Sanger recently posted a provocative piece where he argues that geeks suffer from anti-intellectualism. His stance is that democratic sites such as  Wikipedia (which he co-founded) are founded on anti-intellectualism. He sums up this techno anti-intellectualism using five beliefs:

  1. Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known.
  2. Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority.
  3. The classics, being books, are also outmoded.
  4. The digitization of information means that we don’t have to memorize nearly as much.
  5. You don’t have to go to college, which is overpriced and so reserved to the elite anyway.

My take:

  1. In the Google era, we do not need formal experts as much as we used to. Back in the days, if you wanted to learn about combinatorics, you took a class in college. In fact, you probably had to take a class to even know what combinatorics was! The other alternative was to read the papers and the books on the topic, which were only accessibly from a college library. These days, you can get in touch with hundreds of passionate fans of combinatorics on Math Overflow where you can ask and answer questions, and even build a reputation. You can read, for free, the Electronic journal of combinatorics. The same is true of just about every topic.
  2. The dominance of the long form (e.g., books) was a by-product of our technology. If you are going to print and distribute a piece of work, it needs to have a certain volume for the operation to be financially viable. If you sell a 300-pages philosophy book for $50 and make a profit, you cannot easily sell a 3-page philosophical document for $0.50 and still make a profit because you have fixed fees and because few people can be bothered to drive to a bookstore to buy 3 pages. Moreover, books need to be self-contained, you cannot use hyperlinks to refer the reader to background knowledge. That is not to say that long documents are a thing of the past (e.g., the Harry Potter novels), but electronic media is more flexible.
  3. I conjecture that the classics have never been so popular. I constantly refer back to the classics through Project Gutenberg or ebooksgratuits.com. I constantly read about bloggers who cite the classics. I talk with a lot of people who reread classics on their kindle or iPad.
  4. Memorization is shallow learning, we learn by applying ideas. Anyone can memorize the three axioms of Newton. Denis G. Rancourt famously showed that his fourth-year Physics students did not understand these three axioms. Memorization gives you the illusion of knowledge. It is a dangerous illusion.
  5. You can succeed without college, and a college degree is not success. It used to be that a college degree, any college degree, meant that you were a success. Anyone who holds on to this belief is in for a rude awakening.

Further reading: Fear of Illegibility by Rader is another take on Sander’s essay.

26 Comments

  1. When you say that the “purpose of an expert has been shaken”, are you talking about the impact that the emergence of a greater number of unpaid domain experts could have on paid domain experts? Are we going to see a depression in the price people are willing to pay experts if there are more and more unpaid experts available?

    Comment by Sylvie Noel — 8/6/2011 @ 10:06

  2. @Sylvie

    I think so.

    (1) Already I can use something like Quora to get what I consider expert advice on a wide range of problems, for free.

    (2) To some extend, tools like Google Scholar have automated the work of scholars. I routinely use it to find out what the research says about a given issue (say a medical one).

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/6/2011 @ 10:27

  3. Sander as in Larry Sanger? ;)

    Comment by thomas — 8/6/2011 @ 10:32

  4. @thomas My typing is always approximate: I allow an error of one in the Hamming distance.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/6/2011 @ 11:05

  5. Always consider the source. Sanger has been grousing about wikipedia with or without cause for something like 8 years now. His comments on anti-intellectualism in general seem to stem from this worldview. I think he has fundamentally confused credentials for intellectualism.

    Comment by Adam Hyland — 8/6/2011 @ 12:01

  6. I’d argue that to learn combinatorics one would need a resource that was introductory, well structured (building-blocks approach, etc), with examples of practical application.

    I’d also argue that MathOverflow and the Electronic Journal are not good fits for the above. Google “intro[duction] to combinatorics” and you’ll see what sources of information people found most relevant to answering that request (hint: books and course lecture notes).

    The internet has certainly made resources like the above books and lecture notes much more broadly available. So, technology has reduced the costs of distribution, can’t deny. But, I just don’t think technology has yet to come up with an alternative resource to replace well-curated, compiled and broader than absolutely-relevant-to-the-sole-question-at-hand knowledge like a book put together by somebody with a formal education on a particular topic.

    In college, one of the most potent learning experiences I had was an independent study with a professor in which I worked starting from page one through the book The Fundemental Methods of Mathematical Economics. We would meet once a week to answer questions I had, and review the practice problems I’d done.

    Add 10-20 other students and twice weekly meetings and you’ve got a regular old college course. Where’s the problem?

    As an aside, Poorly/quickly written books/content should have hyperlinks because the content itself cannot stand on its own. If I was a cynic, it’s why I would say the internet has so many hyperlinks :P . Well written books should only need footnotes/endnotes – hyperlinks would be a distraction from the narrative flow of the original document (disruptive/poor UX I would say).

