Questioning the Authenticity of Online Experts

Questioning the Authenticity of Online Experts

by / July 8, 2008

One of the more curious phenomena of the online world is "Internet expertism."

The Internet is a marvelously democratic institution. It lets people air their views in public and receive responses, and it's not limited to 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, and anybody playing the role of Demosthenes in the Athenian Agora and having your voice heard.

The flip side to this leveling effect is that anyone can pose as an expert. You see many nonexperts talking with what appears to be authority on the Internet through Web sites, blogs and various online discussion forums.

There's relevant online material about the issue of expertise. The Wikipedia article on "experts" points out that they can be persons "accorded authority and status" for their skills. Or they may simply know, without having professional or academic qualifications.

One thing that's clear is that expertise comes with experience, even though experience doesn't automatically confer expertise. In gaining expertise, practice counts. Learning and improving over an extended period is more important than innate skills or intelligence, according to Dr. K. Anders Ericsson of the Florida State University Department of Psychology.

Ericsson, who could be called an expert on expertise, wrote in a paper, Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice, that experience is the best predictor of expertise, but once you reach a certain experience level, further experience is a poor predictor of further expertise.

Experts online prove their knowledge through evidence and reason, but all evidence is not created equal. R. David San Filippo wrote a paper, Scientific vs. Pseudoscientific Methods, that sheds light on the differences between credible, scientific evidence and pseudoscientific evidence.

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 oneself overlook negative evidence and overstress the importance of positive evidence."

In other words, pseudo-experts tend to support their beliefs, ignoring evidence that's not useful in this regard, while experts tend to test the validity of their positions, examining all evidence no matter where it leads, in search of the truth.

Another characteristic of pseudo-experts is certainty and the need to be right. In an essay titled The Need to Be Right, 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 and dialog.

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 two millennia later.

John Locke, in the 17th century, wrote about the facade of certainty, and how through dialog 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 many 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 comes in that Locke spoke of, is just what type of monkey they are.

I don't believe that they're rhesus monkeys, spider monkeys or other lower-functioning simians. They do have 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 that 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 Contributing Writer
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at or