May 15, 2007
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Does Conversation Improve Expertise?

by David Weinberger

InEverything is Miscellaneous , David Weinberger writes (p. 145) that

One of the lessons of Wikipedia is that conversation improves expertise by exposing weaknesses, introducing new viewpoints, and pushing ideas into accessible form.

Is this true?

We might also ask whether this is a lesson of Wikipedia. It seems to me, really, that this is a lesson of Socrates; indeed, unlike lots of lessons we attribute to Socrates but that are really only attributable to Plato, this one probably really is Socrates. The tradition of dispute and debate as a route to knowledge is honored in the Norwegian doctoral examination, where candidates still face an opponent in their final exercise. These have better claims to be conversations than does Wikipedia.

It is entirely possible for a group of people to sit down, think about a problem, discuss it, and come to a conclusion that is, quite simply, wrong. Juries are wrong all the time; lots of people are convicted and are subsequently exonerated. Students are wrong, too. Imagine: six students are work together on a tough calculus problem and work out a solution that's simply specious. If you're a math teacher, is this extraordinarily surprising? Of course not. Lots of people conversed about Galileo's books, reaching the wrong conclusion. Lots of people discussed the advisability of Pickett's Charge, Herbert Hoover's deflationary monetary policy in the wake of the 1929 crash, and the production budget for Heaven's Gate.

Lots of people in 1950 thought the US State Department was heavily infiltrated by Communists. In 1955, lots of people (including the Prime Minister) discussed Kim Philby and concluded that "he carried out his duties ably and conscientiously."

Millions of people thought George H. W. Bush would make a good president. Some of those people, I'm told, discussed the matter. We know how well that worked.

It's perfectly possible to discuss a question and arrive at the wrong answer. Conversation can improve expertise but it can also degrade expertise by mixing it with inexpert opinion.