web sites, blogs, and various online discussion forums.

There’s much relevant online about the issue of expertise. The Wikipedia article on “Experts” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expert) points out that experts can be persons “accorded authority and status” for their skills. Or they may simply know, without necessarily having professional or academic qualifications.

One thing that’s clear is that expertise can’t be had without experience, even though experience doesn’t automatically confer expertise. In gaining expertise, practice counts. What’s more important than innate skills or intelligence is learning and improvement over an extended period of time, according to K. Anders Ericsson of the Florida State University Department of Psychology.

Ericsson, who could be called an expert on expertise, wrote in a paper titled “Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice” (www.psy.fsu.edu/faculty/ericsson/ericsson.exp.perf.html) that experience is the best predictor of expertise, but that once you reach a certain experience level further experience is a poor predictor of further expertise.

Experts online prove their expertise through evidence and reason. But all evidence isn’t created equal. R. David San Filippo wrote a paper titled “Scientific vs. Pseudoscientific Methods” (www.lutz-sanfilippo.com/library/general/lsfmethods.html) that sheds light on the differences between credible, scientific evidence and pseudoscientific evidence.

Among other things, he wrote: “Human sciences utilize various scientific inquiry methodologies to test or explain a hypothesis of human phenomena in order to confirm the hypothesis. The pseudoscientific method of research utilizes the testing and/or explanation of a hypothesis to support the hypothesis, not to validate its assumptions.... A strong commitment to one side of a dispute tends to make one overlook negative evidence and overstress the importance of positive evidence.”

In other words, pseudo-experts tend to set out to support their beliefs, ignoring contrary evidence, while experts tend to test the validity of a position, examining all evidence no matter where it leads, in search of the truth.

Another characteristic of pseudo-experts is certainty and the need to be right. In an essay titled, “The Need to Be Right” (www.thebodyworker.com/psych_need_to_be_right.htm), Julie Onofrio wrote how being right “validates our self-worth and self-confidence.”

As we’ve all seen, some people are never wrong. Whereas some individuals have the self-assurance to say, “I was wrong,” others will argue no matter how soundly their premise or logic is refuted by others. Intellectual intransigence stifles growth as well as dialogue.

True experts know what they don’t know. “Wisest is he who knows he knows not,” wrote Plato, quoting Socrates. “To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge,” wrote Disraeli more than two millennia later.

John Locke in the 17th century wrote about the facade of certainty and how through dialogue you can expose the hollowness of the intellectual pretension behind it. The goal according to Locke is the admission of the limitations of our knowledge and the difficult exchange of certainty for doubt.

You see a lot of intellectual pretension on the Internet. My own theory,and perhaps it’s a bit elitist, is that there are a small but lively percentage of those online who aren’t quite human. Their reasoning ability and argumentative skills are unmistakable evidence of their simian nature.

What I don’t know, and this is where the uncertainty comes in that Locke spoke of, is just what type of creature they are.

I don’t believe that they’re rhesus monkeys, spider monkeys, or other lower-functioning simians. They do have certain cognitive abilities,enough even to put words together in a sentence. But when you read their sentences in the aggregate, the sad reality is that not only do they not make sense but they also have no idea they don’t make sense.

There’s a possibility that they’re howler monkeys, with all the racket they make. With the belligerence you sometimes see, they may be gorillas. Or they could be chimpanzees or orangutans.

I’m afraid I just don’t know enough about all this monkey business to say for sure.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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