The Cult of the Amateur

The Encyclopedia Britannica is often cited as an example of a best result of the professional system, usually in contradistinction to the amateur efforts of Wikipedia.

However, Britannica’s spectacular failures to report on Einstein’s 1905 writings that fundamentally changed our understanding of this entire universe, along with their simultaneous refusal to change a centuries old attitude towards racism, the roots of World War One, just to name a few instances of brittle Britannica bias, should be enough reason alone to encourage other sources of information.

Marvin Minsky, arguably, “The smartest man in the world,” at least by the standards of Isaac Asimov, says that, “You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than one way.”

How can you learn anything more than one way if the professionals’ attention span is that of a myopic gnat?

What we need is MORE information sources. . .not less!

Michael Hart, Friday, 22 June 2007

Here’s a spirited defense of the flat-hierarchies enabled by the web in general and encouraged by wikis and Wikipedia more specifically. Michael Hart is, as his by-line says, “Founding Member of Project Gutenberg, World eBook Fair & General Cyberspace.” Hart is responding to the book of the same name, and to what he calls, “paid professional punditry,” who find their authority challenged.

It’s odd that there always seems to be this ‘sky is falling’ attitude among some critics, as if you had to have professional opinions or amateur opinions but not both. Interestingly, the pundits fear that the amateurs have an unfair advantage, as if sheer enthusiasm could swamp clear thinking. That may be true in some cases.

It suggests, though, that we need to continue to promote and teach and model skepticism, as Hart suggest. One good rule: never trust a single source of any kind. Perhaps another rule is to never trust one kind of source; to play amateur against professional and vice versa. It’s also important to remember– again, as Hart emphasizes– that the system of expertise always exaggerated the accuracy of its knowledge.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Post Navigation