    I’m worried the memorization and memory are getting too confused on discussion about how horrible memorization-based learning is. I hate rote learning mostly only because it bores me. I also think that the ability to remember how to do rote tasks is critical to better ideas (not just working faster). If I spend time looking up something I’m not spending time working on my kick-ass/lame idea. I think I actually hate looking up stuff almost as much as I hate rote memorization.

    Anyways, always good stuff to think about!

    Comment by molten_tofu — 8/6/2011 @ 14:08

  7. Google “intro[duction] to combinatorics” and you’ll see what sources of information people found most relevant to answering that request (hint: books and course lecture notes)

    I think that’s a byproduct of phrasing your search like a class name. I tried “combinatorics tutorial” and the top results all look to be nonprofessional produced webpages that do give a good introduction to the material.

    One level up, I’m proficient enough at mathematics, but don’t remember the twelve different formulas for partition/permuting/combining. So if I’ve got a question about combinatorics, it’s probably something like: what do I do with “permutations with repetitions?” Sticking that in Google, the top result is a page just giving that formula, explaining a little why that’s the derivation, and presenting a couple examples. Exactly what I’d need and no more.

    What I really appreciate about hyperlinked, bitesize knowledge is the ability to tailor my consumption to what I do and don’t know. I enjoy reading about quantum physics, but each book covers 90% of the same material. The last 10% is interesting new stuff, but it’s a real chore finding it. Conversely, it’s nice to be able to quickly look up jargon I’m not familiar with when I’m just out of my depth, instead of having to master a whole subject to read that interesting sounding stats paper.

    Comment by Paul — 8/6/2011 @ 14:55

  8. @molten_tofu

    I just don’t think technology has yet to come up with an alternative resource to replace well-curated, compiled and broader than absolutely-relevant-to-the-sole-question-at-hand knowledge like a book put together by somebody with a formal education on a particular topic.

    There are more and more textbooks available freely or at a low cost. E.g., Combinatorics for computer science looks like a good introduction textbook, available for free. This abundance of cheap curated scholarly material will only increase.

    Add 10-20 other students and twice weekly meetings and you’ve got a regular old college course. Where’s the problem?

    There is no problem with the model you describe. I do have weekly meetings with students. I do think that I help them learn through my coaching.

    The problem I see is that some people believe that the only acceptable way to learn is to sit weekly in the presence of a professor (like myself). To them, whatever you learned on the Internet is worthless.

    If I spend time looking up something I’m not spending time working on my kick-ass/lame idea.

    If you understand history, then you will know the difference between Louis XIV and Louis XVI. You will not confuse them the way you might if you started with memorization.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/6/2011 @ 15:03

  9. On your college point: http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/05/27/the-numbers-game-is-college-worth-the-cost/

    In USA at least, if you have a college Degree, you do not have much to worry, in fact those dire numbers we have had n unemployment are mainly for people without college degrees (listen the “Jobs” This American Life Podcast)

    College is still a worthy asset in most countries in the world, in Japan, it is the success currency. If you get into a good college you are certain to have a good life, and I mean CERTAIN.

    There are some majors, and some interactions you just cannot have without a college. Engineering comes to mind, Medicine would also be impossible without college (and memorization). Just because in YOUR area college does not look like a big things (which it is by the way) does not means that is the same all over the board.

    And on the memorization part, some degrees, again Medicine, depend solely on memorizing terms and sicknesses, I do not want my doctor gambling on my life with a book on the hand while they are doing a procedure.

    You have interesting opinions on CS, but it is rather dangerous to generalize and say: You can succeed without a college degree and any one can memorize whatever….. When in certain areas that is just not the case ;)

    Comment by Leon Palafox — 9/6/2011 @ 2:32

  10. One of the problems I have is that, for the novice, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between the aluminum-foil-hat-wearing-conspiracy-theorist “expert” and an actual expert. In this situation, knowing that my expert has a college degree in the expertise domain at least gives me some reassurance that he/she probably knows what he/she is talking about (yes, I know, this is not a 100% guarantee, but it’s a start).

    I also think it would be extremely easy to subvert Quora, if person X has enough followers who upvote his/her answer, with said followers giving variations on the answer.

    I think that it’s great that knowledge is being democratized, but I also think that it is extremely difficult for most people to know what is a good source from a bad, because we do not train children in critical thinking. Right now, it’s left to universities to teach that kind of thinking, and I don’t think they always do.

