This article was published on April 6, 2008

The People versus The Expert

The People versus The Expert
Tessa Sterkenburg
Story by

Tessa Sterkenburg

Tessa Sterkenburg has a background in scientific publishing and web technology and is the founder of The Next Speaker. Tessa Sterkenburg has a background in scientific publishing and web technology and is the founder of The Next Speaker.

On Friday afternoon The Next Web Conference hosted the world premiere of the documentary The truth according to Wikipedia from IJsbrand van Veelen. The leading questions in the documentary were: Should we let just anyone state his or her opinion or should we leave the publishing of information to the experts? Could the openness of the web be dangerous? Who has the right to establish truth?

the truth?

The people being interviewed are amongst others Jimmy Wales (co-founder of Wikipedia), Larry Sanger (the since-fired (Correction: Larry was not fired but laid off when Bomis needed to scale down from 12 to 4 employees.) co-founder of Wikipedia) and Andrew Keen (author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy).

Andrew Keen is against the openness on the web, and argues that we should give the right to publish back to the experts, so that we know that what we read on the web is actually the truth.

That is an interesting statement. If we draw a parallel to the description of World War II in the Netherlands then Andrew Keen wants us to read Lou de Jong only, even though many people want to hear the opinion of the famous 14-year old ‘blogger’ of those days: Anne Frank.

(Lou de Jong was the official Dutch historian during World War II and author of “The History of the Netherlands in the Second World War”. Later, this book series received a lot of criticism, as Lou de Jong was accused of misrepresenting the truth by being too favorable towards the role of the Dutch resistance during the German occupation.)

Rita Verdonk is a Dutch politician who recently set up a new political party in the Netherlands. During the launch of her party on April 3, she had lots of one-liners, but…no program! Rita is going to set up a Wiki and let the people, collectively, determine the program. Power to The People!

When I came home from The Next Web Conference and saw her on TV, my first reaction was: “Oh my God, we should really leave this to the experts”. I want someone who knows what he or she is talking about, studied it, balanced all the pros and cons of the problem, takes informed decisions. I want experts to do this! Not a crowd of uninformed civilians!

Similarly I have many American friends who are disgusted with the politics in their own country, and seem almost embarrassed about the fact that most people vote without really understanding the issues and the consequences.

In 1995, a poll on capital punishment in the UK showed us that 76% of British respondents supported the death penalty the UK. Yet, I am very glad that the British government then decided not to re-instate capital punishment.

At the same time I am very much in favor of democracy and freedom of speech. In 1994, I spent some time in Malaysia, a country that officially embraces democracy but didn’t always seemed to practice what they preach and, at the time heavily censored the media. I concluded after 5 months that I could never live there, because of the political system and their views on freedom of speech. However, my Malaysian colleagues insisted that you could just not let everyone say what they wanted. The government knows what’s best for you and you should let the government determine the truth… Hmm, doesn’t that sound like Andrew Keen?

Democracy is what everyone wants, but that doesn’t mean that every single decision should be made by the majority. A democracy means that we vote for someone who makes those balanced and informed decisions for us based on expert analysis. So when actual decisions are made we don’t want the people to be directly involved, but when it comes to information we do. What does this mean for our valuation of information? Do we take our information seriously enough?

Where do we draw the line? Obviously we value democracy highly. Wikipedia is a great resource as an instant and reasonably reliable reference. But do we want The People to determine our economic policies? Do we re-inforce the death penalty when the majority of people want this? Is the majority always right? And who are the Experts? The Malaysian government or the 14-year old blogger?

Considering that even scientific authors have to continuously revise what has been written: What is The Truth?

You can meet Andrew Keen personally during his European book promotion tour in April. Email him ([email protected]) if you want to meet him in either Brussels, Amsterdam or Helsinki.

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