Monday, December 03, 2007

Know It All

When I was about 12, my cousin and I were making cupcakes at my grandmother's house. We mixed the batter up in a big plastic bowl and were about to tip the bowl so that we could pour the contents into the individual slots in the muffin tin. As we went to pour it, my grandmother told us that we were never going to manage to pour the batter into the small holes of the tins without it overspilling because we couldn't pour a thin enough stream from such a wide bowl.

Since we were every bit the insufferable, know-it-all snots that most pre-teens are, we said we were sure that we could manage it. My grandmother, who knew a good bet, told us that she'd give us a dollar if we managed it and we'd each owe her a dollar if we failed. Confident in our ability to carefully pour the batter into each muffin cup, we made the bet and tipped the bowl over only to pour a not insignificant amount outside the first cup. Being cheap, insufferable, know-it-all snots, we claimed that the terms of the bet were not clearly defined and refused to pony up the dough.

Any person who is honest with herself is going to remember a time and an age when she thought she knew it all and the wisdom of those with more age and experience fell on her very deaf ears. Any person who has lived long enough will remember being that person more than once. I particularly recall spending a few college years thinking I knew as much as I was ever going to need to or could and that no one had much left to teach me nor was I far from being fully self-actualized. My cluelessness is quite striking in retrospect.

At this point in time, I'd say that the only true wisdom we can all possess is the irrefutable knowledge that there are serious limits to our wisdom and knowledge. This is a notion which is sadly lacking in the population of the Internet. The recent flap over (another) school banning Wikipedia for academic purposes reminded me of this. You will never meet as big a group of know-it-alls as you will find on the Internet. There are a good many people who appear to believe the collective knowledge of layman who sit behind their keyboards digesting tidbits of information on the web sites they browse makes them authorities on the topics they have a passing interest in. Mind you, most of these people don't even read a newspaper site on a daily basis and are gaining information in a way not too dissimilar from reading the backs of Trivial Pursuit cards. These people are outraged that Wikipedia isn't considered a legitimate source of information. They delight in deriding the validity of their textbooks and sniff at the indignity of having to go to some musty, old cavern of a library. Personally, I get the feeling these people haven't been to a library since the late 1800's since I haven't seen one that was dark, musty, or out-dated in my life-time. Most of them look very modern and have banks of computers.

The scary thing about the people who believe they know it all is that they lack awareness or understanding of what the difference is between the people who write textbooks and the people who make Wikipedia entries. They believe that the notion that information in books and journals has more academic value than what is freely available on the Internet is an elitist sentiment and implies that only intellectuals can offer up useful information. They fail to see that there's a difference between people who devote their lives to exploring a corner of a field and apply research principals to their work, write it up at length (taking years sometimes to complete their work), submit it for professional editing and peer review, and have it published and people who edit Wiki entries when they have some free time.

Recognizing the authors of scholarly journals and texts as credible and Wikipedia information as far less credible isn't a matter of believing knowledge can only be imparted by the well-educated and elite. It's about quality control and depth and recognizing that Internet sources are, by and large, lacking in both. When it comes to finding out what a word or concept you never heard of means for curiosity's sake, Wikipedia is your place to go, but it's not the place to research term papers or mine for thesis material.

The main problem with Wikipedia is that it's fast food information. It isn't even a really good source for pointing you to other good sources as its references are to other shallow Internet information sites. If you've ever done any real research in a college library, you'd know that the citations you get from journals are far better ways of pointing you to other sources than checking out links on Wikipedia. Those who feel Wikipedia is a first stop on the road to research don't have any idea how poor a resource it is because they don't know how vastly superior other resources are.

Wikipedia (for academic purposes) advocates are little different from my cousin and I trying to pour that batter out of a huge bowl into a small muffin tin slot for the first time. Our grandmother knew better than us because she had cooked and handled her bowls more than us. People who have actually done true research know how much better it is than researching on the Internet but, you're never going to convince the know-it-alls that they don't know it all. That includes knowing that banning Wikipedia for academic paper writing is probably a very good idea.

1 comment:

mjgolli said...

Oh, my! I was just about to write an entry on Wikipedia. You beat me to the punch. Well, actually, I was going to write it last night, but I was so tired and there was a good documentary program on BBC America...

You are correct in your assessment of Wikipedia. I love it to death, as there is a lot of information there, but one must take it with a grain of salt. There is little to no quality control, which is the most important thing.

The know it alls that use Wikipedia almost exclusively should be careful because they could very easily look the fool if there is some bad info there...and there can be. It is only appropriate that educational institutions place limits on Wikipedia, since there are few controls on who can post and edit information. Wikipedia is, however, a good resource to use as a launching pad for those entries that have lots of references. One can look to the references and gather information, and many references on articles are often proper publications or physical books which the user can then reference.

And I, too, have had the know-it-all moments like what you described. I think every young person has... :) Unfortunately, some never grow up to see the error of their ways and become less of a know-it-all. Now with the advent of the online world, this has become much more apparent. Since people can hide behind an online persona, they can be know-it-alls again with little consequence. Hence the problems with wikipedia and their ilk.

- Mike