    Comment by Sylvie Noel — 9/6/2011 @ 6:22

  11. My thinking is along Sylvie’s lines: it can often be difficult to distinguish between the expert and the opinionated. This is not usually a problem for general and specific problems where a lot of people know the answer (e.g. how do linked lists work, when did WW2 start, what’s the structure of H1N1), but it gets very difficult when dealing with more specific and ill-defined problems where there is a much smaller body of people who know what they are talking about and you have a diminished ability to assess responses (e.g. is string theory worthwhile science, what are the causes of / cures for fibromyalgia, is it worth conserving the red wolf).

    Sure, a conventional university degree is no guarantee of good infomration and judgement; yes, it’s great that (some) scientific journals are free; yes, on the whole Wikipedia is a Good thing. But the democratization of knowledge is no panacea.

    Comment by Paul Agapow — 9/6/2011 @ 8:56

  12. @Palafox

    Medicine, depend solely on memorizing terms and sicknesses

    I don’t think so.

    The best medical schools have moved to a problem-based approach. There is still rote memorization in a few classes, but the core training is founded on problem solving.

    It is widely recognized, even by doctors, that rote memorization is a dangerous form of knowledge.

    I do not want my doctor gambling on my life with a book on the hand while they are doing a procedure.

    Of course not.

    But you do realize that you can research, on your own, most illnesses and procedures? Just go to Google Scholar and start reading. Then ask questions to your doctor. And I mean hard questions.

    If you are smart enough to get a Ph.D., you are probably smart enough to get to know any one illness a lot better than your local doctor, and very quickly. The fact is that doctors spend relatively little time reading up research papers.

    Of course, doctors hate when you do this, and they will warn you against the grave danger you face, reading up on medicine without the 4 years of training. But the truth is, I can read a medical research paper just as well as a medical doctor. In fact, I even wrote a medical research paper (search for my name in pubmed). And many of the readers of this blog are just as qualified as myself, if not more.

    Unfortunately, once you know your stuff, you may find out that your doctor is totally unaware of the best practices and he is only repeating what he and his local colleagues have been doing for the last decade. Or maybe he is simply doing whatever is convenient or sounds sensible to him. It is not uncommon for research to discover that common medical practices are useless.

    Sometimes, you will find out that your doctor knows about the latest research, knows about the better procedure, but he simply ignores it because it would require changing his ways or ordering this new piece of equipment.

    Or maybe you will find out that your doctor is great.

    Otherwise, if you just trust that because a doctor is allowed to practice by the government, then everything is A-ok… well, then you might as well ask Goldman Sachs to take care of your money, right?

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 9/6/2011 @ 9:08

  13. @Sylvie and @Paul

    How do you judge someone who is 30 or 40 or 50 years old? Do we honestly think that the college degree matters when you have been out of college for 10 years? I’ll take Steve Jobs over any MBA graduate any day of the week.

    Democratization of knowledge is no panacea, but neither is authority-based knowledge. Because someone with a degree, or some title, tells you something, does not make it true. That is the fundamental lesson that science should have taught us: question, verify, test, experiment… don’t accept the answers the textbooks give you. Don’t assume you understand something because you have read the books. Try to solve problems, see how well you are doing.

    I also think that it is extremely difficult for most people to know what is a good source from a bad, because we do not train children in critical thinking. Right now, it’s left to universities to teach that kind of thinking, and I don’t think they always do.

    We should all help each others become better critical thinkers.

    I routinely ask my kids to question their assumptions. I hope they will pick up something from me.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 9/6/2011 @ 9:35

  14. @Sylvie

    I should thank everyone who comes to my blog to disagree with me. I keeps my critical thinking in shape!

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 9/6/2011 @ 9:49

  15. I agree that we should help each other become better critical thinkers. But there are limits.

    Some people (like me) don’t get higher order maths, nor do we have any interest in it (amazing, I know). I’m willing to accept authority-based knowledge in this case because I don’t want to spend the time teaching myself how to do higher order maths. What I want, though, is the ability to recognize who is a good expert from who is a poser. Of course, the expert doesn’t have to have a degree.

    People can be bad at recognizing that they don’t know as much as they think they know about an area (there’s a study that shows this, btw). It may be hard to convince these people that they need to learn more about domain X.

    Comment by Sylvie Noel — 9/6/2011 @ 10:00

  16. “Denis G. Rancourt famously showed that his fourth-year Physics students did not understand these three axioms.”

    Do you have a link you can share? I tried searching first, but Rancourt’s other activities seem to be overshadowing this story.

    Comment by Bill the Lizard — 9/6/2011 @ 10:43

  17. @Sylvie

    I’m willing to accept authority-based knowledge in this case because I don’t want to spend the time teaching myself how to do higher order maths.

    There is certainly utility in brands (e.g., college degrees).

