Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Cult of the Amateur

I resisted in having a blog of my own till some time last year, even though several people have suggested that I should have one. Frankly, I didn't see the point of having one (or more). I also didn't think that people would want to read about my opinions and what I find to be interesting. Most of my effort in writing about physics was directed to one of the online forums that I've been very active in.

That all changed when I realize that if I were to leave that forum, none of what I have written or some of the resources that I had highlighted would still be "mine". This is especially true for the "So You Want To Be A Physicist" essay that I've put a lot of effort in. Besides, I've been told that my "opinionated" writings on physics are actually "fun" to read (whatever that means). I also figured that since other people less capable than me can have their say about physics (i.e. all those crackpot blogs), why can't I? :)

That was the genesis of this blog. It isn't just a way for me to highlight some of the important work in physics, but also my opinion on a number of things related to physics, ESPECIALLY on how the general public, through the popular media, learn about physics and about physicists.

While this is fun, the whole issue of anyone capable of writing about anything and everything on the 'net is always something I face almost everyday, especially in the public forums. It is awfully exasperating when you try to discuss or explain something on physics to someone, he/she tries to counter what you just explained with something from Wikipedia or, worse still, a crackpot webpage. I'm not a fan of Wikipedia. The whole concept that anyone can write something on any topic, and edit any topic, just doesn't sit well with me. People seem to no longer care about the integrity and validity of their sources. All they care about is that it is written somewhere, and that's good enough. Wikipedia certainly gives the illusion to many that the information is valid, despite the disclaimer, and despite the fact that anyone can edit those information.

It appears that my sentiment isn't unique. Andrew Keen was interviewed recently and he seems to feel the same way:

In an online society where anyone can start a blog on physics, contribute to the encyclopedia entry on Russia in Wikipedia or mash up a song by Bruce Springsteen, Keen worries that the experts - trained physicists, professional students of Russia and maybe even Bruce Springsteen himself - will lose their voices, their power and their careers. But most of all, Keen worries that the Internet might rob American society of cultural meaning and a respect for truth.

"The cult of the amateur has made it increasingly difficult to determine the difference between reader and writer, between artist and spin doctor, between art and advertisement, between amateur and expert," Keen writes. "The result? The decline of the quality and reliability of the information we receive, thereby distorting, if not outright corrupting, our national civic conversation."

People need to wake up and pay attention to not only what they're reading, but WHERE they're reading these things. Pay attention to the nature of the source, especially when you don't have the expertise to evaluate the validity of the subject matter.



Velu said...

I think the move to start your blog was good. A blog on physics is great to read. :)

ZapperZ said...

Thank you. I've received similar support from several people. So hopefully, I'll be able to continue with the high expectation, both from the regular readers, and from me as well.


Anonymous said...

Tacit knowledge is also employed by an expert when he/she explains/describes a subject. That is why I go to a doctor for a diagnosis, rather than an amateur. An amateur medico can only look up a source and must then engage his/her amateur tacit knowledge (not based on qualifications and experience) to make sense of that source. Is it a high quality source? Is the knowledge contested or confirmed elsewhere? Is it well accepted? Is there related knowledge elsewhere that should be consulted for a complete picture? And so on and so on. An expert doctor will use his/her tacit knowledge gained through years of systematic study of a body of a knowledge, integrated with practical sessions under the guidance of other experts, to make a diagnosis. The expert doctor will also use tacit knowledge gained from years of medical practice.

Who would you rather go to for brain surgery - an amateur person who relies on wikipedia for surgery knowledge, or a qualified, well-credentialled, experienced brain surgeon??? It is a nonsense to believe that an amateur knows as much about medicine as a professional doctor. And yes, I have known a doctor to make a mistake, or even two. So what? Statistically, amateurs make many, many times more errors of judgement and display a vast lack of knowledge compared with professionals/experts. I am in complete accord with Andrew Keen. There is a push to discredit experts as the equality enthusiasts have decided that experts are elitists and that elitism is non-egalitarian. We need to address this claim. I do not believe that experts are elitists. Experts are just experts. They know more about their area than non-experts in that area. That does not make them a better person, but it does make them more knowledgeable in their particular area of expertise.

ZapperZ said...

I agree completely with what you said.

The problem with Wikipedia is that people who don't know any better are using it, and are not aware of not only the nature and validity of what they are reading, but also the QUALITY of that information. By quality I mean not only the validity of the information, but also HOW the information is presented.

College textbooks in physics undergo many scrutiny, reviews, and testing before they go out. There is a enormous emphasis on the PEDAGOGICAL aspect of the material being presented : it is clear, it is logical, is it in sequence, is it illustrated fully, is it confusing, etc. No such attention is being paid to how the information is presented in Wikipedia, especially when there are more than one person editing it. I can bring up several different examples of the horribly mutilated information from various physics pages there. I've mentioned the Particle Accelerator page. The Photoemission page made it sound as if x-ray photoemission is the only major technique being used, ignoring the unbelievable large area of angled-resolved photoemission in the UV range. I mean these are not outright errors, but they are serious omissions and serious lack of quality in the information.

Yet, people who are seeking such info would not know that and get the illusion that they are reading "facts". The problem here isn't Wikipedia, but rather how people no longer pay attention to the quality and the nature of their sources. That is what the article that I highlighted was trying to convey. People are now settling on mediocre, even dubious sources to made their decisions or draw their conclusions.

That is what is so sad in all of this.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding. I have been mulling over your remark about more people accepting low quality sources nowadays. I believe the reason they do so is complex and that is what will make this concern so difficult to address.

Clearly there is no stopping the tide of amateur content or the strong support given it by the many Web 2.0 proponents.

However, an important part of the solution must surely lie in educating our students about quality sources, experts, expertise, and the relationship between them.

We should also not respond to every answer our students provide in class with "That's a good idea. However, I believe that ..." We need to return to the days of telling them "That won't work, and here's why." Otherwise they begin to believe that all facts are just opinions, and that all such "opinions" are equal. Many people out there do not believe in facts or logic because of this kind of education system - a system designed mainly to bolster self-esteem.


Cheryl Pamela said...

HI ZapperZ: Thank you for posting this. It's a good read. I'm glad that someone like you took the initivive and did this. I'm starting my own blog as well. I'm in the beginning of learning Physics just because I have a strong interest. I've learned to be careful about where you go and what to read these days. Your blog has a lot of good information. Thank you again! Cheryl W