Monday, March 17, 2008

We’re all idiots

Man, this article by Tyler Cowen gave me a warm fuzzy feeling, seriously. Do not skip the quotes.

The sad truth is that "non-fiction" has been unreliable from the beginning, no matter how finely grained a section of human knowledge we wish to consider. For instance, in my own field, critics have tried to replicate the findings in academic journal articles by economists using the initial data sets. Usually, it is impossible to replicate the results of the article even half of the time. Note that the journals publishing these articles often use two or three referees--experts in the area--and typically they might accept only 10 percent of submitted papers. By the way, economics is often considered the most rigorous and the most demanding of the social sciences.

I really want to paste the whole thing in here, but you see the link, take some responsibility. He starts the article like this:

Even if you are a Wikipedia fan who thinks the site is usually accurate, you can't help but feel that there's an implicit marker on all the content: "Maybe this is correct." That "maybe" is what sticks in the craws of so many people.

Many people see developments like Wikipedia and other new media as a dumbing down of society, disrespectful of relevant authorities and intellectual institutions. As part of the same trend that doesn't want to see a big read line through a child's screwed up sum. Wikipedia has many strengths but one of it's biggest I think is that people both use it and wonder if what they're reading is really true. When people wonder this they might also wonder how they could check what they just read. It might also be worth pointing out the if you click on those underlined blue words the web page will transform itself into a page with related information but will often come from a more respectable source (another one of Wikipedia's strengths).

I think there are probably too many PhD theses, too many pointless papers and too many studies promising drama but showing nothing in particular. Chris Dilliow has one of the most thought provoking blogs I've read, but he relentlessly links to papers claiming some dramatic result, usually contradicting some well established position, and then considers the subject settled.

How many million academics have we had beavering away for how long without us being able to agree on the answers to the simple questions I posted the other day? What we need is a better way through sifting through the work we've already done. Wikipedia is a great way of doing that, prediction markets are another. Maybe we could build better institutions, maybe it's a fool's errand, but we should care.


Trevor Black said...

I agree 100% about the benefit of never accepting what you read as definitely true, and always searching for better, more reliable opinions or sources of fact.

I get very frustrated with people daily saying things like... 'it's been proved', or `they've done studies to show', or `there are statistics that prove'...

Wilkinson catches out one of his commenters on just that sort of thing.

In terms of the wealth of knowledge out there, and the lack of a filter... I think we are learning rapidly.

Things like wikipedia, and blogging are amazing sources of information and direction...

Since I started taking blogging a little more seriously this year, it feels like a whole new world has opened up. I feel like I have become a `Blog'evangelist from starting one at work to trying to get various friends and family members interested.

Search Engines. Tagging. Links. Email. Networking.

We live in an exciting world.

That being said, there is a risk to. We don't specialise necessarily like the Old World required, everyone has and can have opinions on every thing. Not sure where I read it now, but someone was talking about how we often give someone a lot of unwarranted credit for their opinions on subjects unrelated to their area of expertise.

Experts still matter.

Stuart said...

Of course experts still matter, and I'm not sure how much of a new thing it is for people to have opinions on just about everything (Bertrand Russel and Tolstoy were as guilty as anyone).

Also, a common compliant is that the modern world is TOO specialised and that we should have more generalists.