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 9/6/2011 @ 10:45

  18. @Bill

    Yes, see http://activistteacher.blogspot.com/2010/01/canadian-education-as-impetus-towards.html

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 9/6/2011 @ 10:48

  19. That is the fundamental lesson that science should have taught us: question, verify, test, experiment… don’t accept the answers the textbooks give you. Don’t assume you understand something because you have read the books

    Which runs into problems when I don’t know enough to verify, test or experiment or am simply unable to. (My knowledge of combinatorics is too weak to call anyone’s bluff, I don’t have the time or resources to test string theory.) So for many things, I just have to accept an authority. The authority might be a bespectacled professor, it might be Wikipedia. But still, I’m resorting to authority. For many issues, it’s the only practical choice to can make. It’s just that now I can pick from a wider choice.

    I suspect our opinions aren’t that different, but I have an instant suspicion of blanket praise or condemnation. Again, the demoncritization of knowledge is a Good Thing, buts lets not pretend that it doesn’t come with its own agenda and implications, or that the old system was all bad.

    Veering back to Sanger’s original comment, I think there’s something to his premise. I’m uncertain whether it’s rooted in the five beliefs listed, or even that it’s restricted to geeks. Peek into any internet forum and you’ll find people convinced of their own expertise at movie production and economics, video game marketing, football team management, and many other things they have little experience of. Its a fairly widespread pathology of communities and Wikipedia is sometimes an ironic example.

    Comment by Paul Agapow — 9/6/2011 @ 10:53

  20. @Bill the Lizard
    Alas, it was a while ago and I can’t remember the names of the authors, and I’m not having any luck with Google Scholar. Very frustrating.

    Comment by Sylvie Noel — 9/6/2011 @ 11:10

  21. @Sylvie

    You are looking for the Dunning–Kruger effect. It took me two seconds to find it on Wikipedia.

    Cheers for Wikipedia!

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 9/6/2011 @ 11:29

  22. @Daniel
    Damn you amateurs and your wikipedia!

    LOL, never even thought to check there.

    Comment by Sylvie Noel — 9/6/2011 @ 11:31

  23. Out of curiosity, I stuck “Dunning-Kruger effect criticism” into Google. I have never taken a psychology class. I found a blog with a fairly technical debate extending into the comments. Did you know that while the classic effect finds that the the under-performers are less accurate, that turns out to be task difficulty specific? On very hard tasks, it’s actually the top performers who are worst at self-evaluation.

    There’s also an interesting hypothesis that meta-cognition is just not perfectly correlated with performance, creating a regression-to-the-mean. An outlier in the positive or negative performance dimension is statistically unlikely to also be an outlier in the self-evaluation dimension, meaning that part of Dunning-Kruger is not a reflection of poor-performance being linked to poor meta-cognition, but an expected statistical artifact.

    There’s also a question of whether Cornell students are reflective of the population: that the low performers may actually have been inherently evaluating their performance in terms of the general population, where there performance would have rated higher.

    Maybe it’s just the Dunning-Kruger effect talking, but with zero formal training (and abstaining from any formal sources) I feel that I was obtain a somewhat nuanced opinion on the subject. I’m also not convinced a professor wouldn’t have just introduced Dunning-Kruger without a discussion of the criticisms. If they did, I’d now be able to present a reasonably coherent counterargument.

    Following Daniel’s advice, I’ve tested the Internets ability to teach what would normally be expert material, and within the confines of my meta-cognitive limitations it seems to have passed.

    Comment by Paul — 9/6/2011 @ 12:59

  24. @Paul

    You can pursue your inquiry with some recent research:

    How Metacognitive Deficiencies of Law Students Lead to Biased Ratings of Legal Writing Professors

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1856185

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 9/6/2011 @ 18:18

  25. I had saved Sanger’s article in Instapaper and couldn’t remember where I saw it until I saw this post in RSS — I had just drafted some of my own thoughts too. Anyway, a few things related to your post and the comments:

    (a) n=n+1 for somebody who rediscovered literature after buying a Kindle.

    (b) I had never thought about it quite like this, but your comment about medical literature is exactly right. About a year ago I found myself pulling medical research articles about a particular condition that I had a critical interest in at the time. I was amazed at how accessible the literature was, despite not understanding some terminology here and there.

    Comment by Ben Deaton — 10/6/2011 @ 11:23

  26. Experts suffer from geeks in other words consumers whom can make up their mind them self. The populous isn’t so full of dumb schmucks to con anymore. Maybe we will see some quality work. :)

    An anti intellectual is a large spectrum from the writer whom uses big words to look smurt, to the converser whom can’t give objective criticism, oh and don’t forget the grammar nazi whom uses lots of arcane punctuation to obfuscate the quality of their content.

    Comment by Dudesowin — 3/2/2013 @ 7:37

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