Eggsperts and the Production of Knowledge

Students stumped me this week over my information literacy quest about how to peel a hard-boiled egg, which is now a homework activity for public speaking. First, a bit about the activity:

The homework requires the students to follow a list of the sources and determine the best way to peel an egg. The point of the assignment is to evaluate the credibility of internet cites and learn that (1) the first Google hits aren’t necessarily valid, and (2) credibility isn’t necessarily obvious at first blush.

A colleague who is a librarian mentioned once that people rarely look past the first page of search engine hits. Moreover, folks rarely look “below the fold” (i.e., they don’t scroll down). (She got this info from Lewandowski, “Search engine user behaviour,” 2008.) This internet behavior is what makes makes SEO experts millions of dollars every year. But that’s beside the point.

The students’ natural inclination was to stop with Wikianswers and Ehow, both of which showed up on the first page of Google’s search results. Ironically, the students insisted that Wikianswers and Ehow were credible sources, but Wikipedia was not. They reasoned that, since people vote on the answers, the right answer eventually rises to the top. With “how to” questions, many voters have tested the suggested method before weighing in with their experiences. So, ultimately, the most popular answer is probably the right one.

As Wikianswers explains, when it comes to indisputable answers like how many yards are in a mile, the answers are relatively reliable. When it comes to difficult questions, you can trust the answers only so far.  So, with questions like how to hard boil an egg, students perceive sites like Ehow, Wikianswers, and Yahoo! answers as generally valid.

I’m not sure if they reject Wikipedia simply because their English teachers have instructed them to do and they just regurgitate the expected response, or if they genuinely understand the difficulties of trusting Wikipedia as a source. After all, Wikipedia and Wikianswers work on the same principle, so the same logic should apply to both.

Here’s the rub, though. Open Source, crowdsourcing, the wisdom of the crowds, and all those Web 2.0 phenomena make transparent the kinds of things folks who study epistemology, sociology of knowledge, and so forth, have been arguing about for decades regarding the collective production of knowledge. As a feminist, I’ve always agreed with the critique of expert knowledge that is central to feminist theory. The Boston Women’s Health Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves and the women’s health movement is a perfect example of that. The outright challenge to expert knowledge was necessary to advance women’s health, and the critique about how traditional medicine medicalizes women’s bodies hangs on questions of what counts as valid knowledge. The standard anti-foundationalist position applies to Wikipedia; it embodies the “postmodern” critique of knowledge (facts, certainty, whatever) as conversation, convention, etc.

If I firmly believe all this, then I have to agree with my students, don’t I? And so I stood there in front of the class and floundered for a response when they picked Ehow over sites I considered more credible. I did ask about validating answers when experiments weren’t possible. How would you make decisions about the best answer?

Conversely, I admit there is comfort in the knowledge of the experts. After all, “Would you want to drive over a bridge designed by a postmodernist engineer?” I can’t remember if it was Stanley Fish or Dinesh D’souza who said that during their dog-and-pony show in the turbulent 90s. (As an aside, I was very lucky to attend that show and the followup discussions with Fish and Catharine Stimpson about political correctness.)

Crowds get stupid, the wisdom of the crowds can become GroupThink or a mob, and making “knowledge making” accessible to all can become playing to the lowest common denominator. Witness the credibility of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin’s demagoguery in their appeals to “the common man.”

The production of knowledge is a complicated thing. I think, though, that our public speaking class opened the door to understanding how truth is often contingent, which is exciting.

2 Comments

  1. Hey, just catching up on your blog. That assignment is genius! And the question about bridges designed by postmodernists (or feminist airplanes, another common example) is maddening because the person posing the question is just being clever, or so they think.

    I would drive over that bridge, or fly in that airplane (depending on the kind of postmodernism or feminism at work). In part this is because I understand technology as a process of making things rather than the thing itself. Relationships that involve people and things in many different ways are part of the process, as are ways of knowing. I would want that bridge or that airplane to be made of good labor relations that pay everybody well and create good working conditions and draw on everybody’s skills and expertise. Design would still be grounded in good observation and knowledge, though maybe of a different kind. And through those processes and ways of knowing it’s still possible to build a solid bridge or an airplane that stays up in the air.

    About Wikipedia’s postmodernism: I’m not convinced that Wikipedia has made a break from modernism. While anybody can contribute, editors watch to make sure that contributors keep within the bounds of the genre of the encyclopedia. Collectively, they still strive for objectivity with regard to the writing style and verifying knowledge.

    As for voting…ugh. I now consider voting, even in elections, to be more about consumers than citizens.

    Have you had opportunities in class to continue this discussion? I’d love to hear more.

    1. Author

      Heya Cris,
      I really like your response to the bridge analogy! Has Wikipedia tightened its control over the text of entries? I seem to remember that it was much more free-flowing when it first started and now there’s a push for legitimacy by measuring its mistakes against the number of inaccuracies found in encyclopedias. I should check into that.

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