One of the more curious phenomena of the online world is “Internet expertism.”
The internet is a marvelously democratic institution. It allows ordinary people to air their
views in public and receive responses back—not just politicians, business leaders,
entertainers, journalists, and the like. It’s everybody being able to stand on a stump
in Boston Common and engage in spirited oratory. Of anybody playing the role of
Demosthenes in the Athenian Agora and having your voice be heard.
The flip side to this leveling effect is that anyone and everyone can pose as an expert.
You see many nonexperts talking with what appears to be great authority all over
the internet, through websites, blogs, and various online discussion forums.
There’s much relevant online about the issue of expertise. The Wikipedia article on “Experts” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expert) points out that experts can be persons “accorded authority and status” for their skills. Or they may simply have knowledge
without necessarily having professional or academic qualifications.
One thing that’s clear is that expertise can’t be had without experience, even
though experience doesn’t automatically confer expertise. In gaining expertise,
practice counts. What’s more important than innate skills or intelligence is learning and improvement over an extended period of time, according to K. Anders Ericsson of
the Florida State University department of psychology.
Ericsson, who could be called an expert on expertise, wrote in a paper titled “Expert
Performance and Deliberate Practice”
(www.psy.fsu.edu/faculty/ericsson/ericsson.exp.perf.html) that experience is the
best predictor of expertise, but that once you reach a certain experience level, further
experience is a poor predictor of further expertise.
Experts online prove their expertise through evidence and reason. But all evidence
isn’t created equal. R. David San Filippo wrote a paper titled “Scientific vs
Pseudoscientific Methods” (www.lutz-sanfilippo.com/library/general/lsfmethods.html)
that sheds light on the differences between credible, scientific evidence and
Among other things, he wrote: “Human sciences utilize various scientific inquiry
methodologies to test or explain a hypothesis of human phenomena in order to
confirm the hypothesis. The pseudoscientific method of research utilizes the testing
and/or explanation of a hypothesis to support the hypothesis, not to validate its
assumptions. … A strong commitment to one side of a dispute tends to make one
overlook negative evidence and overstress the importance of positive evidence.”
In other words, pseudoexperts tend to set out to support their beliefs, ignoring
evidence that’s not useful in this regard, while experts tend to test the validity of a
position, examining all evidence no matter where it leads, in search of the truth.
Another characteristic of pseudoexperts is certainty and the need to be right.
In an essay titled “The Need to Be Right” (www.thebodyworker.com/psych_need_to_be_right.htm), Julie Onofrio
wrote how being right “validates our self worth and self confidence.”
As we’ve all seen, some people are never wrong. Whereas some individuals have the
self-assurance to say, “I was wrong,” others will argue no matter how soundly their
premise or logic is refuted by others. Intellectual intransigence stifles growth as
well as dialogue.
True experts know what they don’t know. “Wisest is he who knows he knows
not,” wrote Plato, quoting Socrates. “To be conscious that you are ignorant is a
great step to knowledge,” wrote Disraeli more than 2 millennia later.
In the 17th century, John Locke wrote about the facade of certainty and how,
through dialogue, you can expose the hollowness of the intellectual pretension
behind it. The goal according to Locke is the admission of the limitations of our
knowledge and the difficult exchange of certainty for doubt.
You see a lot of intellectual pretension on the internet. My own theory (and
perhaps it’s a bit elitist) is that there are a small but lively percentage of those
online who aren’t quite human. Their reasoning ability and argumentative
skills are unmistakable evidence of their simian nature. What I don’t know (and
this is where the uncertainty that Locke spoke of comes in) is just what type of monkey
I don’t believe that they’re rhesus monkeys, spider monkeys, or other lower-functioning
simians. They do have certain cognitive abilities, enough even to put words
together in a sentence. But when you read their sentences in the aggregate, the sad
reality is that not only do they not make sense, but they also have no idea they
don’t make sense.
There’s a possibility that they’re howler monkeys, with all the racket they make. With the belligerence you sometimes see, they may be gorillas. Or they could be
chimpanzees or orangutans. I’m afraid I just don’t know enough about all
this monkey business to say for sure.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated
columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About
the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at